The ‘Master of the Telecaster’ has one of the most instantly recognisable blues guitar tones of all time. Learn how to recreate his stinging tones here
There are very few guitarists that sound like Albert Collins. His tone is instantly recognisable and sets him apart from almost every other blues guitarist in the modern era.
Blues guitarists often use words like ‘thick’ and ‘warm’ to describe the type of tone they consider desirable.
Albert Collins took the opposite approach. He crafted a killer tone with a real bite and earned the nickname ‘Iceman’ in the process. And he managed to do this whilst producing a tone that had real power. His playing never sounded thin or strident.
It is a great tone to have in your arsenal. Not only will it help you cut through the mix when playing live, but it will bring a clarity and sizzle to your lead playing that few players have ever achieved. If you have a similar, staccato playing style – or if you blend the blues with other styles of music, like funk – then it will complement your playing perfectly.
So without further ado, here is everything you need to sound like Albert Collins.
The Fender Telecaster
When it comes to recreating the tones of the ‘Iceman’, there is only one guitar you need to consider – the Fender Telecaster. Also known as ‘The Master of The Telecaster’, Collins played a Telecaster for his entire career. Not only did this set him aside from his contemporary bluesmen – very few of whom played Telecasters – but it played a key part in his sound.
Telecasters are renowned for their bright, twangy sound. They pack a punch and produce a biting tone that is very different to either a Strat or a Les Paul. This top end is too much for a lot of blues players, and it is perhaps why Telecasters are more commonly used by country guitarists. But it worked perfectly for Collins.
If you want to get that same bite and sizzle in your sound, you need to get yourself a Fender Telecaster. And luckily, there are options here to suit every budget.
In the lower price bracket, I would recommend opting for a Squier Telecaster. In the middle price bracket, the Mexican made Fender Vintera or Player Telecasters are a brilliant option. If you are looking to spend a bit more, I would recommend going for an American made Telecaster.
Some of my top choices are as follows:
Last, and by no means least, if you really want to sound like Albert Collins and are looking to make an investment, then I would recommend the Albert Collins Signature Fender Telecaster. This is built to replicate the 1966 Custom Telecaster that Collins used for the majority of his career. It features vintage pickups, frets and hardware and importantly, it also includes the humbucking neck pickup that Collins had on his Telecaster.
Do you need a humbucker to sound like Albert Collins?
You may have noticed that aside from the Albert Collins Signature Telecaster, none of the guitars listed above have a humbucker pickup in the neck. There are a couple of reasons for this:
Firstly, all of the stock Fender guitars that have an SH (single coil, humbucker) pickup configuration are in a higher price bracket. For whatever reason, the cheaper Fender models are either fitted only with single coil pickups, or they are set up so both pickups are humbuckers.
Secondly, I don’t think you need to have a guitar with an SH pickup configuration to sound like Albert Collins. Whilst there is no question that Collins’ pickups contributed to his tone, the classic Albert Collins tone does not require a humbucker. In practice, Collins didn’t use this pickup a lot. He relied more heavily on his bridge pickup – especially during lead work – and opted to use the bridge pickup and middle position during rhythm playing. So you can definitely get those ice pick tones with a regular Telecaster, should you wish.
If you are looking for authenticity though, you have two options:
You can buy a Telecaster fitted with a humbucker. There are some amazing choices here, but as mentioned – they are all in a higher price bracket. If you really want to sound like Albert Collins though and you are happy to make an investment, there are some brilliant American made and Custom Shop guitars with an SH pickup configuration:
If you already have a Telecaster, or if you buy a cheaper guitar that doesn’t have an SH pickup configuration, I would recommend switching out your neck pickup and replacing it with a humbucker. This is both easy and much cheaper than going for a Custom Shop or American made Telecaster. In Collins’ signature guitar, the neck pickup was a Seymour Duncan 1959 Humbucker. That would be my first recommendation, but any vintage style humbucking pickup will work well.
Just like fellow Texan Freddie King, Albert Collins is best associated with the Fender Quad Reverb amp.
The Fender Quad Reverb is a huge amp. It is 100 watts and is built with 4×12′ speakers. So unsurprisingly, it has a lot of power and headroom.
The way that Collins used his Quad Reverb was very similar to Freddie King. He cranked the amp fully, turned the treble up to 10 and dropped the mids and bass out.
If you want to sound like Albert Collins then, the challenge lies in creating a similar tone, but at a much lower volume. And the good news here, is that whilst for most of us it is near impossible to play at the same volume as Collins, the rest is relatively straight forward.
If you are predominantly playing at home, I would recommend opting for a small Fender amp that will give you a cranked sound, but at a lower volume. And thankfully Fender have choices to suit every budget.
Some of my top recommendations are:
Alternatively, if you are playing in large venues and you want a powerful amp, then either a Fender Twin Reverb or a Fender Super Reverb would be my top choice. Regardless of which amp you choose though, if you want to sound like Albert Collins, the key is to push the amp. When you crank it and get the tubes working is when you’ll get those fiery Collins tones.
As is true of most of the early electric bluesmen, guitar pedals didn’t feature as part of Collins’ rig. So the good news is that you don’t need to go and buy a whole assortment of new pedals to sound like Albert Collins. Having said that, there are two types of pedals that will definitely help you recreate Collins’ cranked tones.
So much of Collins’ tone came from the volume at which he played at. He drove his amps hard and that played a huge part in his sound.
The challenge for most of us, is getting that cranked sound at a volume that you can play at home or in a small venue. And this is where a choice guitar pedal or two will help. Specifically, I would recommend adding either a clean boost or a treble boost pedal to your rig.
A clean boost will push your amp and add a bit of extra overdrive and aggression to your tone. There are a huge number of different pedals to choose from, but some of my top choices would be:
A treble boost pedal works in much the same way as a clean boost, with one key difference. It disproportionately boosts the upper frequencies of your guitar signal. So your tone will become brighter and sharper. And this is perfect if you want to sound like Albert Collins. Here my top choices are:
In contrast to a clean boost pedal, these treble boost pedals will somewhat colour your tone. So if you are looking for authenticity, then I would not go down this route. Instead you should focus on dialling your amp in to get the sounds you want. However, if you want to sound like Albert Collins, as well as to create a range of beautiful blues tones, one of these pedals could be a great addition to your rig.
When it comes to tone, guitarists tend to focus all of their attention on guitars, amps and pedals. They often totally forget about the finer details. But if you want to sound like Albert Collins, you need to factor these in, because they played a significant part in his tone.
The first and most important accessory you need is a capo. Collins rarely played without one, and typically fitted it quite high on the neck – normally around the 5th, 7th and 9th frets. Fitting the capo in this way added a lot more tension to his strings, and this helped him to get that extra bite and snap from his sound.
It is unclear which brand of capo Collins used. But whatever it was, for most of his career, Collins’ capo was only held together by copious amounts of electrical tape. So I don’t think you need to sweat too much over the specifics. If you are looking for a high quality capo though, either a Shubb or a Kyser capo would be a great option.
After the capo, it is worth looking at your guitar cables. Collins typically used a very lengthy guitar cable, around 100ft long! A key part of his act was to jump down off the stage and interact with the audience. And there are countless stories of him leaving the clubs in which he was playing to go out on the street. Legend has it that one time he got on a bus whilst still playing. On a separate occasion, he reportedly left the club, ordered a pizza in the restaurant next door, and returned to finish his set, pizza in hand.
Even if you don’t plan any similar on stage antics, it is worth considering the length of your cable if you want to sound like Albert Collins. The longer your guitar cable, the more treble it saps out of your tone. This might sound counter intuitive, because the rest of the advice here is aimed at increasing the treble in your sound. Yet this trick works well to take some of the sharper, more grating treble tones out of your signal.
When your amp is cranked so loud and the treble is also at 10, it can make your tone sound brittle and sharp. Using a very long cable helps to take a bit of the edge off your tone. It is quite tricky to find high quality cables that are 100ft long, but these cables from Seismic Audio 100ft cable make a great option. Alternatively, you could go for a Fender Deluxe 25 ft cable or an Ernie Ball 25ft Cable. At 25ft long, these cables won’t sap quite so much treble out of your tone, but they will still take a bit of the edge off your sound.
This is obviously a more nuanced element of Albert Collins’ rig, but it is definitely worth considering to capture those Iceman tones. Interestingly, this was also a technique that Stevie Ray Vaughan used. It allowed him to increase the treble in his amp without adding any harsh frequencies to his sound.
Bridge & Ashtray cover
Collins switched the regular ‘3 barrel’ bridge that you find on vintage Telecasters and replaced it with a 6 saddle bridge. The extent to which this change affected Collins’ tone is somewhat debatable, especially when you consider it within the context of his rig. Yet there are those who believe that making this change reduces sustain. In a lot of circumstances this would be perceived as a negative. But it could in fact help you to sound like Albert Collins by adding a bit of extra snap to your sound.
Collins also played with the Tele ‘Ashtray’ cover fitted over his bridge. This had an impact on his sound, but more because of the way that it affected how he played his guitar. Using an ashtray cover alters your picking position by forcing you to move your hand closer towards the neck. This actually adds a bit of warmth to the sound, and like the longer cables, takes a bit of the harshness out of the sound. The cover also stops you from muting your guitar strings with your palm. This means that you have to control unwanted noise with your fretting hand, rather than your picking hand.
These are some of the more nuanced elements of Collins’ rig. And I would argue that they are much less important than a lot of the other advice laid out here. But if you are really serious in your quest for tone, and are happy to tweak your set up, you can buy these parts easily and cheaply:
- Fender Standard Series Telecaster Bridge
- Fender Vintage Telecaster Bridge
- Vintage Telecaster Ashtray Cover
Finally, for a bit of added mojo and to really recreate the Albert Collins vibe, make sure you wear your guitar strap over your right shoulder.
Strings & tunings
One of the most unconventional elements of Albert Collins’ set up was his tuning. Although it varied during different points in his career, Collins would typically tune his guitar to open F minor. In other words, when he played all of his open strings, he sounded an F minor chord. So his strings from low to high were as follows: F-C-F-Ab-C-F.
Interestingly, when tuning to F minor, you are tuning every string up, apart from the G string. And this made a significant contribution to Collins’ tone. Tuning up created greater tension in his strings, giving his sound that added bite. It also had an impact on the licks that he played and the way he moved around the neck.
Having said that, I would not recommend adopting the same tuning. Tuning in this way is not common at all. In fact I am yet to come across any other bluesmen – famous or otherwise – who have adopted the same tuning. In addition, I believe you can create the extra bite that Collins had in other ways, without over complicating your playing unnecessarily (more on this below).
With regards to the guitar strings Collins played, there seems to be very little concrete evidence out there. But all of the information I managed to track down suggests that Collins favoured light guitar strings, running from 0.09-0.38. These are pretty light on the top, and even lighter on the bottom strings. It is difficult to find a stock set of guitar strings with the exact same gauges, but some of my top choices that will get you close are as follows:
- Ernie Ball Classic Pure Nickel Super Slinky (0.09-0.42)
- DR Pure Blues Strings (0.09-0.42)
- Curt Mangan Strings (0.09-0.42)
- Ernie Ball Super Slinky (0.09-0.42)
If you are naturally used to playing heavier gauge strings, then don’t feel the need to go down to 0.09s. Playing a heavier gauge will actually create more tension in the strings and help with the bite and twang of Collins’ tone. Just make sure that you can still play comfortably with that heavier gauge if you do tune up and use a capo, both of which will add tension to your strings.
A huge part of Collins’ tone came from the way he played. Like both Freddie King and Albert King, Collins didn’t use a regular pick and instead played with his fingers. He used his thumb to play his bass strings and then just his index finger to play the treble strings. He would snap at his bass strings, which gave his playing a more funky feeling. But the technique that he adopted with his index finger was slightly more unusual. Unlike Freddie and Albert King, Collins didn’t pull at his treble strings with his finger. Instead he placed his finger on top of each string, and pressed down on the strings with the pad of his finger. He would simply adjust the pressure that he applied with this finger, depending on whether he wanted a softer or more aggressive tone.
This is not an easy style to recreate. But if you really want to sound like Albert Collins, it is worth learning, as it played a key part in his sound. Alternatively, playing with your fingers – and not with a pick – is a great first step. This will help you get some added snap to your sound, which is what you need to recreate Collins’ ice pick tones.
Well there we have it, everything you need to sound like Albert Collins. Of all of the great bluesmen, Collins has one of the most unusual tones, and it is definitely one of the more challenging to recreate.
But follow the advice here, and you will be able to recreate a bit of the Iceman magic.
Let me know how you get on, and if you have any questions, drop them in the comments below, or send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feature Image – Albert Collins (Alamy Stock Photos)
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You said he tunes up every string except the G.
But you also said he tunes the G to Ab (which he would need to do, of course, to get the Fm chord.
I am Albert Collins cousin from Texas also. I performed on stage with him many times before cell phone pics. I still miss him so much. He influenced me so much. I am still playing. You can check me out on YouTube, Google and Facebook. Yes he did tune in F minor. If you listen to him, you will notice that he could not and did not play chords. Amazing. Single or maybe 2 notes at a time only. My name is Lucius Parr
Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and share your story Lucius, I really appreciate it. I’ve just been listening to your music, and it is brilliant! I particularly like ‘Don’t Blame Me’.
It is also very interesting to hear about Collins not playing chords. That had never really occurred to me as he is so often backed up by piano and horn players. But I’ve just watched a couple of his performances and can see that he is just playing single notes and double stops. Amazing!
Thanks again for sharing 😁
You have gone through lots of research on Albert’s guitar style. I have been tuning to F minor and using a capo in the different keys to replicate Albert’s playing style and have been playing his songs and blues jams since about 2003. I love a good Tele. I would also encourage people trying to learn Albert Collins technique and guitar style, to buy a Roland Blues Cube of any of the three sizes that they make. You can adjust the volume to be very low but still have the sound and some sustain for very lower volume as well as Club volume. They look like a fender Blues Junior all the way up to a Twin Reverb as far as size goes. You won’t regret that move. The sound is there in most circumstances and situations and they are a lot lighter. Well done with this Albert Collins write up. Thank you very much
Thanks very much for the comment and the kind words Michael, I really appreciate it. Thank you also for sharing your experience of using the Roland Blues Cube – I know that Kirk Fletcher used one for a time and that he, along with both Eric Johnson and Robben Ford also created ‘Tone Capsules’ to go with the amp. So they certainly come highly recommended! And I am sure that combined with a Tele and with the treble cranked up, they could do a great job of recreating those killer ‘Iceman’ tones 😁
I saw AC a couple times in the ‘70s. He played to a small crowd at a bar named Merlyn’s in Madison, Wisconsin one winter night. Small crowd as there was a raging blizzard going on. At one point he went outside and played standing in the middle of State St. with snow swirling around him for easily 10 or 15 minutes. It was freaking cold out! His coil cord had to be at least 200 feet long, the bar was on the second story. I asked Coco Montoya about this a few years ago as he was drumming for AC back in the day. He thought that he remembered the gig. What a pro!
Thank you so much for sharing Michael. I love watching clips of Collins playing live – he has so much energy and enthusiasm, and the way that he interacts with the crowd is just amazing. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see him live! The stories of him leaving the stage and club that he played in are just brilliant – I heard one account in which he went to the pizzeria next door, ordered a pizza and returned to the stage, all whilst still playing!
I was fortunate to meet Albert Collins back in the mid-80s. Of course I asked him what strings he used, and he said Fender 150 010s. Such an amazing musician!
Thanks so much for taking the time to comment Chris and to share your experience. Meeting Collins must have been brilliant – he was just an unbelievable guitarist and an amazing performer! Thanks also for sharing your insight on the strings Collins used – I’ll update the article to reflect that, as I struggled to find any information online about the gauge of strings he used
One more major component…he played like EVH—he smiled and had a lot of fun!
You’re absolutely right there! I love watching clips of Collins play for that exact reason – he just creates such a good energy and vibe when he is playing. A happy bluesman indeed!