Known as the Velvet Bulldozer, Albert King is probably one of the most influential blues players ever – but I'm ashamed to say that up until the start of this year, he'd never directly influenced me! So this has been a month well spent filling in skills I should have been developing from the early days... and what have I learnt?
OK, well, first off I've learned The Albert King Lick. Once you've heard this once, you'll hear it in every single song he does. And with good reason, it's a cool as hell little run down.
The easiest place to spot this is in his classic “I'll Play The Blues For You” - that lick is played after practically every vocal line. But it's there in everything - “Born Under A Bad Sign”, “Oh Pretty Woman”, “Crosscut Saw”, everything. Now, listening closely to it you can hear that the fingering given.. doesn't quite sound right.
There's a simple reason for this. Albert King did not play in anything remotely resembling standard tuning. Left handed, but playing a right handed instrument (usually a Gibson Flying V) upside down, he favoured tuning to either C#-G#-B-E-G#-C# or open E-minor (C-B-E-G-B-E) or open F (C-F-C-F-A-D) depending on who you listen to. As a result,many of his licks – although they do translate to standard tuning – would have been fingered significantly differently.
It's also worth tuning in really closely to his absolute and utter mastery of string bending. Now, some of this will be down to his use of light gauge strings (0.009 – 0.050) with the reduced tension resulting from the dropped tuning making it physically easier for some of the wider bends, but listen closely to almost any solo and you'll hear (especially in the turnarounds) a real mastery of the microtone. Albert (I'm not going to refer to him as King, as we've got another two of those to look at) was adept at not just manipulating the ambiguity in between the minor and major 3rds, but also between the 4th and flat 5th, the classic “blue note”.
Next, note choice. Albert was almost entirely minor pentatonic, and the “Albert King Lick” sits firmly in first position. However, for soloing, he (like B.B. King) he preferred to move into the highest four notes of second position. To carry on with the example of “I'll Play The Blues For You”, in G minor pentatonic – the four middle notes are F, G, Bb and C on the 3rd and 5th frets on the D and G strings. For the solo, he shifts those four notes up to the 6th and 8th frets on the B and high E strings.
To get that characteristic Albert King sound, hit the root G (8th fret B) and then move up to the 4th, C, (8th fret E) bent up to the 5th, D, (whole tone bend). Albert would regularly pick the string in between notes as well, getting those characteristic microtonal “curl” bends that are so inherent to the blues.
In fact, “I'll Play The Blues For You” is probably the best track to get yourself started on transcribing and analysing his solos – the licks are clear, concise and his solo has a real story structure to it: call, response, call, conclusion. I'd encourage anyone who's interested in trying to improve their phrasing to start there, and with that in mind, here's the basic chord structure:
// Gm / Gm / Gm / Gm / Cm / Cm / Gm / Gm / Bb / D / Cm / Cm / Gm / Gm //
As you can see, this is actually a 14 bar blues! For the most part the song follows a 12 bar structure, but you'll notice the addition of the slightly dissonant chords in the turnaround – those of you versed in theory will recognise Bb as being the relative major, whereas the D should technically a minor, the major 3rd (F#) being present gives it a tense, almost harmonic minor vibe. So without further ado, here's a YouTube link to the song, switch on your ear and happy transcribing!