Freddie King is the ultimate blues guitarist. He plays with passion, intensity and feeling – and does all of this with an amazing sense of melody and timing. He wrote some of the most iconic blues songs and instrumentals of all time and in the early 1960s, had a huge impact on the burgeoning British blues scene. King inspired a number of up and coming blues guitarists but had perhaps the greatest effect on Eric Clapton, who in 1994, said of King:
I was interested in the white rock ‘n’ rollers until I heard Freddie King – and then I was over the moon. I knew that was where I belonged – finally. That was serious, proper guitar playing and I haven’t changed my mind ever since. I still listen to it and I get the same boost now that I did then
King had a big influence on Clapton during his early career. Clapton famously covered King’s instrumental ‘Hideaway‘ on The ‘Beano‘ album with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, and borrowed heavily from King’s repertoire on the same album. Clapton’s tone was also heavily influenced by King. So although a lot of guitarists laud Clapton’s tone on the Beano album as being the gold standard in electric blues, in many ways it was just a continuation of the work of Freddie King before him.
There are of course key differences. Freddie King’s tone is sharp and biting in its own unique way. It is fiery and powerful, without being overly distorted or unruly. It is a beautiful electric blues tone. If you are looking for a similar tone that will help you to capture the spirit of the ‘Texas Cannonball’, then the advice here will set you on the right path. Here is everything you need to sound like Freddie King:
Freddie King is best associated with the Gibson ES-345. He used a variety of different models of this throughout his career, but his main guitar was a cherry red, 1960 ES-345. And the good news, is that replicating this part of Freddie King’s rig is nice and straightforward. All you need to do is buy a Gibson ES-345, a 345 replica – or a semi-hollow body guitar in the style of an 345. And the even better news, is that there are options here to suit every budget.
In the lower price bracket, I would recommend opting for an Epiphone semi-hollow body guitar:
After Epiphone there is really quite a jump up in price to the standard Gibson range. And of all of the Gibson models, the semi-hollow bodied guitars are amongst some of their most expensive. In this bracket, my top recommendations are:
Beyond that, there are very few, if any 345 models currently manufactured by the Gibson custom shop. There are some brilliant semi-hollow custom shop models, like the 1959 ES-335 and the 1959 ES-355. And if you are looking for a high quality guitar that will help you capture a range of vintage blues tones, then either of these would be a brilliant choice. But if you really want to sound like Freddie King and are after authenticity, the ES-345 would be my top choice.
Beyond the ES-345
At this stage, it is perhaps worth mentioning that what many guitarists believe to be the quintessential Freddie King tone, came not from an ES-345, but from a Gold Top Les Paul with P90 pickups. King used this on his early records and on some of his most famous instrumentals, including ‘Hide Away‘ and ‘San-Ho-Zay‘. In fact, legend has it that the image of King holding his Les Paul on the album cover for Let’s Hide Away And Dance Away With Freddy King prompted a young Eric Clapton to go out and buy a Les Paul of his own.
So a Gibson Les Paul or a Les Paul replica would also be a great choice for capturing those King tones. In fact, It could be a better choice than the ES-345, depending on the type of blues you are playing.
If you want to sound like Freddie King and are interested in attaining a more mellow and vintage tone, then I would recommend going down the ES-345/semi-hollow body route.
If you are playing a heavier style of blues and want to get into British blues territory, then I think the Les Paul would be a better choice. In the lower price range, the Vintage VS 100 Goldtop would be my top choice. And if you are looking to spend a bit more, then I would recommend the Gibson Les Paul Standard 50s Goldtop.
Whether you opt for a an ES-345 or go for a Les Paul, there are 2 further factors you need to keep in mind in your quest to sound like Freddie King. The first of these is your choice of pickups. King was an early bluesman and his ES-345 had vintage, low output pickups. When Gibson did a limited run of Freddie King ES-345s, they used MHS (Memphis Historic Spec) pickups to recreate those vintage tones. So if you have an ES style guitar with modern pickups, and are really after authenticity, it could be worth looking at vintage style pickups. Some of my top choices are:
If you go for a Gold Top Les Paul or a Gold Top replica, then the P90s it is fitted with will work very well. However, if you have a Standard Les Paul with modern humbuckers, I would recommend either switching them for one of the sets above, or fitting them with P90s. And if you go for this option, then some of my top choices are:
Of course, you can still get beautiful blues tones without fitting your guitar with vintage pickups. But if you really want to sound like Freddie King, using these pickups will definitely get you closer to those vintage tones.
The second factor to keep in mind when trying to replicate King’s tone, is that his ES-345 had a Varitone. This is a 6 way switch that gives you access to additional tone shaping options by cutting out certain frequency ranges in each position. A lot of guitarists believe that the Varitone negatively affects the overall sound of an instrument. As such, it tends not to feature on a lot of modern ES-345 and 355s.
If you do have a guitar with a Varitone, then reportedly King favoured the middle and bridge positions on the circuit.
In the absence of a Varitone, the best option is to shape your sound by adjusting your tone and volume controls. And the good news, is that unlike B.B. King – who made great use of the Varitone on his guitar ‘Lucille’ – Freddie King didn’t utilise the Varitone to such effect.
As a result, I would argue that you can recreate King’s tone through your amp and by manipulating your tone and volume controls. For the latter, I would recommend sticking with your bridge pickup for the most part. King’s tone is bright and sharp, and using your bridge pickup will give you that extra bite. For the same reason, you also want your tone controls to be cranked.
When it comes to your volume control, I would recommend backing it off to around 7 or 8. King typically did this, and then opened it up fully for his solos to give him that extra volume and aggression when he needed it.
Throughout his career, King favoured Fender amps and used a number of different models, including the Fender Super Reverb and the Fender Dual Showman. Arguably though, the amp with which King is best associated is the Fender Quad Reverb, which he used for much of his career.
The key characteristic that all of these amps have in common is their size. They are massive amps, with a lot of power and headroom. And regardless of which amp King played – he used them in the same way. He played them loud, cranked the treble to 10 and dropped the mids and bass out.
If you want to sound like Freddie King then, the challenge lies in creating a similar tone but at a much lower volume. And the good news, is that whilst the volume that King played at is near impossible to recreate for most of us, 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 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 Freddie King, the key is to EQ your amp in a similar way. Set the treble to 10, and drop the mids and bass to 0. Do this, and push your volume to get the tubes firing, and it will go a long way in helping you recreate those fiery King tones.
As is true of most of the early electric bluesmen, guitar pedals didn’t feature as part of Freddie King’s rig. So the good news is that you don’t need to go out and buy a whole assortment of new pedals to sound like Freddie King. Having said that, there are two types of pedals that will definitely help you recreate King’s cranked tones.
So much of King’s sound came from the volume at which he played. He drove his amps hard and that really helped create his tone. 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 are:
A treble booster works in much the same way as a clean boost, but 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 Freddie King. Here are my top choices:
The last of these pedals is a detailed replica of the original Dallas Rangemaster Treble booster pedal. This was used to great effect by Rory Gallagher – who like Freddie King is also famous for his fiery treble tones. So if you want to sound like Freddie King, but also like those overdriven British blues tones, that could be a particularly good addition to your rig.
When it came to his guitar strings, King’s choice was somewhat unusual. His bass strings were normal. He just played light to medium gauge electric guitar strings. His treble strings on the other hand, were very light. King played 0.10, 0.11 and 0.12. So his B and G strings were particularly light. To my knowledge, King never explained why he opted for such thin strings, though I suspect it was about playability, rather than tone. Lighter guitar strings are easier to bend. And so using thin gauge strings would definitely have made life easier for King.
Whether you choose to use such light gauge strings really comes down to your preference and playing style. Tonally, I would argue that using heavier strings gives you a beefier and more sustained blues tone. But there’s no point in using heavy gauge strings if they hinder your playing. So if in doubt, always err on the side of caution.
Whichever gauge you go for though, I don’t think it is necessary to use a very light gauge on all of your treble strings. I think you can sound like Freddie King and get a beautiful vintage tone using a regular set of strings. So with that in mind, a few different sets of lighter gauge strings I would recommend are as follows:
- Ernie Ball Regular Slinky (0.10-0.46)
- Curt Mangan (0.10-0.46)
- Ernie Ball Classic Rock N’Roll Regular Slinky (0.10-0.46)
- Curt Mangan (0.09-0.42)
As I wrote about in much more detail here, when it comes to guitar strings you have to find a balance between playability and tone. So give some of these a go, and experiment and adjust until you find the set that works for you.
Freddie King had an unorthodox playing technique. He picked with his fingers, using a plastic pick on his thumb and a metal pick on his index finger. He used this metal pick to execute the piercing bends for which he is famous and add that extra bite to his sound.
If you want to sound like Freddie King, you need to emulate that same bite. And the best way to do that, in my opinion, is to use a metal guitar pick. This will help you shape your sound and execute those fiery single string solos, without having to adopt King’s unusual fingerpicking style. You can buy metal picks like these here, for around the same price as regular plectrums. So try those out and see what they do for your sound.
Of course, if authenticity is what you are after, then give King’s fingerpicking style a go! It will be challenging to play at speed. But it is a great skill to learn, particularly if you are interested in playing other styles of music, like traditional acoustic blues or country. If you do go down that route, then you can easily buy thumb and fingerpick sets like these to get you started.
Some Closing Thoughts…
Well there we have it, everything that you need to sound like Freddie King. The advice that I’ve offered here will help you attain a very specific sound. It will give you that sharp and fiery blues tone that makes Freddie King’s guitar playing so powerful. But in addition to that, it will give you everything that you need to create a killer vintage blues tone.
King’s rig provided the foundation for the tones of later bluesmen like Eric Clapton. So if you follow the tips here, with a few tweaks you can achieve a whole range of different blues tones beyond those of just Freddie King.
Good luck, and please do let me know how you get on in the comments!
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Feature Image – Lionel Decoster (Wikimedia Commons) The license for the image is here.
Further Image of Freddie King – Lionel Decoster (Wikimedia Commons) The license for the image is here.
Images of Gear – Sweetwater, Stars Music, British Pedal Company, Gear 4 Music, Gibson