The late and literal blues giant Albert King’s induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame on April 18 is a testament to the durability and influence of his recordings and his hearty playing style — exacted for all of the high-profile years of his career on a Flying V that he purchased shortly after the model was first issued by Gibson in 1958.
But King’s legacy has already been even more profoundly honored by its reflection in the playing of his most famous acolytes: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Michael Bloomfield, Warren Haynes and, of course, Jimi Hendrix, who paid extra-close attention to his fellow southpaw blues heroes King and Otis Rush, the latter an early champion of another famed Gibson electric, the ES-335.
If Godzilla’s eerie metallic wail has a corollary in the world of the six-string, it’s in the tortured moans that King pulled from his guitar via his radical string bending in songs like “I’ll Play the Blues for You” and his Cream-covered “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Those deep bends are reflected constantly in Vaughan’s playing. Check out SRV’s “Leave My Girl Alone,” where even the lyrics sound like a cop from King. And Hendrix’s twisted notes in “Hear My Train A Comin’ ” directly channel the six-foot-four-inch tall, 260-pound native Mississippian who died on December 21, 1992 at age 69 and now rests in a little cemetery off Interstate 40 in Edmondson, Arkansas.
King was tagged with the nickname “the Velvet Bulldozer” by his fellow musicians at Memphis’ Stax Records, and, indeed, his sound relied on some heavy machinery during the course of his life.
Initially he played other models of guitar, but when Gibson issued the Flying V in 1958 King found his musical soul mate. His first Flying V was a brand new first-run korina wood model, which looked shockingly toy-like strapped across his broad shoulders.
Like all the classic first- and second-generation electric bluesmen, King wasn’t terribly fussy about his amps. He was interested in volume. King achieved his “Blues Power,” as one of his song’s put it, via monolithic Sunn head-and-cabinet combinations primarily, but also played Rolands, Lab Series and other amps with clean tones and plenty of headroom. By the late ’70s he’d settled on a preferred rig that included a MXR phase shifter pedal and either a Roland JC-120 or Acoustic 270 head with an Acoustic 2x12 cab. And he went solid state all the way, proving that there’s more to tone than tubes.
King’s influences may be surprising to those who only hear brawn in his playing. He was a lifelong fan of Lonnie Johnson and T-Bone Walker, who can be heard in his constantly swinging approach. And his radical bends were actually created as an attempt to sound like the slide guitars of Blind Lemon Jefferson and other country blues players. King never got a handle on slide, but his two-step bends and long-held notes certainly conveyed the same emotional messages.
He was also a genius when it came to “worrying notes” — holding, picking and replaying clusters of four or five notes until they burned into the souls of listeners. The technique was also perfect for his call-and-response singing and playing, setting up a conversation between two familiar voices.
When it came to bending strings and finger vibrato, King has some real advantages most mortal players don’t. As a leftie, King flipped his guitar upside down, which put his Flying V’s high strings at the top of the neck. And instead of bending those strings up like most right-handed guitarists do, he pulled them down. That allowed him to utilize all the muscle power in his fingers’ — which looked like meaty bear’s paws — to yank them into distinctively yowling positions and then shake them for a little extra yelp.
King also used unorthodox tunings, bringing his lowest string down as far as C to minimize resistance on his deepest bends.
If you’re looking to submerge in King’s art, check out the 1999 compilation Blues Masters: The Very Best of Albert King. Tracks range from his earliest hit “Natural Ball,” from 1962, to Stax hits like “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “I’ll Play the Blues For You.” The latter, in particular, is a comprehensive guide to his terse phrasing, epic bends and marvelous tone, and provides the thrill of hearing King take an extended solo.
Discover Albert King’s Tone Secrets here.