by Adam Levy
Ry Cooder’s name is nearly synonymous with slide guitar, and deservedly so: Cooder has released dozens of slide-laden albums since is eponymous debut in 1970. He has also scored several films—most notably Paris, Texas—that feature his bottleneck work prominently. This 1973 clip from British TV showcases Cooder’s slide prowess in open-D tuning.
I’ve been digging Ry Cooder’s music for as long as I’ve been playing guitar, thanks to an uncle of mine with a great record collection. Cooder has been a big influence, even though I almost never play slide. One thing that impression on me early on is his beyond-borders, mix-and-match approach to making records. He has never been a purist, stylistically. There’s blues at the core—but also some Dust Bowl-era folk songs, Bahamian calypso, and early jazz too. Here he plays an old Woodie Guthrie song as a Tex-Mex polka.
Beyond his slide chops and stylistic breadth, however, the aspect of Cooder’s musicianship that I appreciate the most his rhythm guitar playing. In this clip from another 1977 UK television show, he plays Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” (aka “Irene Goodnight”). As he often did in that era, Cooder plays in open-G tuning. (With his capo at 2nd fret, the tuning is transposed to open-A.) I love how his part—played with thumb-pick and bare fingers—totally supports the vocal melody and sits deep in the groove with bass and drums. Here’s another cool clip from the same show.
Though these video clips are all from the 1970s, Cooder has continued to make great music as a solo artist in more recent years. He has also shined brightly as a featured sideman—on John Hiatt’s 1987 album Bring the Family, for example—and as a world-music ambassador, recording with Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré (Talking Timbuktu), Indian guitarist V.M. Bhatt (A Meeting by the River), and an ensemble of great Cuban musicians (Buena Vista Social Club). In every context, his gifts as a rhythm player—an accompanist, I should say—equal or outshine his bottleneck mojo.
A longtime friend of the ‘Fire, Adam Levy has been unlocking the guitar for students of all levels and varied interests for decades. His teaching experience comprises several years with the National Guitar Workshop, the Blue Bear School in San Francisco, and private lessons for New School in New York City. He is also a talented artist and songwriter, having worked with Norah Jones, Amos Lee, and Tracy Chapman. Be sure to check out Adam’s official website, his insightful blog, and his latest album, The Heart Collector.