Slide guitar

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Example of a bottleneck slide, with fingerpicks and a resonator guitar made of metal.

Slide guitar is a particular technique for playing the guitar that is often used in blues-style music. The technique involves placing an object against the strings while playing to create glissando effects and deep vibratos that make the music emotionally expressive. It typically involves playing the guitar in the traditional position (flat against the body) with the use of a tubular "slide" fitted on one of the guitarist's fingers. The slide may be a metal or glass tube like the neck of a bottle. The term "bottleneck" was historically used to describe this type of playing. The strings are typically plucked while the slide is moved over the strings to change the pitch. The guitar may also be placed on the player's lap and played with a hand-held bar and is then referred to as "lap slide guitar" or "lap steel guitar".

Creating music with a slide of some type has been traced back to primitive stringed instruments in African culture and also to the origin of the steel guitar in Hawaii. Near the beginning of the twentieth century, blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta popularized the bottleneck slide guitar style, and the first recording of slide guitar was by Sylvester Weaver in 1923. Since the 1930s, performers including Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker, Elmore James and Muddy Waters popularized slide guitar in the electric blues genre and influenced later slide guitarists in the rock genre including the Rolling Stones, George Harrison, Duane Allman and Ry Cooder.


The technique of using a hard object against a plucked string goes back to the "diddley bow" derived from a one-stringed African instrument. The "diddley bow" is believed to be one of the ancestors of the bottleneck style.[1] When sailors from Europe introduced the Spanish guitar to Hawaii in the latter nineteenth century, the Hawaiians slackened some of the strings from the standard tuning to make a chord—this became known as "slack-key" guitar, today referred to as an open tuning.[2] With the "slack-key" the Hawaiians found it easy to play a three-chord song by moving a piece of metal along the fretboard and began to play the instrument across the lap. Near the end of the nineteenth century, a Hawaiian named Joseph Kekuku used a steel bar against guitar strings and became proficient in playing this way. The bar was called the "steel" and was the source of the name "steel guitar". Kekuku popularized the method and some sources claim he originated the technique.[3] He moved to the United States and became a vaudeville performer, later performing in Europe for several years.[4] In the first half of the twentieth century, this so-called "Hawaiian guitar" style of playing spread to the United States.[5] Sol Hoopii was an influential Hawaiian guitarist who in 1919, at age 17, came to United States from Hawaii as a stow-away on a ship heading for San Francisco. Hoopii's playing became popular in the late 1920s and he recorded songs like "Hula Blues" and "Farewell Blues". According to author Pete Madsen, "[Hoopii's playing] would influence a legion of players from rural Mississippi."[6]

Most players of blues slide guitar were from the southern United States, particularly the Mississippi Delta, and their music was likely from an African origin handed down to African-American sharecroppers who sang as they toiled in the fields.[7] The earliest Delta blues musicians were largely solo singer-guitarists.[8] W. C. Handy commented on the first time he heard slide guitar in 1903, when a blues player performed in a local train station: "As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable."[9] Blues historian Gerard Herzhaft notes that Tampa Red was one of the first black musicians inspired by the Hawaiian guitarists of the beginning of the century, and he managed to adapt their sound to the blues.[10] As an example, Tampa Red, as well as Kokomo Arnold, Casey Bill Weldon and Oscar Woods, adopted the Hawaiian mode of playing longer melodies with the slide instead of playing short riffs as they had done previously.[11]

In the early twentieth century, steel guitar playing divided into two streams: bottleneck-style, performed on a traditional Spanish guitar; and lap-style, performed on an instrument specifically designed for the purpose of being played on the performer's lap.[12] The bottleneck-style was typically associated with blues music and was popularized by African-American blues artists.[12] The Mississippi Delta was the home of Robert Johnson, Son House, Charlie Patton, and other blues pioneers.[13] The first known recording of the bottleneck style was in 1923 by Sylvester Weaver, who recorded two instrumentals, "Guitar Blues" and "Guitar Rag".[14][15] Some of the blues artists who most prominently used the slide include Robert Johnson (sample above), Charley Patton, Son House, Bukka White, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Kokomo Arnold, Furry Lewis, Big Joe Williams, Tampa Red and Casey Bill Weldon.[16]

Influential early electric slide guitarists[edit]

When the guitar was electrified in the 1930s, it allowed solos on the instrument to be more audible, and thus more prominently featured. In the 1940s, players like Robert Nighthawk and Earl Hooker popularized electric slide guitar; but, unlike their predecessors, they used standard tuning.[13] This allowed them switch between slide and fretted guitar playing readily, which was an advantage in rhythm accompaniment.

Robert Nighthawk[edit]

Robert Nighthawk (born Robert Lee McCollum) recorded extensively in the 1930s as "Robert Lee McCoy" with bluesmen like John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson (also known as Sonny Boy Williamson I).[17] Nighthawk performed on acoustic guitar in a style influenced by Tampa Red.[18] Sometime around World War II, after changing his last name to "Nighthawk" (from one of his songs), he became an early proponent of electric slide guitar and adopted a metal slide.[19] Herzhaft describes his sound (although he uses the term "bottleneck"):

Nighthawk developed an extremely clean style ... [His] subtle use of the electric guitar, whose strings he barely touched with his bottleneck, gave his music an exquisite and smooth sound that made his titles blues masterpieces.[20]

Nighthawk helped popularize Tampa Red's "Black Angel Blues" (later called "Sweet Little Angel"), "Crying Won't Help You", and "Anna Lou Blues" (as "Anna Lee") in his electric slide style – songs which later became part of the repertoire of Earl Hooker, B.B. King, and others.[21][22] Nighthawk's style influenced Muddy Waters and Hooker and is credited as one who helped bridge music from the Delta into the Chicago blues style of "electric blues".[23]

Earl Hooker[edit]

As a teenager, Earl Hooker (a cousin of John Lee Hooker) sought out Nighthawk as his teacher[24] and in the late 1940s, the two toured the South extensively.[25] Nighthawk had a lasting impact on Hooker's playing; however, by the time of his 1953 recording of "Sweet Angel" (a tribute of sorts to Nighthawk's "Sweet Little Angel"), "Hooker had by now transcended his teacher", according to biographer Sebastian Danchin.[26] Danchin also notes that his solos had an uncanny resemblance to the human singing voice[27] and music writer Andy Grigg commented: "He had the uncanny ability to make his guitar weep, moan and talk just like a person ... his slide playing was peerless, even exceeding his mentor, Robert Nighthawk."[28] The vocal approach is heard in Hooker's instrumental "Blue Guitar", which was later overdubbed with a unison vocal by Muddy Waters and became "You Shook Me".[29] Unusual for a blues player, in the 1960s, Hooker explored using a wah-wah pedal to further emulate the voice.[30]

Elmore James[edit]

Possibly the most influential electric blues slide guitarist of his era was Elmore James, who gained prominence with a his 1951 song "Dust My Broom", a remake of Robert Johnson's 1936 song, "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom".[31] It features James' playing a series of triplets throughout the song which Rolling Stone magazine called "one immortal lick" and is heard in many blues songs to this day.[32] Although Johnson had used the figure on several songs,[33] James' overdriven electric sound made it "more insistent, firing out a machine-gun triplet beat that would become a defining sound of the early rockers", according to historian Ted Gioia.[34] Unlike Nighthawk and Hooker, James' used a full-chord glissando effect with an open E tuning and a bottleneck.[35][36] Other popular songs by James, such as "It Hurts Me Too" (first recorded by Tampa Red), "The Sky Is Crying", "Shake Your Moneymaker", feature his slide playing.

Muddy Waters[edit]

Although Muddy Waters made his earliest recordings using an acoustic slide guitar,[37] as a guitarist, he was best known for his electric slide playing.[38] Born McKinley Morganfield, Muddy Waters brought the Delta blues to Chicago and was instrumental in defining the city's electric blues style.[39] He was also one of the pioneers of electric slide guitar.[40] Beginning with "I Can't Be Satisfied" (1948), many of his hit songs featured slide, including "Rollin' and Tumblin'", "Rollin' Stone" (whose name was adopted by the well-known band), "Louisiana Blues", and "Still a Fool".[41][38] Waters used an open G tuning for several of his earlier songs, but later switched to a standard tuning and often used a capo to change keys.[42] He usually played single notes with a small metal slide on his little finger and dampened the strings combined with varying the volume to control the amount of distortion.[38] According to writer Ted Drozdowski, "One last factor to consider is slide vibrato that is achieved by shaking a slide back and forth. Muddy’s slide vibrato was insane, both manic and controlled. That added to the excitement of his playing."[38]

Slide guitar in 1960s rock music[edit]

Rock musicians began exploring electric slide guitar in the early 1960s. In the UK, groups like the Rolling Stones, who were fans of Chicago blues and Chess Records artists in particular, began recording songs by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and others.[13] The Stones' second single, "I Wanna Be Your Man" (1963), featured a slide guitar break by Brian Jones which maybe the first slide appearance on a rock record.[43] Critic Richie Unterberger commented, "Particularly outstanding was Brian Jones's slide guitar, whose wailing howl gave the tune a raunchy bluesiness missing in the Beatles' more straightforward rock 'n' roll arrangement.[44] Jones also played slide on their 1964 single "Little Red Rooster", which is the only blues song to reach number one on the British charts.[45][46][47] Jones' successor playing slide in the Stones was Mick Taylor, a 20 year old virtuoso who performed on Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. The album Let It Bleed features Keith Richards on slide guitar for the majority of the album.

In the US, Mike Bloomfield frequented Chicago's blues clubs as early as the late 1950s and by the early 1960s Muddy Waters and harmonica virtuoso Little Walter encouraged him and occasionally allowed him to sit in on jam sessions.[48] Waters recalled: "Mike was a great guitar player. He learned a lot of slide from me. Plus I guess he picked up a little lick or two from me, but he learned how to play a lot of slide and pick a lot of guitar."[49] His slide playing attracted Paul Butterfield[49] and together with guitarist Elvin Bishop, they formed the classic lineup of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.[50][51] Their first album, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (1965), features Bloomfield's guitar work and his slide playing on the band's adaptation of Elmore James' "Shake Your Moneymaker" shows his well-developed slide style.[52] Around the same time, he recorded with Bob Dylan for the Highway 61 Revisited album[48] and contributed the distinctive slide guitar to the title track. On the second Butterfield album, East-West (1966)], music writers Pete Brown and Harvey P. Newquist note "Cuts like 'Walkin' Blues' and 'Two Trains Running' featured the incisive single-note and slide playing that gained Bloomfield his initial reputation."[52]

Duane Allman played a role in bringing slide guitar into Southern rock with the Allman Brothers Band, and with Eric Clapton's Derek and the Dominos on the Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs album.[13] Allman, who died in a motorcycle accident at age 24, was referred to by NPR's Nick Morrison as "the most inventive slide guitarist of his era".[40] He extended the role of the slide guitar by mimicking the harmonica effects of Sonny Boy Williamson II, most clearly in the Allman Brothers' cover version of Sonny Boy's "One Way Out", recorded live at the Fillmore East and heard on their album Eat a Peach.[36]

Ry Cooder playing slide guitar
Ry Cooder playing slide guitar

Ry Cooder is another influential slide guitarist in rock music. At age 15, Cooder began working on bottleneck guitar techniques, learning the songs of Robert Johnson, and was called a teen prodigy in the 1960s[53][54] He was named by Rolling Stone in 2003 as number eight on their list of the "100 Greatist Guitarists of All Time". He collaborated with the Rolling Stones on recording sessions and is credited with showing their guitarist, Keith Richards, the open G tuning which Richards then adopted in songs such as "Gimme Shelter", "Jumping Jack Flash", "Start Me Up" and "Brown Sugar".[54][55]

Slide guitar technique[edit]

The slide guitar, according to music educator Keith Wyatt, can be thought of as a "one-finger fretless guitar".[56] The slide functions as a finger, and is a hollow tube usually fitted over the ring or little finger, to allow a traditional guitar to mimic the sound of a steel guitar. The slide is pressed lightly against the strings to avoid hitting against the frets, and is kept parallel with them. The frets are used only as a visual reference, and playing in tune without them requires additional skill. In this playing technique the player's remaining fingers and thumb still have access to the frets, and may be used for playing rhythmic accompaniment or reaching additional notes.[57] The guitar itself may be tuned in the traditional tuning or an open tuning. Most early blues players used open tunings, but most modern slide players use both.[13] The major limitation of open tuning is that only one chord shape is easily available and is dictated by how the guitar is originally tuned. Two-note intervals can be played by slanting the slide on certain notes (see photo).[58]

In the sixteenth century, the notes of A–D–G–B–E were adopted as a tuning for guitar-like instruments, and the low E was added later to make E–A–D–G–B–E as the standard guitar tuning.[59] In open tuning, the strings are tuned to sound a chord when not fretted, and is most often major.[60] Open tunings commonly used with slide guitar include "open D'" or Vestapol[a] tuning: D–A–D–F–A–D; and open G or Spanish tuning: D–G–D–G–B–D. The latter is the tuning introduced to Keith Richards by Ry Cooder.[55] Open E and open A, formed by raising each of those tunings a whole tone, are also common. Other tunings are also used, in particular the "drop D" tuning (low E string tuned down to D) is used by many slide players. This tuning allows for power chords, which contain root, fifth and eighth (octave) notes in the bass strings and conventional tuning for the rest of the strings.[62] Delta blues pioneer Robert Johnson, whose playing has been cited by Clapton, Hendrix, Richards, and Winter as being a powerful influence on them, used tunings of: standard, open G, open D , and drop D.[63]

Steel-body tri-cone resonator guitar, ca.1930

Resonator guitars[edit]

The National String Instrument Corporation produced the first metal-body resonator guitars in the late 1920s. These instruments were were popular with early slide players. The "resophonic" or resonator guitar features a large metal cone, resembling an inverted loudspeaker, attached under the bridge of a guitar, mandolin, ukulele or similar instrument to increase its volume.[64] It was patented in the late 1920s by the Dopyera brothers and became widely used on many types of guitars. "Tampa Red" played a gold-plated National Tricone style 4, and was of the first black musicians to record with it.[65] Delta blues pioneer, Son House, played a this type of guitar on many songs including the classic, "Death Letter".[64] A resonator guitar with a metal body was played by Bukka White ("Parchman Farm Blues").

Lap slide guitar[edit]

The lap slide guitar is not a specific instrument, but refers to a style of playing, usually blues or rock music, with the instrument on the performer's lap. There are various instruments specifically made (or adapted) to play in the table-top position, including:

  • a traditional guitar, which has been adapted for lap slide playing by raising the nut (to make the strings higher off the fretboard)
  • Steel guitars including lap steel, console steel and pedal steel, in which a solid metal bar, typically referred to as a "steel", is pressed against the strings and is the source of the name "steel guitar"
  • a Dobro-type guitar, which resembles a traditional guitar, but with a thicker reinforced neck
Wooden resonator guitar played with a steel, angled to form a chord unavailable from straight open tuning.

Instruments made specifically for the use of a steel are played horizontally, on the player's lap or otherwise supported (see photo). Proper terminology for the hand-held bar used is "steel" or "tone bar" rather than "slide".[3] Nevertheless, the term "lap slide" coexists with "lap steel" to describe the same instrument played in a different style— "slide" usually used when referring to blues or rock music. These types of instruments may differ markedly in external appearance— some resemble a traditional guitar, while others are made in a solid rectangular block.

One of the lap slide pioneers was Oscar "Buddy" Woods, a Louisiana street performer who recorded in the 1930s. He was called "The Lone Wolf" after the title of his most successful song, "Lone Wolf Blues", recorded in New Orleans in 1936. Woods recorded five songs for the Library of Congress in 1940.[66] "Black Ace" Turner, an African-American blues artist from Texas, was befriended and mentored by Woods. Turner played a square-neck National style 2 Tri-cone metal body guitar in the lap style. He used a glass medicine bottle as a slide. His album I am the Boss Card in Your Hand contained Turner's original 1930s recordings as well as new songs recorded in 1960. Turner was featured in a 1962 documentary film entitled The Blues. [67] His playing was influenced by Oscar "Buddy" Woods who also played lap style.


A collection of various guitar slides. On the left is a "steel" used in lap playing. The next two are Coricidin medicine bottles from the late 1960s; followed by a polycarbonate tube and three metal tubes

A slide can be made with any type of smooth hard material that allows tones to resonate. Different materials cause subtle differences in sustain, timbre, and loudness, and glass or metal are the most common choices.[68]

Improvised slides are common, including pipes, rings, spoons, and even stones. Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett was fond of using a Zippo lighter as a slide, but this was largely for special effects.[69] Glass bottles, such as beer bottles, are common, and Duane Allman (Derek and the Dominos, Allman Brothers Band) used a glass Coricidin medicine bottle. Blues guitarist CeDell Davis used a butterknife.[70]

Necks cut from bottles, segments of copper or PVC plumbing pipe, and even deep length wrench sockets have been used by those who do not choose to use a commercial product. Some artists have used a commonly available disposable cigarette lighter, oval in shape, as a slide. With the actual lighter mechanism sawed off, the remaining barrel is called a "fireslide" which has been produced commercially.

For guitars designed to be played on the lap, the slide (steel) is a solid piece of steel rather than a hollow tube. The choice of shape and size is a matter of personal preference of the performer. The most common steel is a solid metal cylinder with one end rounded into a dome shape. Some lap slide guitar players choose a steel with a deep indentation or groove on each side so it can be held firmly (see photo), and may have squared-off ends. The better grip facilitates playing the rapid vibratos in blues music. This design facilitates hammer-on and pull-off notes.[58]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Vestapol" was the name of a song written in open D tuning for parlor guitar in the 1850s. The name of the song became associated with that tuning.[61]


  1. ^ Tracy & Evans 1999, p. 65.
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  5. ^ Ruymar 1996, p. 48.
  6. ^ Masden 2005, p. 6.
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  49. ^ a b Ward 2016, eBook.
  50. ^ Pareles, Jon (May 6, 1987). "Paul Butterfield Whose Band Added Chicago Blues to Rock". Retrieved October 16, 2017. 
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  55. ^ a b Wilkinson, Alec (August 29, 2011). "Ry Cooder's Elegant Indignation". Retrieved October 15, 2017. 
  56. ^ Wyatt, Keith (1997). Stang, Aaron, ed. Electric Slide Guitar: Beyond Basics. Miami, Florida: Warner Bros. Publications Inc. ISBN 9780769200361. Retrieved October 7, 2017. 
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