Christone “Kingfish” Ingram may play guitar like he’s on fire, but there’s no hellhound on his trail. Growing up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the shadow of Robert Johnson’s fabled crossroads, the 20-year-old guitarist was destined to find the blues. It’s just that he found them in church, not in a juke joint or down a dusty Delta road.
“On my mom’s side of the family, all of my uncles played bass and guitar,” Ingram says. “Just looking at them playing in church made me want to do it.”
Ingram picked up bass when he was eight years old, then switched to guitar at 12 while enrolled in the Delta Blues Museum’s Arts and Education program. In the eight years since, the 20-year-old has been hailed as a prodigy, performed before stunned audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, and earned the respect and friendship of blues legends like Buddy Guy. On his debut album, Kingfish (Alligator), Ingram plays with the same intensity he brings to the stage, clutching his pick with a commanding grip while his left hand wrings the tone out of every scorching note.
But anyone looking for the next B.B. King can ease on by. Ingram may be the heir apparent to the Mississippi blues tradition, but there’s more than a touch of Jimi Hendrix in his playing. Even so, it’s unfair to saddle him with his influences; he’s quickly playing his way out of them and is intent on establishing his own style. “I’m still learning,” he says. “I’m always on the search for somebody who’s better than me, ’cause I can always learn and grow from others who play totally different styles from what I’m normally listening to.”
As Ingram prepped Kingfish for release, followed by supporting dates with Guy and Vampire Weekend, Guitar Player caught up with the guitarist to find out how the blues hooked him.
You received most of your formal training at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. What inspired you to play?
Pretty much all the regular blues stuff. I already knew who B.B. King was, but I didn’t know Albert King or Freddie King. So when I first heard those guys — you know, that power and rawness — that’s what made me want to go full in.
How deep into theory did those lessons go?
Our mentors showed us the pentatonic scale for blues, obviously, so that’s pretty much how I learned. They were showing us different scales and all, but they would teach us songs as well. I picked up the Dorian stuff and Mixolydian stuff. That’s what I’m doing at the moment, trying to incorporate that a whole lot more into what I’m playing.
Buddy Guy guests on your first single, “Fresh Out.” How did you two hook up?
I opened a show for him back in 2012, and I sat in with him at the Waterfront Blues Festival [in 2015]. He took a liking to me, I think, and one day we got a call saying that he wanted to help me with a record. Matter of fact, “Fresh Out” was the song Buddy chose for me to do. When we recorded it and played it for him, he liked it and he got on it. It was really dope.
Your song with Keb’ Mo’, “Listen,” has such a different flavor from the rest of the record. It’s really laid back in an Allman Brothers kind of way.
I wasn’t expecting that song to come out like that. Most of the album is traditional blues, but I wanted to go out of the box a little bit and have something for everybody. And that was a perfect moment, you know?
Keb’ actually played rhythm guitar on some of the other tracks, and he’s playing slide on “Hard Times.” So he had already been on the album, but the idea for me to put him on a song as a singer came maybe a month later.
You played Strats early on, but now you seem to prefer Les Paul–style guitars and humbuckers.
The guitar I’m playing at the moment is an LP-style guitar made by Mike Chertoff [of Chertoff Custom Guitars] in New York. It’s a really powerful guitar. I can plug that straight into an amp and it just sounds massive. I got interested in LPs and humbuckers when I was into Gary Moore for a spell. I always loved that fat, distorted tone, and I felt the LP was right up my alley. For the few songs that need a trebly tone, I break out the Strat. Some nights I’ll stick with the LP, and some nights I may not play it at all and use the Strat instead.
What amps do you prefer these days?
Pretty much Peavey, and if a Peavey isn’t available, I’ll use a Fender. At home I use a Peavey Delta Blues 210, and I also like the Peavey Classic 50. I like using those on the road. They have this really cool clean tone, and I love that. That’s why Peavey’s been my first-choice, go-to amps. When it comes to Fender, just a Fender Twin or a Fender Hot Rod DeVille is fine.
What do you use to get such a saturated yet clear lead tone?
I’m always changing distortion pedals. I have three that I alternate between. The first one is the MXR Sugar Drive, and then I have a Keeley El Rey Dorado, which is really dope. I like really high-gain distortion pedals. What I’m using at the moment is an EWS Brute Drive. My Sugar Drive is heavy, but it’s more low and clean, and the El Dorado and Brute Drive, those are just full-on high-gain and really heavy rock tones, and that’s what I’ve been going for lately. I also use an MXR Echoplex delay with the tap tempo. If I’m soloing on a slow blues, I have this fast but almost subtle delay. Sometimes I tweak it if I’m playing a song with some chords and I need some fattening to fill in the gaps.
Your tone is so thick. It sounds like you’re playing .012s, but the strings look like .008s when you’re bending and adding vibrato. It looks like you’re playing spaghetti noodles up there.
[laughs] I used to use .012s, but it got bad for my fingers. Now I use .011s. My technique was just something I worked on. I was listening to Otis Rush. Man, his vibrato is pretty. Albert King had a pretty vibrato, too. I patterned my vibrato after those guys, and that’s how I figured it out.
Your songs are built on a traditional blues foundation, but as soon as you step away from the mic, you play like you’re on fire. What drives you?
Man, just the thought of being onstage. You know, for many of us, that’s our happy place — just being up there doing what I love. Being able to do it gives me the drive to go in and try to do my best.