“This music was born out of pain and suffering. It wasn’t all about guitar solos or ‘my baby left me’! That’s where a lot of people go wrong”: Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram on why the future of blues guitar requires an understanding of its past

Christone 'Kingfish' Ingram
(Image credit: Scott Legato/Getty Images)

There are many reasons why Live in London, the latest release from American guitar wunderkind Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram, is the kind of album that’s guaranteed to thrill blues fans around the world. 

The Mississippi-born 24 year-old conjures some truly electrifying tones out of his signature Telecaster Deluxe and sings beautifully with an abundance of heart and soul. But what’s arguably more noticeable than anything else is that he really, really means every note that comes out of him…

“I try to talk about the modern problems we have today, because that’s what the blues is all about,” he says. “For me, it’s all these unnecessary wars, unarmed people getting killed and stuff like that. You have to talk about the blues of right now. 

“And a big part of it also comes understanding the history and respecting the people who came before you. On top of that, you somehow have to find your own voice. The way I look at it, blues is life. It’s not just some genre of music… To me, it’s much more than that.”

While there is no shortage of blues players emanating from every corner of the globe, it’s this particular area of expertise that helps seat Ingram at the very forefront of the next generation of talent. He lives it and breathes it, and he’s done his very best to understand it from a musical and socio-political standpoint. 

The man who would go on to earn himself the nickname ‘Kingfish’ came from a musical family and started out on bass. The nearby Delta Blues Museum ran an Arts And Education after-school programme which introduced him to the revolutionary music of B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King and Son House. 

By the time he was 13 years old, he’d decided to deep-dive even further, switching over to electric guitar to further his education into the artform that would eventually become his life, learning as much from its dark history as he did its psalms of hope. This is something he feels a lot of modern players seem to neglect…

“A lot of folk are ignorant – they don’t understand the true meaning of the blues,” he shrugs. “People watch a couple of Stevie Ray Vaughan videos and think all they need is distortion and fast licks! But that’s not true. You have to go back and appreciate why this music was made by our forefathers.

“You have to understand this music was born out of pain and suffering. It wasn’t all about guitar solos or ‘my baby left me’! That’s where a lot of people go wrong – they haven’t tried to find out or understand what the blues is all about. It’s cool, whatever, but I feel like people should learn the history before they go into something properly and think they totally ‘get’ it.”

It only takes a quick listen to Live in London to understand that Ingram wholeheartedly gets it. And all that attention to detail has certainly paid off. He’s become one of the most exciting names in modern blues, and a natural successor to current giants like Joe Bonamassa, Gary Clark Jr. and Eric Gales – the latter of which he considers to be a Hendrix-rivalling talent.

“I’ve always been big into Hendrix,” he says, “but when I found Eric Gales’ music, that levelled up the Hendrix sound for me!” Naturally, when a guitarist discovers an otherworldly character who radiates charisma like Gales, someone with no shortage of flair and finesse, it’s then time to put in the hours and do more homework…

I did try the Strat single-coil thing for a minute, but for my sound, humbuckers are where it’s at

“I learned a lot of my faster pentatonic runs from Eric,” he smiles. “There’s one I call ‘the pentatonic staircase’ because I saw a video of Eric Gales when I was younger where he called it his ‘up the stairs, down the stairs’ lick. It’s where he crosses positions and comes back down the same line. 

“I try to emulate that for certain runs. Eric’s so amazing, I love all his chord voicings. When I’m learning, I sit down, listen and try to play along. The same goes for Lance Lopez, Johnny Winter and jazz players like Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery… or even musicians who didn’t play guitar, like Charlie Parker.”

As you’d expect from someone paying respect to such a wide pool of greats, Christone also enjoys cross-pollinating his rootsy early influences with more contemporary sounds, introducing elements of hip-hop, RnB and hard rock.

This was something he learned from Prince – a man he cites as brilliantly “unique and diverse” and someone who “just played what felt right” with little care for the perceived boundaries of any given genre.

Similarly, on the new recordings you can hear Christone staying true to himself and walking his own path, with his signature guitar plugged into a Fender Twin and no more than three choice pedals – a Marshall Shredmaster, a Cry Baby Mini Wah and a TC Electronic PolyTune – running in front…

“I did try the Strat single-coil thing for a minute, but for my sound, humbuckers are where it’s at,” he admits, explaining why he mainly stuck with Les Paul-style guitars at the beginning of his career.

“I think it came from listening to a lot of Gary Moore. So when I started talking to Fender about putting out a model, I knew it had to be something like a Tele Deluxe. I needed something that could give me a really hot sound without needing to try too hard, but also something that I could turn down to get clean.”

As its name might suggest, the Shredmaster is a pretty high-gain pedal aimed at heavy metal headbangers. So how exactly is Ingram making it work in a blues context?

When I’m up on stage, I improvise to avoid playing the same exact solo every night. There may be certain licks here and there, but I prefer to just make it up and feel it

“I tend to prefer really bassy distorted tones,” he notes. “I don’t like shrilly sounds with too much treble. I prefer more of a natural warmth, which is exactly what this pedal does, even if I don’t need all of that gain. I got mine while I was out in Australia. Before that point I was using a ProCo Lil’ Rat, which is another darker drive, but I found they didn’t really hold up as well.

“The ShredMaster is a really dope pedal and it’s what you’re mainly hearing on the live record. I might switch it out at some point – I just got the Atomic Overdrive from a company in Nashville called XAct Tone [Solutions]. I will test it out at a few shows and see how it sounds. I don’t use much but my pedalboard is always changing – I can’t get stuck on one thing!”

Referencing albums such as B.B. King’s Live In Cook County Jail and Stevie Wonder’s Natural Wonder, Christone believes the best live releases are the ones where the players on stage follow their hearts, reacting to their surroundings and existing in the present. It’s precisely the same course of action he takes with his own performances, using the songs as vehicles for open reflection and spontaneous self-discovery…

“When I’m up on stage, I improvise to avoid playing the same exact solo every night,” he says. “There may be certain licks here and there, but I prefer to just make it up and feel it. It’s better to not overthink it or place too much emphasis on perfection. That stuff can be a distraction. Sometimes us guitar players can get caught up in our heads. I just want to go out there, have fun and do my thing, you know?”

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Amit Sharma

Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences as a guitar player. He's worked for magazines like Kerrang!Metal HammerClassic RockProgRecord CollectorPlanet RockRhythm and Bass Player, as well as newspapers like Metro and The Independent, interviewing everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handled lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).