Marcus King's Soul-Soaked Southern Rock

Marcus King’s father, Marvin King, is a blues guitarist, as was his father before him, and that helps explain how the phenomenal 20-yearold sounds as if he has been playing, singing, and writing for ages.
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Photo by Ian Rawn 

Marcus King’s father, Marvin King, is a blues guitarist, as was his father before him, and that helps explain how the phenomenal 20-yearold sounds as if he has been playing, singing, and writing for ages.

The Marcus King Band [Fantasy/Concord] features meaningful contributions from a host of veterans from the Allman Brothers family of bands, including Derek Trucks, bassist Todd Smallie, keyboardist Kofi Burbridge, and album producer Warren Haynes. King—who spent two years diligently studying jazz in his hometown at the Fine Arts Center of Greenville, South Carolina—thrives on the additional experience, as does his crack band of millennial-aged players.

King has his own thing, yet analogies to the Allman Brothers Band abound, with his vocals closest to Haynes, his guitar style like a jazzed up Dickey Betts, and a tone somewhere between Duane Allman and Derek Trucks. King is that good. He’s a natural who has been nurtured, and if The Marcus King Band is any indication, we’re all in for one hell of a fun ride.

Who was the player that shook your world as a youngster, and what gave you the drive to go so far so fast?

My father and grandfather were big influences when I started playing, and Duane Allman was the first guitar player that figuratively took me up and shook me. The intensity of the whole Allman Brothers Band inspired me to drive further as a musician. From a very young age, I tried to gain influence from any channel I could. I’d listen to Etta James’ vocals, Jimmy Smith’s organ playing, or John Coltrane’s sax, and try to apply what I heard to guitar.

What’s you’re story from a tonal point of view?

I’ve always thought simplicity is key. I mostly play through a Fender Super Reverb with an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer that I mainly use as a master volume. I have the Screamer’s Drive knob at about 11 o’clock, Tone at noon, and the Volume knob is at about 7 o‘clock. It’s just barely enough to feed signal to the amplifier—which is cranked up for maximum natural overdrive. For bigger venues, I’ll change over to a 100-watt plexi clone made in Nashville at the Amp Shop, which has a master volume on the back. The only effect I use much is a Dunlop CryBaby wah. My simple stance started at age seven or eight, when I started playing around with all sorts of pedals through my grandfather’s Super. I’d ask, “What do you think about this tone, Papa?” He would reply, “If mine sounded like that, I’d take it to get it fixed [laughs].”

What’s your guitar story?

I had been mostly playing a brown SG from the early ’70s that I found at a Christian bookstore when I was 11 years old. It has Grover tuners and mini humbuckers. But for the past couple of years, I’ve been playing what was my grandfather’s guitar. It’s a ’62 Gibson ES-345. Once I switched to that hollowbody, man, I couldn’t turn back. I used the SG on a couple tunes for the record, but, for the most part, it was the 345.

How did you track The Marcus King Band?

We were all isolated, but playing together at the same time. That’s what was hip about Carriage House Studios. My amps were the only ones in the live cutting room. I had a Fender Super, an old Supro 1x12 combo, and a Marshall plexi with a 4x12 cabinet. There were two mics close up on each cabinet. I ran through all three of them at the same time, and then we’d pick and choose what sounded best for each song section during mixing. If I played my SG on a take that sounded a little thin during playback, we’d cut it again with the 345—which I call “Big Red.”

Did you play a resonator on “The Man You Didn’t Know”?

Yes. I played a National Resonator for the rhythm, and then I did the solo using an early ’60s Silvertone lap-steel through Warren’s old Gibson amp.

Do you ever play slide on your guitars?

I have been lately—in standard tuning. I’m enjoying the hell out of it, and I wonder why I haven’t been doing it longer. I guess I wanted to identify myself differently because of the comparisons already being made about my music. But that’s just a silly mentality. I want to play some f**king slide [laughs]!

Do you adjust the action?

I don’t. My slide is a little green medicine bottle—a lot like a Coricidin bottle—that a friend of mine dug up when he was excavating some old real estate. I use it on the ring finger. It’s pretty short—which is cool, because I always liked Derek’s approach where he puts it high enough on his finger so that he can still bend it.

“Radio Soldier” features an intricately picked rhythm figure. Can you explain your picking technique?

I played the riff at the top with a pick. I use Dunlop Jazz III picks, because I can tuck them away in my index finger pretty easily, and then use all of my other digits for fingerpicking— which I used a little bit on the verses.

Can you talk about some of the moves you used to spice up the solo on that song?

I drew on some Hendrix inspiration for the solo on “Radio Soldier,” because he could take the instrument and turn it into the sound of a battlefield. I played my SG on that song, and I actually used a Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Fuzz Face when I overdubbed the solo, because it was sounding too safe. I wanted something angrier to suit the lyrics. Musically, I threw in some Dorian stuff to spice up those minor pentatonics, and I love to use passing tones on a song that doesn’t seem to want them. I’ll do anything I can to get around the tonic. The song is in the key of B, but I put some “uncouth” B♭s in there.

The jazziest number on the album is “Thespian Espionage.”

I wrote that at the Fine Arts Center when were doing our class transcription project for the year. Ours was Jimmy Herring’s “Twelve Keys” from Subject to Change Without Notice, but the cats on melody duty flaked out, so the teacher let me do an original tune for the recital. I rediscovered the chord sheet for “Thespian Espionage” a couple of years later, and now it’s back in circulation with the band.

Warren Haynes lays down some nasty slide playing on “Virginia.” Was that intimidating?

Yeah. And that’s why I’m glad it was the last live-band track we cut. I sang while he played. By that point, we’d been hanging out for two years, and he’d broken through my bashful barrier. He’s patient as a producer, and specific, as well. Some producers say things like, “Try one with a little more ass on it.” What does that mean? Warren says things like, “Over that Ebmaj7—try this.” His knowledge of each song made working with him easy.

Warren Haynes on Marcus King

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“Marcus King is the first young guitar player I’ve heard since Derek Trucks who plays with such soul and emotional maturity. He blends so many influences together, but it all comes out in his own voice, and that’s the hardest thing to accomplish as a musician. He has the chops to play jazz-influenced stuff, but he also has that ability to portray a melodic picture, and sound like he’s singing through his instrument. I love that he doesn’t go for an overblown tone. He has studied a broad range of styles and eras, and his love of it all comes through in a very unpretentious way. He looks at music through the proper lens.

“We had a blast making the record. I love ‘Self Hatred’ when he’s playing alongside Derek Trucks—which is a brave feat. But I think my favorite solo is the one he takes on ‘Thespian Espionage.’ Tracking solos live with the band like that takes a lot of balls for a newcomer. Most were keepers. I’ve never done all this with a young player before, but it seemed right in this case because he’s the whole package. The sky is the limit for someone who can sing like that, play like that, and write great songs.” —JL