There are few figures in the history of the blues as iconic as Albert King. It is little exaggeration to say that he redefined how many blues musicians approached the guitar. His huge two tone bends, vocal playing style and sheer power influenced a whole generation of guitarists, including Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and most notably, Stevie Ray Vaughan.
King’s exemplary technique and ability to marry pinpoint precision with intense power played a large part in his sound. But his gear and set up is unique and interesting, and undoubtedly accounted for a big part of his tone. King’s tone is not smooth or polished; it is intense and raw. This in part reflects the type of gear that was available at the time. But much more than that, it is illustrative of King’s approach to the guitar and blues more generally.
Unlike a lot of the guitarists that I have featured in my ‘How to sound like‘ series, King’s set up is very unorthodox. He played unusual guitars and amps, used altered tunings and played his guitar upside down. No part of his rig is straight forward. But don’t worry, because here I will explain how you can replicate King’s tone and setup, without completely overhauling your current rig. Here is everything you need to sound like Albert King.
The Flying V
Throughout his career, Albert King almost exclusively used a Gibson Flying V, or a variation on the Flying V. He played 3 main guitars – a 1959 Gibson V, a bespoke made V nicknamed ‘Lucy’ and later a mid 1960s V. In doing so, he rejected the typical choices amongst bluesmen – the Gibson Les Paul, Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson ES-335/ES-345.
In an interview in 1982, King stated that he predominantly chose the V for its feel and playability, rather than for its tone. I suspect the choice also had something to do with the Flying V’s visual appeal. At around 6ft 4 (194cm) and 250 lbs (110kg) and with a personality that matched his size, King had a formidable presence on stage. And the Flying V certainly added to his image.
King used his 1959 Gibson Flying V up until the late 1960s, when he gambled it away in a game of craps. He then replaced it with another very similar Gibson model that was manufactured in the mid 1960s. King was left handed, and both of these were standard V models. So he turned the guitar upside down and played with his high E string at the top of the neck. It was only ‘Lucy’ – the flying V made for him by Dan Erlwine in the early 1970s that was designed for a left handed player. And even still, the normal string order was reversed to account for King’s style.
If you want to sound like Albert King and are very interested in authenticity, then I would recommend buying a Gibson Flying V. It will help you get those Albert King tones and you will definitely look the part. More broadly, Flying Vs make great all round guitars for blues and rock playing. They are also very well priced compared to Les Pauls or ES-335s/345s. Additionally, if budget is a concern, then Epiphone also offer a Flying V – which, at $599/£465 is amazing value for money.
Is a Flying V Right For You?
Tonally, Flying Vs are not that dissimilar from other Gibson solid body guitars. They do sound slightly brighter and sharper, because they have higher output pickups. But really, the main considerations you need to make are visual and practical.
From a practical perspective – Flying Vs are light guitars, especially when compared with Les Pauls. They also have great access to the upper frets. So if you like to play in the higher registers, or if you are gigging and playing long sets – then the Flying V could be a brilliant choice.
Conversely, playing a Flying V whilst sitting down takes a bit of getting used to. And because of the Flying V’s small body, big neck and unusual design, it does have a very different feel to it. If you are considering buying one, go to a guitar store, try it out and see how you get on.
Visually, I think you either love or hate the Flying V. If you’re looking for a guitar that will make a statement, then the Flying V is a great choice. Albert King was an intense player and a big character, and the Flying V matched him perfectly. If you are more understated – both as a character and a player – then I would suggest going down a different route.
If you do decide that a Flying V isn’t for you, I would recommend opting for an alternative Gibson or Epiphone model. There will obviously be differences to the Flying V, but if you choose a guitar with humbucking pickups of a similar output, you will be in the right ball park.
If you are looking to spend a bit more and make an investment, then I would recommend looking at the top of the Gibson Range and at Gibson Custom Shop models:
If you don’t want to go for a Custom shop model but are looking for a very high quality guitar, then I would recommend looking at the standard Gibson range:
Finally, if budget is a bit more of a consideration, then I would recommend looking at the Epiphone versions of the Gibson models:
Although none of these alternatives are as authentic as a Flying V or a V replica, they will get you close to those Albert King tones. In addition, they are all brilliant and well rounded guitars for blues and blues rock. So not only will they will help you to sound like Albert King, they will also enable you to achieve a range of beautiful blues tones.
As is often the case with the early electric bluesmen, Albert King used a variety of different amplifiers during his career. This was partly through choice and partly through necessity. For although Albert King is now recognised as one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time, he spent the vast majority of his career playing in clubs and smaller venues. As a result, he sometimes had to rely on what was available to him.
Having said that, there were 3 amps that King did rely on during his career. These were the Roland JC-120, a Model 260 Acoustic head, and at times a 1969 Fender Dual Showman.
Aside from the Fender Dual Showman, these are not amps that are associated with beautiful blues tones. This is because they are solid state, and not tube amplifiers. Whilst of course you can get decent tones from solid state amps, tube amps tend to be the go to choice amongst blues players. In short, this is because when pushed, tube amps break up into a very warm and natural sounding distortion. The same cannot be said for solid state amps.
King’s decision to go down the solid state route was motivated by the need for volume. Before the days of PA systems, you had to crank your amp to be heard. King often played with a horn section, and so had to fight to be heard. Pushing a tube amp that hard would have undoubtedly produced heavy levels of distortion, beyond the scope of what King wanted.
Opting for a solid state amp eliminated this problem and gave King greater control over his tone.
Amps to Sound Like Albert King
All of this begs the question – which amp should you choose if you want to sound like Albert King?
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend using any of the amps that King played. Unless you are playing in very large venues, they aren’t an appropriate choice. And if you are looking for a well rounded blues tone, I would also recommend going for a tube, rather than a solid state amp.
With these two points in mind, and assuming that you are doing the majority of your playing at home, I would recommend going for a small tube amp. And I think it makes sense to look at Fender and similarly voiced amps. Not only will they help you to sound like Albert King, they will also help you to get a range of beautiful American blues tones. My top recommendations are:
If you do want to go down the solid state route, then it is worth looking at the Roland Blues Cube Artist or the Roland Blues Cube Stage. These are both solid state amps that aim to take the beautiful tones of early Fender amps, without some of the drawbacks associated with tube amps. For although tube amps produce beautiful tones, they are often fragile and temperemental. It can also be difficult to get decent tones at low volumes. Generally speaking, you have to ‘crank’ a tube amp to get great tones. And that can be a real challenge if there are friends/family/neighbours you have to consider.
The Blues Cube amps aim to produce a range of brilliant blues tones at much lower volumes. At 80 and 60 watts respectively though, you still have the option to push the volume with either the Artist or Stage model if you’re gigging or need more power.
One final bonus feature of the Blues Cube amps are its ‘tone capsules’. You can plug these into the back of the amp to change its character and feel. These are created with the input of the artists whose tones they aim to recreate. These artists include Robben Ford and Eric Johnson. So if you want to sound like Albert King, but also want versatility and practicality from your rig, one of the Blues Cube amps could be a brilliant choice.
Like most of the early bluesmen, Albert King didn’t have an extensive pedal board. In fact, the only pedal that he is really documented using was the MXR Phase 90. He used this slightly later in his career and so it certainly isn’t a key part of his sound. But having said that, he did use it extensively on a number of records, including In Session – the album he recorded with Stevie Ray Vaughan.
So if you want to sound like Albert King on his later records, picking up a handwired MXR Vintage 1974 phase pedal is a great place to start. Beyond that, there are 2 further pedals I would also recommend.
The first of these is a Tube Screamer. This is really more associated with Stevie Ray Vaughan, and arguably with a blues tone that is smoother and warmer than King’s. Yet despite that, I think it can really help to get those fiery King style tones. You just need to crank the tone and volume knobs to full, and leave the drive set around 1 or 2. When you engage the pedal, the Tube Screamer will boost your volume and ramp the treble up. This will give you the same attack and bite that King had when he played.
The second way of capturing King’s sharp and biting tone, is by using an EQ pedal. Specifically, if you boost the frequencies between 1.6 and 2kHz, you’ll add a bit of bite to your tone that will really help you get that Albert King sound. You can also do this without boosting your overall volume. So you can use the EQ to achieve a nice base tone, and then add the tube screamer into the mix when playing lead. There are a lot of different EQ pedals out there, but some of the top models I’d recommend are the Boss GE-7, MXR M108S and the MXR M109S.
To this day there remains speculation over Albert King’s tunings. Legend has it that when asked what tuning he used, King responded I-D-U-N-N-O. According to Dan Erlwine though – the luthier who built King’s Flying V Lucy – King tuned all of his strings down a whole step. He then tuned his low E and A strings down a further whole step. So his guitar was actually tuned to C, F, C, F, A, D.
Why King chose to tune in this way is somewhat unclear and I definitely wouldn’t recommend it. The tuning he used is not common. In fact, there are various stories of King turning up to a gig or the studio, playing out of tune and insisting that everyone else tune to his guitar!
Having said that, if you want to sound like Albert King, I do believe there is a benefit in tuning down a half step to Eb. This is a tuning that a lot of blues players use – including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and more recently, Philip Sayce. It will help to beef your tone up and make you sound ‘fatter’. From a practical viewpoint it is useful too. It reduces the tension of your strings, which makes them easier to bend.
I suspect it was this that motivated King to tune down. It allowed him to hit massive bends and play with heavy vibrato, without placing his fretting arm and fingers under unnecessary stress.
The second factor that allowed King to hit his huge signature bends, was his choice of guitar strings. There has long been a belief amongst blues guitarists that you need heavy gauge strings to get a nice tone. This idea was largely perpetuated by Stevie Ray Vaughan, who used gauge 0.13 strings. But before Vaughan, both B.B. King and Albert King swore by using lighter strings. In fact, a young Billy Gibbons switched to using light gauge strings, after playing a gig with B.B. and Albert King. As Gibbons recalls: ‘Albert asked to play my guitar. He had it upside-down and played a little bit. Then he asked, “Why are you using these strings?” I told him because I wanted to have that bluesy sound. He said, “Why are you working so hard? Get something light!”
As I wrote about in more detail here – a lot goes into choosing your strings. But if you want to play those big bends, it could be worth using lighter gauge strings. Reportedly, King played 0.09-0.50 gauge strings. So in essence he was playing light gauge on his top strings and heavy gauge on his bottom strings.
To find a ready made set that match these gauges is a little tricky. But some sets that come close and are worth looking at are as follows:
- Ernie Ball Skinny Top, Heavy Bottom (0.10-0.52)
- Ernie Ball Classic Pure Nickel Regular Slinkys (0.10-0.46)
- Curt Mangan (0.09-0.42)
- Curt Mangan (0.095-0.44)
If in doubt, I would err on the side of playing lighter strings. King’s style is all about big bending and heavy vibrato. So using a light gauge, especially on your top strings, will help.
The way that Albert King set up his rig had a profound impact on his playing style and his tone. By turning a right handed guitar upside down, King played with the strings reversed. As a result, he bent his strings down, rather than up. It is easier to bend a string down with force than it is to bend it up. And this in part is what helped King play his signature bends. He bent with great force and speed, and it is difficult to replicate this with a normal set up.
That is not to say that I recommend you turn your guitar upside down to sound like Albert King. But it’s worth paying close attention to your bending style if you really want to nail that Albert King tone.
It is also worth playing with your fingers. King never used a pick, and used his fingers to pull the strings and create a sharp, snapping sound. It is very difficult to recreate this with a pick and it is a key part of King’s tone. So if you want to sound like Albert King, try playing with your fingers. Either that or use hybrid picking and just utilise your fingers when you really want to make your bends pop.
Well there we have it, everything you need to sound like Albert King. Of everyone that I have covered in my ‘sound like‘ series, I believe that King’s rig illustrates the impact that small tweaks can have on your tone. He didn’t use pedals, always played the same guitar and picked his amps because they were loud. In fact you could argue that in many ways, he paid very little attention to his tone.
Yet there are key elements of his rig and style – the light strings, the tunings he used and the way he played with his hands, that gave him a distinct sound. I hope that by following some of the advice laid out here, you can capture a similar tone, and sound like one of the best blues guitarists of all time.
Good luck, and let me know how you get on in the comments!
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Feature Image – Albert King (Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)
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