Great Guitarists #13: Albert King

Great Guitarists

Albert Nelson (1923-1992) is one of the most influential blues guitar players of the mid-29th century, at the height of the Blues’ electric period, and one of the early exponents of the modern blues. But you probably know him better by his stage name, Albert King.

He took the stage moniker of King due to the success of another popular blues guitarist, B.B. King. In fact, it is believed he even passed himself off as a cousin of B.B.’s early in his career in order to raise his profile and get more gigs!

Despite the somewhat cheeky start, both B.B. and Albert, together with Freddie King (also no relation to either of the other two), are now.often referred to collectively as The Three Kings of the Blues, given their enormous influence on countless guitar players both in the next generation of players and among their contemporaries.

Breakthrough Success

King had played with other artists (including as a drummer for Blues Legend Jimmy Reed, for a brief time) as well as leading his own band on the blues club circuit in Illinois in the USA. However, it wasn’t until he moved to Memphis and signed to Stax Records that he started to have a successful run of single releases. King believed that it was his decision to play blues songs in an upbeat, soul-based style which proved crucial to his success. He recorded with the Stax House band, Brooker T and the MGs (featuring none other than Steve Cropper on rhythm guitar), as well the Memphis Horns. Stax singer-songwriter Isaac Hayes also contributed piano to the sessions alongside organist Brooker T. Jones.

Eleven of the Stax singles, recorded over five seasons from March 1966 to June 1967, were complied and released as the album Born Under a Bad Sign in 1967. The album became a reference point for guitar players such as Eric Clapton, and the title track from the album became King’s signature song (also covered by Clapton with his late sixties blues-rock supergroup Cream).

Unorthodox technique

Albert King was known as the “Velvet Bulldozer” due to his soulful voice, which contrasted his large physical frame (standing 6’4″ tall). He was left-handed but opted to play a (standard) right-handed guitar upside down. The guitar he is most associated with is Gibson’s Flying V (see pictures), or custom-built guitars based on this model. It’s unusual ‘V’ shape made it much easier to play left-handed without anything getting in the way (Hendrix occasionally used one too, likely for the same reason). King strung his guitars the opposite way to the ‘standard’ layout, with the thinnest/highest sounding string at the top – he was literally playing a ‘standard’ guitar upside down.

Another ‘upside down’ element to King’s technique can be found in the way he bends his notes. His large hands bent the strings by pulling them downwards, towards the floor. Some players (like Jeff Beck, I believe) have remarked on this, saying it allows for greater control of the pitch. In King’s case, he was able to raise the pitch by over two tones of he wanted to. He was also able to comfortably bend several strings at once, a technique much-copied since.

King’s unique style has been identified as a key element in the playing styles of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Mike Bloomfield and in particular, Stevie Ray Vaughan, who cited King as his primary influence.

King largely played on the three highest-sounding strings of his guitars, usually playing variations on the same musical phrases. But it was the numerous different ways that he was able to phrase the same simple blues licks; his huge string bends; and the harsh, stinging ‘attack’ he utilised in his playing, which gave King his unique sound.

King with Stevie Ray Vaughan (left) recording the In Session TV special/album (1983).

Guitar Tuning

There remains to this day an ongoing debate about how exactly King tuned his guitar – yet another unorthodox element to his style. Rather than use the standard guitar tuning (low to high: EADGBE), King made use of a more unusual tuning, believed to be either (low to high): CBEF#BE (according to Steve Cropper, who recorded with King and produced some of his records), or CFCFAD (according to Dan Erlewine, who built custom guitars for King later in his career). He may have switched between both options and others.

In either case, since King only played lead, he did not have to contend with the difficult chord shaped these tunings would have thrown up. It is likely he found them useful for easily finding his root note and being able to execute his particular repertoire of blues licks across a greater range of the fretboard.

Recommended listening

Aside from Born Under a Bad Sign (1967), I’d suggest checking out King’s love album Live Wire / Blues Power (1969), which features cuts taken from a three-night stint at the Filmore West.

Also worth listening to is In Session, the audio record of a TV special from 1983, but only released in 1999. In Session is a collaboration between King, who leads processing as the ‘old master’ and the then up-and-coming blues guitar superstar (and Albert King disciple) Stevie Ray Vaughan. As well as hearing both guitar players trade licks, the record also includes a few brief moments of ‘chat’ between the two which adds to the atmosphere of the project.

Left to right: King, B.B. King, Eric Clapton & Stevie Ray Vaughan sharing a joke backstage.

If you are looking to learn how to get the most out of less in your lead guitar playing, you could do far worse than listen to King’s sharp but tasteful playing. As always, let me know what you think, and keep an eye out for future articles on the other two ‘Kings of the Blues’, coming very soon…