The Future Is Dark, Wilson T King Shines a Light On the Next Level of the Blues

It’s not unusual to hear guitarists with technical proficiency these days.
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IT’S NOT UNUSUAL TO HEAR GUITARISTS WITH TECHNICAL proficiency these days. It’s also pretty easy to find players with great tone. It’s less common to come across players who write great tunes, but we still have lots of examples of that. But guitarists who can unnerve you with their playing, and startle, scare, or even disturb you—well, that’s fairly rare indeed. The early blues guys could do it, and there certainly have been glimpses of it since, but it definitely seems like that kind of guitar playing just doesn’t happen often enough. Which is what makes Wilson T King so special. Along with the chops, the tones, and the tunes, he has the ability to frighten you with his 6-string work. “I call it the vortex,” says the Brit guitar slinger. “If you’re going to play like that, you’ve got to go someplace genuine and it’s got to be a little bit dark.”

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That dark place is where you’ll find King’s massive, Strat-into-Marshall tones, huge bends, righteous vibrato, and furious explosions of future-blues emotion that will spin your head around and keep you up at night. His latest, The Last of the Analogues [19MilesHighMedia], is a trippy, psychedelic tour de force that will surely appeal to fans of Band of Gypsys, Jeff Beck, Radiohead, and honest, gut-level guitar.

What were you going for on The Last of the Analogues?

My first record, Follow Your First Mind, was more of an experiment. For this one I brought in a lot of the production skills I learned over the years working with indie bands. Songwriting became a little more important on this record. I think it’s darker, I think it’s more widescreen, and I think it’s got a bigger message. I found more spaces for the guitar to breathe in, free of what’s come before, which I think is really important for the guitar to survive as a contemporary art form. That’s why I did it: out of a love for the guitar. I can’t express that too vividly.

Are these physical or sonic spaces, or are they more cerebral?

I’m speaking more of emotional/cerebral spaces. This is the problem I have with the clone players. They’re all technically brilliant and they’ve spent their 10,000 hours of practice, but they’re not creating new spaces to play over. If you think of it in terms of a physical space, it’s like a room filled with monuments to Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Albert King, Freddie King, SRV—it’s a very packed space. Why do I want to try to work in there? Let’s try to find some new areas.

How did you get that ridiculous sustain when the electric guitar comes in on “This Mountain of Fire”?

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I was using an old Sovtek Big Muff, the green one. That was cranked, the Marshall was cranked. It took a few goes for that solo to come into place and I just had to let go. If you’d seen me playing it you’d call the psych ward people in the white coats. I was really on edge playing it, trying to tap into that emotion. But that note you’re asking about just happened. It was nice to do that take and think, “Wow, I think I nailed it.” There are actually a few mistakes in that take that weren’t in others, but I wanted to keep it because of the emotion.

Is that your old Strat on that cut?

Yeah it’s the same guitar for the whole album: a ’69 Strat with a DiMarzio Fast Track in the bridge. My technique is in my fingers. I can get a lot of tones out of one guitar.

What was your acoustic and how did you record it?

That’s a Guild from the mid ’90s in stereo. It was a mistake how I got that sound. I had a reverb on it and somehow I had bussed it to another reverb with a slight delay. I didn’t realize what I had done for a couple of weeks but I thought it sounded brilliant. I think the mic was a Rode Classic, six to 12 inches back, aimed at the neck joint, and I rolled off the low end. I was definitely thinking Townshend on that, like on Quadrophenia or Who’s Next where he gets that widescreen acoustic sound.

Is your amp still the Marshall JCM800?

Yeah. I used an early ’80s 50-watt Marshall combo as well, the 2104 2x12. Both of those amps mic up beautifully. It’s not hard to get a great sound out of them. I like the Marshalls because the midrange isn’t sweet, it’s aggressive. I find with a lot of boutique amps that the midrange isn’t aggressive enough.

The guitar on “Born into This” is massive. How do you get such big tones?

I was referencing the Band of Gypsys tune “The Power of Soul” and I was also referencing “Super Stupid” by Funkadelic, a track with an insane solo by Eddie Hazel. Anyway, both of those tunes have a lot of room mics, and I used room mics quite heavily to get that sound. It’s the main Marshall with two mics down the middle— a Shure SM58 and an AKG 421—and a Rode Classic and a Rode NT2-A on either side and various panning. There’s not too much gain, and the amp was frickin’ loud.

Your tone is huge even if you’re just playing one note, even if it’s recorded on an iPhone. [Ed. Note: Check out “WTK Improv via iPhone” on YouTube for proof.] What can you say about that?

That’s technique. Over the years I’ve been very tough about the techniques that I use, my vibrato, and getting my fingers to develop tone. I’ve worked really hard to ensure that my left hand can develop tone on its own before I ever bring my right hand in. I went through a phase where I really worked on that. Four or five years ago I went from using a pick to just playing with my fingers and I developed this technique that’s sort of like John Entwistle. I use my second finger in a really aggressive manner to get that sound.

You really put a lot of emotion and angst into your bends and it’s riveting. Talk about what you go through physically and viscerally when you lean into a bend.

I think there are three elements to the bends, three influences for me: Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, and David Gilmour. When I play, as you see from my videos, most of the notes have got something on them, in terms of a push or a pull. I also tend to play out of position. For example, if I’m in E and I’m playing on the 15th fret, I won’t pull off to the 12th fret. I’ll pull off to the 11th and quickly push it up a half-step with a massive vibrato on it, so I can sort of get a slide guitar attack to it. So there are a lot of intricacies to the bending—it’s not just the standard pentatonic bending patterns that are happening. I’ve copped stuff from Beck, but instead of using the bar, I’m using my fingers to get those microtonal approaches to notes. Bending is huge to what I do. It’s massive. And I think I’ve got my own sound with it.

You seem to embrace pickup noise and hum. What part does that play in your music?

It goes back to having an amp on edge—I like it when the amp is right on the verge of going crazy. Listen to Clapton doing “Stormy Monday” with the Bluesbreakers. It’s ridiculous. His amp is all over the shop but it sounds so exciting. I’ve always liked the sound of hissing, of wahs rocking backwards and forwards. In the studio I always say, “Don’t worry about those little clicks or scrapes. That’s part of the personality of the performance.” If you take all those things out, it can sound very conservative. And that’s not what the freaking guitar’s about, is it? It’s an instrument that can knock down walls and change society.

You don’t want to play blues clichés, but you still play pentatonic scales and bend up to the 5, etc. How does one play pentatonics and not play clichés?

It would be easy for me to say I don’t do this, I don’t do that, but I’ve done it all. I’ve learned all the Clapton songs, I’ve learned all the Stevie Ray Vaughan songs, all the Hendrix—I think you’ve got to put the time in. Part of making it sound different is what you play over. If you’ve got something inventive, a new space to play in, you can make those pentatonics sound fresh. That’s what Jimi did, and that’s what Santana, Peter Green, and the Allmans did. They played pentatonics, but it didn’t sound like they did. But it’s hard not to play clichés. These guys set things in cement and they’re all amazing, so it’s hard not to hit on what they did. But I think if you’re playing over creative stuff with cool lyrics, it makes everything sound better. The cliché bits in your own playing are reduced hugely in that scenario. I see young players who are technically amazing but for all the work they’ve put into being great guitarists, they need to spend time working on songs, context, and ideas. That’s what Hendrix did.

What advice would you give guitarists who want to move away from standard licks, move away from their influences, and play more from their gut?

You can’t be afraid of failure or ridicule. You’ve just got to do it. Part of what helps me is that I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of tunes, and I’ve written a lot of horrible ones. I’ve made some really average records. I think songwriters are willing to take far more risks than musicians. So, take risks. That’s where the excitement is. Guitar has been cutting edge and it still can be. We don’t need to hear the same stuff anymore, because it’s already been done by geniuses. No one is going to make a Jimi Hendrix record better than Jimi Hendrix. So find your own space, be brave, and just go for it.