Albert King: Four Signature Moves Behind His Blues Power

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PHOTO: Grant Gouldon. Albert King at the Fillmore East, October 19, 1968.

(Creative Commons License.)

Albert King induced Lucy, his Gibson Flying V, to moan and cry the blues. He played left-handed and upside down, and the massively bent notes arced from his strings as he yanked them down with his fingers. In an African-American tradition going back to the one-stringed diddley bows, King squeezed out fluid microtones as expressive as the melismatic singing found in field hollers.

Born Albert Nelson on April 25 1923, in Indianola, Mississippi, King acquired the surname of his stepfather. Seeing the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson perform in the late Thirties inspired him to make a cigar-box guitar. Jefferson’s linear style left a mark on King, as did the musings of T-Bone Walker in the Forties. He started gigging around Little Rock, Arkansas, in the early Fifties, though he gave up the guitar for a brief period to play drums behind Jimmy Reed. Moving to St. Louis in 1956 led to his substantial sides on Bobbin Records in 1959, courtesy of Ike Turner’s production.

But the defining moment of his career occurred in 1966, when he signed with Stax records in Memphis. Backed brilliantly by Booker T. & the MGs, King released the monumental Born Under a Bad Sign in 1967, and gave blues and rock guitarists a punch in their collective ears. When he died of a heart attack on December 1,1992, he left a hole in the music world that has yet to be filled.

Unique in every way, Albert King employed an altered tuning that is still open to speculation. MGs guitarist Steve Cropper examined his ax once and declared it was tuned (low to high) C B E F# B E, whereas Dan Erlewine checked it several years later and found it tuned to C F C F A D. For ease of access, the musical figures in this lesson are notated in standard tuning. If Stevie Ray Vaughan—King’s number-one acolyte—could do it with .013s, you can do it with .010s.

FIGURE 1 shows a classic King move from the root position of the blues scale to its extension, known affectionally as the “Albert King box” due to his propensity for manhandling the strings within its parameters. The multipitch bends of the 4th (Bb) in measure 2 and the b3rd (Ab) in measure 3, with eventual resolution to the root (F), are signature licks of his.


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Hair-raising bends of two whole steps from the b3rd (C) to the 5th (E) highlight FIGURE 2, as King creates a sweet tension that resolves decidedly to the root (A) in measure 4. Dig the unusual sequence of the 5th, root, and b3rd bent to the 4th (D) in measure 1. For a big, powerful man, King mastered nuances that complemented the bombshells he dropped from above.


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Fully cognizant of the value of framing the right notes with dramatic musical space, King had a dandy pattern for indicating the V–IV changes in measures 9 and 10 of a 12-bar blues (FIGURE 3). Blood simple, it involves sustaining the 5th of each chord (B and A, respectively).


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King could traverse the root position of the blues scale as well as his “box,” and FIGURE 4 contains one of his pet turnarounds. Check out the groovy slide from the major 3rd (F#) to the 5th (A), followed by the root (D) to complete the triadic tones in measure 1. Maintaining the major chord tones as a motif, he descends 3rd-root-5th to complete resolution to the root (A) of the V chord in measure 2.


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