Biting Down: The Allman Brothers, “Statesboro Blues” (1971)

Do you like to get bit? Let me rephrase that. Under what conditions, if any, would you enjoy the sensation of being snagged, clamped, and dented? Obviously this could be a good thing only if the sensation were not too severe and only in the context of a friendly relationship—the kind of relationship you might have with a warmly buzzing, generously sustained guitar tone. The nice bites would be piquant inflections of the nice rubbing and holding.

Which brings me to Duane Allman’s slide guitar playing.

If more than a week has gone by since the last time you heard “Statesboro Blues” from the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East, you’ll be surprised again how good it is. It transcends expectation more than any other track I can think of. It gets to you in a very sweetly aggressive way. Everyone knows that Duane Allman’s slide is the main reason for this. But no one says what exactly he does that produces such a peachy effect.[1]

The guitar players who learn Allman’s licks know what’s going on in practical terms, and you can see it on the written music or tablature for his part: there are lots of short downward glissandos (continuous slides between notes) —on the tab, you see “10s9” and “10s8,” meaning a slide from the 10th-fret note down to the 9th– or 8th-fret note—odd figures you would otherwise only hear from a blues harp. In regular fingered guitar playing, bending strings from a higher to a lower pitch is backwards. It’s actually de-bending. It’s not impossible, but it takes preparation each time. You can’t build a style around doing it a lot. The slide (Duane’s Coricidin bottle) is a game changer.

The effect of the slides’ rapid descent and abrupt finish is one of biting.[2] And yet Duane Allman is not considered to have a particularly biting sound or style compared to other slide players. He doesn’t overdo it; the downward slides are balanced by the upward, the harsher and more sudden balanced by the sweeter and more gradual. (The downward-biting slides definitely predominate on “Statesboro Blues,” though; in the 106 measures charted by the tab he slides down 90 times in comparison with 23 times up.) His is a thoroughly genial version of aggression that carries you along and maintains your trust, like a good older brother who slaps noogies on you but not too hard. That’s a hallmark of all great blues. That’s why every time “Statesboro Blues” starts I feel a surge of happiness that I’m back being bitten.

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[1] Actually I haven’t the slightest doubt that Duane Allman’s slide playing has been very precisely explained. But has it been given the proper Hooks treatment?

[2] There’s also a complementary effect of tugging caused by lingering in the slides or ending them on sweetly sour tones that are just fractionally below pitch. This does not show up in sheet music.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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