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New! Why I Love National Guitars
Jitterbug Swing Transcription          Your Head's Too Big Transcription

Pickin' with Catfish

These pages are for all you guitar pickers, and include articles, tips, secrets and songs.

I recently updated the info below to include the new National Baritone Polychrome Tricone guitar, and there's tab and music for Your Head's Too Big (which is in standard tuning, Key of C), from my Cherry Ball CD. Thanks to Cliff Brown for transcribing this! Any questions, email or call. Enjoy! - Catfish
PS.  I'm now offering individual guitar lessons and workshops, and New Nationals (see the links above). Thanks!

The Voice of the Blues

~ by Catfish Keith ~

Article in Fingerstyle Guitar, Issue 19, Jan-Feb 1997

This article is originally from Catfish Keith's Guitar Gems Tablature Book
A newer version also appears on the National Reso-Phonic Guitar website.


Pickin' with CatfishNothing knocked me out more than the first time I heard solo country blues.  I was coming up as a teenager, in Davenport, Iowa, and one day I heard my first Son House number, "Death Letter".  That was it!  Wow!  From that moment on, I was hooked on that crying, singing sound that still makes my hair stand up.  I couldn't believe how much music was coming from just one person.  The combination of stomping feet, deeply felt vocals, and propulsive, from-the-gut, string-popping slide guitar left my jaw dangling to the ground.  I was floored by this music.  My life was changed forever.

While my high school buddies in the 1970s were into disco and heavy metal, I went deeper and deeper with my mission of discovering the very roots of American music, and found a treasure trove of exciting, obscure musical gems from Mississippi delta blues masters like Charley Patton, Booker White, Mississippi Fred MacDowell, Johnny Shines, Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, and Son House to ragtime blues guitarists like Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Big Bill Broonzy, to sanctified pickers Blind Willie Johnson, Rev. Gary Davis, and Rev. Robert Wilkins.  Often, one guitarist made the sound of two or three guitars, playing bass, rhythm, melody, harmony, and counterpoint at the same time!  There were also many other influences and styles working their way into my repertoire, including early jazz of Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, and Bix Beiderbecke, island music of the Caribbean and Hawaii, with Joseph Spence and Sol Hoopii as major heroes.  Old-time fiddle tunes, zydeco, and New Orleans R&B were in there too.  Needless to say, nobody at school had any idea what I was talking about!  But I didn't care.  I was just tickled to be soaking up this great music.

Times have changed since those days of years ago.  Early recordings of the 1920's and '30s, once almost secretly passed from the hands of one zealot 78 record collector to another, are now available on Compact Disc compilations in chain stores for everyone to enjoy.  Hundreds of new and old blues recordings are released every year on major and independent labels.  Blues festivals and blues societies have sprung up all over the U.S. and abroad, and a handful of blues-based artists have become certified rock stars.  Blues is the soundtrack for beer and soap commercials.  You can learn the notes easily from mountains of books, videos, and at guitar workshops.  Blues legends are working and touring more than ever.  Times have never been better for the blues.

Bottleneck Slide Guitar


To play slide, you must first have your guitar set up properly for the best tone and playability.  On my albums and live, until about 1998, I've played on my 1930 National steel-bodied Style O resonator guitar.  These are great sounding old guitars, especially for slide and delta blues.  Many blues, jazz, hillbilly, and Hawaiian guitarists played Nationals, and before the electric guitar caught on, were the loudest, shiniest, funkiest guitars available.

In recent years I've been favoring my 1999 National Baritone Polychrome Tricone guitar (pictured below) from National Reso-Phonic Guitars in San Luis Obispo, California. This hasCatfish at Carnegie Hall by Dave Arcari been my main touring and recording steel-bodied National since the day I got it. This special instrument has a longer scale length (a couple inches longer than a standard National neck) and is tuned lower (see below). The strings are also quite a bit heavier (.068-.017 on mine).  The neck meets the body at the 13th fret , and adds two more frets to the length of the neck, and enables you to go 3-5 half steps lower than normal.

I'd been seeking this huge, deep tone for quite some time and the cats at National Reso-Phonic really came through  with  a  revolutionary, very special guitar for me. Because of the Baritone Tricone's popularity, this is an in-demand catalog item for them now,  and  is  available  usually by special order.

If you are interested in buying a new National (of any kind), please email or call, I'd be happy to help. I've assisted lots of folks get their dream guitar, and, by special arrangement with National, I can get you prices as good or better than most dealers (always 20% off list price and no sales tax unless you live in Iowa). Also, I'm always available for  any and all advice I can lend about these great instruments.

You can set up any steel-string acoustic guitar for slide.  The nut of the guitar must be slightly higher (around the thickness of a matchbook cover), so the strings are higher over the fretboard than for regular guitar playing.  You should still be able to fret the strings as well as slide comfortably without clonking the frets with the slide.  A qualified guitar repair person should be able to set you up right.

Note:  BE CAREFUL choosing a repair person.  Try to get a couple of (or lots of) recommendations from respected players before taking your dear guitar into the shop.


For the best slide tone for your guitar, heavier gauged strings, especially on the top two treble strings, are generally better.  I use these gauges on my 1930 Style O and 1998 Delphi Nationals, in Phosphor Bronze:

Low to High:  .056    .045    .035    .026    .019(plain)    .017(plain)

On my Baritone National, I use these gauges, also in Phosphor Bronze:

Low to High:  .068   .056   .042   .030   .019(plain)   .017(plain)

CAUTION:  Many acoustic guitars are not made for heavy string tension.  Be careful not to put strings on your guitar that are heavier than the recommended gauges.

IMPORTANT:  Don't tune your guitar too high!  It could pull some (especially wooden acoustic guitars) apart!  Tune no higher than a D or G-tuning, and if you notice the bridge area raising on your acoustic guitar raising, use lighter gauge strings. The new Nationals are pretty tough, with double truss rods, but they say if you tune to an E or A Tuning, take the tension off the strings before putting the guitar away.


Although there are dozens of variations, I use these two traditional open chord tunings for slide, often flatted a half step:

·  Open-DVasserpoo or Vestibule Tuning.  Low to High:  DADF#AD

·  Open GSpanish or Hawaiian Tuning.    Low to High:  DGDGBD

On the Baritone National, I use the same tunings, only pitched lower, starting at B or B-flat.


I use a large plastic thumbpick on the right hand thumb, and two metal fingerpicks for the index and middle fingers, but for me, especially on the steel guitar, picks help make a sharper, louder tone and help save your fingers.


There are many kinds of slides to choose from; everybody has a different preference.  Some use a metal tube or pipe (Son House used a piece of copper tubing), or a spark-plug socket.  These have a brasher, more metallic tone, but have the advantage of being shatterproof (and multi-purpose).

Some of the old-time slide guitarists used a knife.  Cedell Davis used a butter knife.  Legend has it that Blind Willie Johnson used a straight razor for a slide.  Makes for a sharper tone, but sounds mighty dangerous!

My preference is a glass slide, made from a wine bottle.  Glass has a weepier, richer sound than metal.  You can make your own or buy commercially made slides in the music stores, and remember the thicker the glass, the thicker your tone will be.  The glass in many wine bottles (the kind with corks, not screw-on tops) is nice, thick, and smooth, and makes for the best sound.

You can also buy slides here online, just like mine (pictured below), through this website, individually handmade from wine bottles by Roger Gohl of Sly Devil Slides in Los Angeles. Email me if you want more info on custom lengths, double cut slides, etc.

Catfish Keith Model Sly Devil SlidePUT IT ON YOUR PINKIE!

Putting your slide on your left hand pinkie finger leaves your other left hand fingers free to fret notes and make chords without the slide, and also to damp the strings behind the slide.  Some guitarists like Son House and Bonnie Raitt use the slide on the ring or middle finger, but generally, having the slide on your pinkie is the best bet.


Unlike fretting the strings, playing with the bottleneck involves setting the slide directly above a fret, with light pressure on the string with the slide when plucked.  Try it on the high D (first) string in Open-D tuning, with the slide angled slightly away from the neck, so you are only resting the slide on the high string.  Then, pluck the string with your right hand index finger, and slide up the neck slowly from the third fret to the fourth fret.  Ahhh!!  Vibrate the slide slightly (left & right) along the string at the end of the phrase to give it that vibrato like a gospel singer.  That's it!

The difference between playing slide and regular guitar is like the difference between a violin and a ukulele.  Think of the slide as a woman's voice.  Some of the notes will be bent or "blue" notes that are 1/4 to 2/3rds above the fret.  The ability to bend and vibrate these vocal-sounding notes is what makes slide guitar so haunting.

Jitterbug Swing

Jitterbug Swing CD by Catfish KeithThis piece comes from the powerful singing and playing of Mississippi slide guitarist Booker White.  His driving rhythms and improvisational approach have always knocked me out!  He called his approach to music "Sky Songs" because as he said, "I just pull them out of the sky!"

A crucial technique in "Jitterbug Swing", as in all of my solo blues playing, is right hand thumb damping.  This involves using the pad, or "meat" of your thumb to dampen the bass strings while they are being played.  The pad of the thumb must be placed near the bridge, over the bass strings to dampen the bass note being struck by the thumb.  So, in an Open-D alternating bass pattern:

Instead of a "boom-ding boom-ding boom-ding" sound, with damping, you get a "Boop-DANK  Boop-DANK  Boop-DANK" sound, with that funky accent on the second beat.  So put that slide on your pinkie and have at it!

 Guitar Lessons and Workshops          New! Why I Love National Guitars
Jitterbug Swing Transcription          Your Head's Too Big Transcription

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