The Icy Tone of the Great Albert Collins
They called Albert Collins the “Ice Man,” and he played that role to the hilt, recording a series of spiky, air-slicing instrumentals throughout his career with titles like “Ice Pick,” “Frosty,” “Thaw Out,” “Frostbite,” “Defrost” and “Don’t Lose Your Cool.”
He also had a bone-chilling tone ? a screaming full-throttle sound that Collins typically employed in a distinctive open F-minor tuning and tore out of his guitar in howling clusters of bare-fingered notes. That approach earned him another nickname: the Master of the Telecaster.
Collins, who would have turned 76 on Oct. 1 if he hadn’t been claimed by cancer in 1993, left behind not only a legacy of rich recordings, but a string of acolytes including the well-known blues guitarists Debbie Davies and Coco Montoya, who apprenticed in his band.
For a crash course on Collins, there’s the exceptional two CD The Complete Imperial Recordings, which traces the evolution of his needling, funky style over the course of 36 tunes. Like Chicago’s Junior Wells, Collins was influenced as much by James Brown as by the older generation of bluesmen he grew up idolizing, including his cousin Lightning Hopkins. For a snapshot of his later years, including the rich, howling sound he’d invented at its most polished and effective, Collins Mix: The Best of Albert Collins hits all the bases.
In the 1970s Collins began sporting a set of stiletto-point sideburns, the visual equivalent of his stabbing guitar notes. But as a clean-faced, conk-haired beginner in the 1950s, he was ruling over Houston’s blues clubs shortly after forming his first band. Collins began recording in 1960, and the success of “Frosty” ? a million-selling 45 ? encouraged him to move on: first to St. Louis and then to California.
Initially Collins played a Fender Esquire, but traded up to a Telecaster and by the mid-’70s had customized it, replacing the bridge and installing a Gibson humbucker in the neck position. He ran his guitar through a Fender Quad Reverb, usually wide open. The results were always stunning and immediately recognizable from the ring of just one note.
Collins’ stinging approach heavily influenced Robert Cray, who Collins befriended after Cray opened shows for him in the Pacific Northwest. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s vibrato-dipped sustain also owed a debt to Collins, and even snatches of Eric Clapton’s playing reverberate with the late guitar slinger’s take on Texas blues.
Guitar wasn’t Collins’ first instrument. He was studying piano as a teenager when he fell under the spell of the six-string thanks to exposure to Hopkins and another older cousin, Willow Young. Young set Collins on the path to his tone by showing him open D-minor (D-A-D-F-A-D) and E-minor (E-B-E-G-B-E) tunings. As Collins made his own way he settled on the less conventional F-minor (F-C-F-Ab-C-F) as his personal tuning.
To attenuate that tuning’s bright sound even more he frequently used a capo, usually settling on the 5th, 7th, or 9th fret before tearing into one of his trademark instrumentals or one of the tongue-in-cheek essays in domestic distress he also delivered with aplomb, like “Master Charge” or “If You Love Me Like You Say” ? both on Collins Mix.
“Working in Albert’s band really had a big effect on me as a player,” says Debbie Davies, who was in California blues outfit Maggie Mayall & the Cadillacs when Collins drafted her for his Icebreakers. “Listening to Albert every night made me think about my own tone and attack, and really made me grow. And I’m happy to have paid tribute to him in my recordings and on-stage many, many times.”