Albert King’s cat-scalding tone and howling dinosaur bends are among the most recognizable sounds in electric blues. Recognizable not only in the wealth of excellent recordings King left behind when he died on Dec. 21, 1992, but in those by his famed disciples Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Michael Bloomfield, Warren Haynes and Joe Walsh.
King’s towering visage was equally singular and impressive. At six-feet-four-inches tall and roughly 260 pounds, with huge hands and a resolute nature, he was called the “Velvet Bulldozer.” Add the Flying V that, starting in 1958 when he bought his first korina model, was always strapped across his broad shoulders when he took the stage, and King — who was born April 25, 1923 in Indianola, Miss. — definitely stood out physically and artistically.
The cornerstones of King’s cutting sound were his gear and his unconventional technique. Like most innovators from the evolutionary decades of electric blues, King pumped his Vs through almost every imaginable amplifier at various times, for experimentation and convenience. The list includes towering Sun head-and-stack combinations, Ampegs, Rolands, Lab Series and Fenders. One of his most blistering and consistent rigs was his late ’70s set up. At that point King was living up to his already well-established legend with the help of an MXR Phase 90 phase shifter pedal (hey, it was the ’70s!) and either a Roland JC-120 or an Acoustic 270 head with an Acoustic 2x12 cabinet. Both solid state, of course, proving there’s more to tone than tubes.
The secret was in King’s fingers, right wrist, brain, and heart. King grew up listening to Lonnie Johnson and T-Bone Walker, which fueled his funky, swinging sensibility. He was also a fan of Blind Lemon Jefferson and other county blues players who used slides. The voice-like qualities of both slide guitar and Walker’s elegant string bending profoundly influenced King’s own crying, moaning, heavyweight approach to bending and sustaining notes.
Another King trademark was terse phrases built from just a handful of notes, which were perfect for the call-and-response interplay of voice and guitar he favored. But King really had some significant advantages when it came to bending strings and using deftly controlled vibrato at various points in those bends. First, he was a southpaw. So like Otis Rush, 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 six-strings do, he pulled them down, utilizing all the muscle power in his fingers’ to yank them into distinctively yowling positions and then shake them for a little extra yelp. He also used unorthodox tunings, bringing his lowest string down as far as C to minimize resistance on his deepest bends.
Albert King’s 10 Best Solos
Today, there’s a Flying V etched on King’s gravestone in a little country cemetery near Forrest City, Arkansas. But the best memorials to this departed giant are the remarkable, passionate solos he played on these great recordings:
• “I’ll Play the Blues for You” — This 1972 cut isn’t just King’s manifesto, it’s a compendium of every lick Stevie Ray Vaughan learned from him. The daredevil bends, the thrilling vibrato, the weeping phrases and repetitions ornamented with soaring sustain — it’s all here, and all unfolds naturally.
• “Born Under a Bad Sign” — Clapton didn’t need to stray far from King’s 1967 original to make magic. King is relentless right from the opening lick, with an extra-hot brittle-edged sound that’s toothier than his usual buttery tone.
• “Crosscut Saw” — Slicing over the top of a shuffle, rather than falling into its beat, was one of King’s trademarks, and every version of this tune that he recorded — live or in the studio — is stellar.
• “Let’s Have a Natural Ball” — In the late ’50s and early ’60s King was still under the sway of T-Bone Walker. Here, before he made his own mark on the charts with 1961’s “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong,” he’s at his most swinging.
• “As the Years Go Passing By” — Like “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” this one’s another epic, full of emotional playing that defines the soulful core of his artistry.
• “Drowning on Dry Land” — On one of his later albums Roy Buchanan would tackle this classic, but even he used King’s glorious, grinding bends as a model.
• “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong” — King’s breakthrough hit was a blueprint for his fully formed style: elegant, punchy guitar lines in perfect counterpoint to his declamatory vocal.
• “I’m in a Phone Booth, Baby” — Another stellar example of King’s influence. His slicing tone touched peers like Albert Collins, and, in turn, influenced Robert Cray, whose cover draws on both innovators.
• “(I Love) Lucy” — B.B. King had his Lucille; King, who claimed to be King’s cousin, called his Flying V “Lucy,” and this is his love note to his winged lady.
• “Strange Brew” — All right, this tune from Cream’s 1967 masterpiece Disraeli Gears isn’t by King, but it reveals just how deeply Clapton came under King’s influence.