I woke up a couple of weeks ago and realized that I dreamed that Albert King called me to tell me he was coming over to jam.
As Albert died on December 21, 1992 – I think this call came a little late!
I believe that this dream was brought about by two instances:
One: I was trying to figure out how I was going to explain, in this column, my love for his playing,
Two: I had very recently had an in-depth conversation with a guitar playing friend of mine about how and why Albert was so important to so many guitar legends such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Billy F. Gibbons, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Some time in early 1967 I read an interview with one of my guitar influences and the name Albert King came up. I had only heard of B.B. King at that point and didn’t know about Albert. I then saw an ad in Rolling Stone for a new album release by King called Born Under A Bad Sign.
I ran out and bought it.
From the first second I put it on and heard the opening notes of the title track “Born Under A Bad Sign,” I knew I had just discovered the guitar sound that basically formed the basis for Eric Clapton’s solos. It wasn’t fast playing like Mike Bloomfield; it was slow, really slow. Kind of like Clapton (remember Eric had the nickname “Slowhand”), but not like Eric. It was a sound that made a note sound longer and deeper. King was able to wring out more from one note than anything I had ever heard before.
Remember, Jimi Hendrix's debut album was yet to be released, and Cream’s Disraeli Gears release was still six months away. Why are these albums significant? Because Jimi, like Albert, played guitar left handed, which creates a unique sound on its own, and the lead track on Cream’s Disraeli Gears was the song “Strange Brew.”
When Disraeli Gears came out in December 1967 it all came together.
Because the great solo that Eric played on “Strange Brew” was, note for note, Eric’s attempt at playing like Albert King! As I listened to all the songs on Born Under A Bad Sign, one track stood out: The song was called “Crosscut Saw.” OMG, I never heard a lead guitar tone sound like that! Not only was the tone mesmerizing, but the note stretch was a semitone further than any note stretch I ever heard before.
Eric copied that solo on “Crosscut Saw.” But…not quite, because as hard as he tried he just couldn’t quite bend the notes the way Albert did. Eric has tried. SRV not only has tried, but he even made a DVD with Albert King which is remarkably instructive: as good as SRV was with his fluidity and multiple notes, phrasing and runs, he just couldn’t keep up with Albert’s four notes.
Time and time again Albert would let SRV riff and then, with just his four notes, close the door and blow SRV away.
To be fair to Stevie Ray, he was sitting at the foot of the master, and I feel that he was simply looking to Albert for validation that he was on the right path.
How were those seemingly simply-played four notes impossible to not only recreate, but phrased in such a way as to just demolish anyone else trying to keep up?
How could single notes sound like this?
To be clear, B.B. King also played single notes but they were placed “normally” within a lead phrase. Very polite and clean. Albert’s notes were tough, loud, raw, searing and cutting in ways that only Albert (and I mean ONLY ALBERT) has ever been able to do!
So, early on, I thought that the secret was in his gear.
I needed to know what kind of guitar and amp he was using. Albert played, for many years, a custom-made version of a Gibson Flying V, a model that was originally manufactured by Gibson for only one year, 1958. It was a commercial disaster at the time and discontinued straight away.
The guitar has since been reissued by Gibson as well as many other companies but Albert had one of the originals manufactured in 1958, and it had become associated with Albert King and his signature sound.
The amp however was not a Marshall or a Fender. It was a solid-state amp made by a company called Acoustic. In my opinion, it is the worst-sounding guitar amplifier ever made by a non-communist country!
Albert, however, made it work, and with that, one can learn a very valuable lesson: “It’s really not the gear, it’s the musician's talent that will always shine through.”
I, however, had yet to learn that it wasn’t really the guitar and amp. It was the fact that not only did Albert play lefty but he also played upside down.
Albert was a big man (6' 7" and 250 pounds). He also had big hands. His grip, I assume, must have been vise-like on the guitar neck and strings.
Playing upside down allowed gravity to work its magic so that a note could really bend (when a guitar is strung normally, a player typically bends a note by moving the string up; when a guitar is truly played upside down, the string pull has gravity on its side because the string is pulled down). That is much easier to do, but would never happen with a guitar strung low string to high as it normally is. Albert’s strings were strung high to low, which enabled him to give the string a longer and greater bend – a semitone greater than what normally would be done, giving the note yet another personality.
Jimi Hendrix played lefty, but he strung his guitar normally (with the high E string closest to the ground), so he had the same limitations as the rest of us mortals. To my knowledge, Albert was the only person I ever saw who somehow learned all the chords and notes, not just in reverse but upside down! [Otis Rush played like this, and I've seen a few other left-handed players do it. Many of them simply flipped a right-handed guitar upside down. – Ed.]
Basically, they say a bumble bee is theoretically not supposed to be able fly…but it does.
A guitar was never meant to be played like this…but Albert did it!
Here is the Wikipedia explanation of his style and unique tonal palette:
…King was left-handed, but usually played right-handed guitars flipped over upside-down. He used a dropped open tuning, possibly more than one, as reports vary: (C#-G#-B-E-G#-C#) or open E minor (C-B-E-G-B-E) or open F (C-F-C-F-A-D). He never used the sixth string. Steve Cropper (who played rhythm guitar on many of King’s Stax sessions), told Guitar Player magazine that King tuned his guitar to C-B-E-F#-B-E (low to high). The luthier Dan Erlewine said King tuned to C-F-C-F-A-D with light-gauge strings (0.009, 0.012, 0.024 wound, 0.028, 0.038 and 0.050 inches). The lighter-gauge strings were a factor in King’s string-bending technique.
I only learned this years later after I tried to get that tone, but just couldn’t quite get there.
I saw Albert and B.B. King on a double bill in 1988 and as good as B.B. was, when he invited Albert out to play with him, Albert just hung back and devoured B.B.
I last saw Albert in concert a month before he died.
During the encore of “Born Under A Bad Sign” he got up off the stool that he was sitting on most of the show, and walked off without finishing it or saying goodnight.
I felt really bad for him as I could see he was struggling. I also knew that I had probably seen him for the last time.
I think you get it now. I revered his blues playing above everyone else.
Next time you listen to “Strange Brew,” you are listening to Albert’s guitar solo!
I have a side project called The Pink Slip Blues Band with Michael Cartellone, the drummer for Lynyrd Skynyrd; Joel Hoekstra, the guitar player for Whitesnake; and Bobby Held on bass (producer of Joe Bonamassa’s first two albums).
We always play “Born In Chicago,” my homage to Mike Bloomfield of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and “Crosscut Saw” in memory of Albert and my nod, by extension, to Clapton.
While all those who love Albert’s playing keep trying and falling just short, we will never stop paying our respects to the greatest blues guitarist of all:
The Mighty Albert King.
This article first appeared in Issue 60 and is slightly revised and updated.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Grant Gouldon.