BY BOB CIANCI
“I DON’T EVER WANT TO HEAR ANOTHER CLOWN PLAYING a bunch of SRV and Clapton licks at warp speed over some Texas groove again,” exclaims Wilson T. King. The 39-year-old English guitarist, has turned heads and ruffled a few feathers among the blues cognoscenti with his first CD release, Follow Your First Mind [Interscope Digital], a startlingly deep, raw, and stark recording that breathes fresh life into the blues genre, while simultaneously acknowledging and paying respect to the tradition’s forebears.
King counts writer Charles Bukowski and painters Van Gogh and Caravaggio as influences, and cites astral projection and quantum physics as having informed his music. Deep stuff, yes, but most definitely in keeping with his penchant for pushing the blues envelope in fresh and exciting directions. King spent years slogging it out making records with British indie rock bands, playing myriad venues throughout England, Europe, and the U.S.—but the deep blues was never far away and eventually called him back home.
What was it about the guitar that first pulled you in, and who were your influences?
I can remember being five years old and playing the Allman Brothers’ At the Fillmore East. That was the beginning of my journey with both the blues and the guitar. I realized from an early age that you can’t fake the blues, and that’s what pulled me in. Then, when I was around 12, it was Jimi Hendrix who for the next five years was stuck on my turntable. My other influences were ’60s and ’70s Clapton, Santana, David Gilmour, Buddy Guy, and the three Kings. As for their influence on my playing, I do a lot of wild but accurate bending like Hendrix, Gilmour, and Albert King.
Is it true that you view the blues as a sort of cosmic force?
To me the blues is in everything. It’s a force and energy that gets the neural networks and the heart resonating as one. It is in Bukowski’s poetry and Caravaggio’s paintings. It’s not something we invented— it’s an energy the early blues players discovered. It’s one of pure escape and exhilaration, and it just reinforces my belief that the blues, along with all great art, is our greatest contribution to history. Hendrix’s “Machine Gun-Part 2,” for example, seems so otherworldly, but at the same time you know he is down in the vortex kicking the dark into the light. The guy was a one-man Hadron Collider, smashing atoms with his Strat and Marshall. John Coltrane with “A Love Supreme,” and Van Gogh on his canvases, are similar in that they managed a duality of expression. That’s the feeling that I have always tried to tap into as a songwriter and guitarist, and it comes straight from the blues. “Vigilante Man,” from my CD, has that deep, dark vibe.
You have said that you reject the “karaoke” aspects of modern blues.
Blues has become highly constrained, like classical music. It’s the fake growling-likea- bear blues voice; the endless “Crossroads,” “Goin’ Down,” and “Red House” rewrites; the terrible lyrics; and the lack of original ideas that I dislike. I love those songs, but how about doing something original? The blues to me was always about taking risks and kicking open new musical doors, which is why I tried to make a record that looks forward. For example, for the track “Hurricane,” I wrote a Radiohead-style bass line, but the guitar is total blues.
To help me avoid the clichés that all of us tend to fall into as soon as we pick up a guitar, I try to start with a great lyric and/or bass line, which will inspire my guitar playing to new heights. Some of the guitar playing on the album is wild and very freeform, and some is super controlled, but it all began with the lyrics and the bass lines. Beyond that, I’m very open-minded about the writing process, and some of the songs come from jams and are recorded real quickly.
What are your main guitars?
My two main guitars are ’69 and late-’80s Fender Strats. Both have DiMarzio Fast Track pickups in the bridge slot, which give me lots of tonal flexibility. I think a Strat is a harder guitar than a Gibson to get a good tone from, but when you do get the right tone, it brings out the style of the player more. In my experience, the more a guitar is played the better it feels and sounds. A really great guitar is one that makes you want to play.
What do you string them with?
I use Ernie Ball Power Slinky sets, gauged .011-.048, with the action on the guitars set high so I can bend like crazy.
Vibrato is a big part of your sound, but you don’t use a vibrato bar. Why not?
I get a slide-like vibrato sound without a vibrato bar, so I never felt the need for one. Using my fingers sounds more natural to my ears, and it blends into my other lines more seamlessly. Also, about four years ago I began playing without a pick, which gives me more control over dynamics and attack, and makes everything more fluid. I use all of my righthand fingers other than my pinky, and I often attack the strings quite aggressively with my thumb when bending notes, and use my middle finger for fast legato lines and some bends. So, to a large extent my tone comes directly from my fingers.
That tone is downright scary in its intensity. Are there particular amps or pedals that are also important to your sound?
I play through a Marshall JCM800 Anniversary head that was modded without my permission by my local amp repair guy. He removed all of the “modern circuitry” and promised me it would sound better, which, thankfully, it did. I set all of the controls straight up except Gain, which is up full. I also have a Fulltone Full-Drive 2 pedal that has two settings that determine how much gain hits the amp. For solos I hit the Boost button, which has a lot of midrange and really cuts, but at the same time provides a full range of overtones and harmonics. I also use a Fulltone Clyde Deluxe Wah.
Is that the rig you used on the album?
Yes. I mike the Marshall cab with Shure SM57 and Sennheiser MD 421 dynamic mics, positioned slightly off axis about an inch from the speaker, and chose whichever mic or blend of mics works best for a particular track. From there the signals go through high-end mic preamps and into an Empirical Labs Fatso, which gives me two channels of analog compression and tape emulation. I only use about .5dB of compression, but I use the Warmth function to subdue any shrill high end, such as you sometimes get with a wah. Interestingly, however, on some of the demos I played through IK Multimedia AmpliTube models—instead of the amp— running into the Fatso, and they sounded super close to the Marshall.
What did you record to?
I recorded to Pro Tools, with no overdubs apart from one track on which I wanted two guitars soloing at the same time. I also produced and mixed the record. It was mastered at Abbey Road, where the tracks were run through a vintage EMI desk.
How does a guitarist go about finding his or her own sound?
I think it’s just a case of not being afraid to try something different. The only rule I adhere to is that there are no rules—the song always comes first. We all have learned a ton of stock licks, but just one slight change in timing or phrasing can create something new. Remember, there’s no point in slavishly copying Clapton, SRV, or Hendrix. Sure, learn their moves, but try and take the sounds and ideas forward.
Where do you see and hear blues music and blues guitar going in the next five to ten years, and what will be your role?
I want to see people take more risks, like Chris Whitley, the White Stripes, and the Black Keys have over the last ten years. The blues is about freedom of expression, and not about feeling artistically trapped. The critical acclaim my album has received has been a huge inspiration, so I have started work on the second. In fact, the first track, “Born Into This,” has just been roughly mixed, and one critic said it sounded as though Jimi, the Allmans, and Rage Against the Machine were jamming on Mars!