Ferocious and funky string-bending bluesman Albert King was born on April 25, 1923 — presumably under a bad sign – on a cotton plantation in Indianola, MS. By the time this early champion of the Gibson Flying V’s career was ended by a heart attack in Memphis in 1992, he had traveled the world and made dozens of albums, recording such classics as “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong,” Crosscut Saw,” “Laundromat Blues,” “As the Years Go Passing By,” and, of course, “Born Under a Bad Sign.”
What made King so appealing to the A-list of guitarists he influenced, which includes Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, was his big tone and his radical, rubbery bends. So let’s take a look at how to get into this six-foot-four 250-pounder’s zone to celebrate his 87th birthday.
Besides the strength in his massive hands, King also had the southpaw advantage. When he got his 1958 Korina V he immediately flipped it over and played it with the low-E string on the bottom, where a conventional player’s high E would be. So, like fellow lefty blues guitar daredevil Otis Rush, King bent downwards instead of the usual upwards direction. Try this on any gauge of string and you’ll see the immediate advantage pulling down rather than pushing up yields in controlling bends — better vibrato, easier string travel, and the ability to bend up or down to a note — or even up two notes — in steps, like King often did.
Today’s low-tuned metal guitar bands also owe a little something to King, even if they’ve never heard his music. King answered the question “how low can you go?” by tuning his thickest string down to C and employing open E-minor tuning (C-B-E-G-B-E) or kicking things up to open F (C-F-C-F-A-D). Credit that to his interest in Hawaiian music, which uses a wide variety of open, so-called “slack key” tunings.
The two other heavy factors in King’s conceptual approach were his gear and his perspective on what makes a good solo. Besides his beloved Vs — the only models he played after acquiring his ’58 — King used a quirky selection of gear, all in search of the biggest, boldest tone he could find, with just a spank of Delta-dust distortion.
Over the years, he used Sunn, Ampeg, Roland, Lab Series and Fender amplifiers. In the ’70s he stuck to mostly two rigs, plugging his Flying Vs into an MXR Phase 90 leading to a Roland JC-120 (which was much lighter than his Sunn and Ampeg set-ups) or an Acoustic 270 head and Acoustic 2x12 cabinet — proof that solid state ain’t necessarily tweaky.
The rest was attitude. King liked to play as slow, slinky and funky as his velvet fog singing. To him — and to his early heroes like Lonnie Johnson and T-Bone Walker — the real blues was unhurried. He also favored slide legends like Blind Lemon Jefferson, and while he never played slide himself, the voice-like qualities of the technique influenced King’s smooth bending profoundly. He also never wasted a single, swinging, stinging note. His terse phrases were built from just a handful of notes, often decorated with the kind of wrist-shaking vibrato that B.B. King perfected. And they were perfect for the voice-and-guitar call-and-response interplay that made his greatest songs so memorable – each one like a conversation with a wise old soul.