A Flying V pioneer who inspired Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Albert King was king of the blues – find out why with this lesson in his vocal playing style

Albert King
(Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Not many players earn the title ‘king of the blues’, but then not many players have been as influential as the great Albert King. One of the leading players of his generation alongside fellow blues Kings, BB and Freddie, Albert was central to the ’60s wave of electric blues.

Without Albert and his fellow bluesmen, B.B. and Freddie, we wouldn’t have many of the household names we know today. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan were all admirers of Albert’s work, and that’s just to name a few.

But what was it about Albert that inspired a whole generation of now legendary players? With regard to his guitar playing, it was his wonderful vocal quality, singing sustain, expressive vibrato and powerful string bending. Albert favoured huge bends, often pushing strings a tone-and-a-half to create those screaming, crying notes.

Although his early work was of a traditional nature, Albert eagerly embraced the sound of funk and in 1972 released I’ll Play The Blues For You, with Stax Records. A collection of beautiful, soulful tunes, Albert blends his blues sound with gospel and funk orchestration, giving him a hip and contemporary sound, while keeping his distinctive blues guitar style to the fore.

Albert was famous for his use of Gibson’s Flying V, now probably more commonly associated with heavy metal guitarists, but Albert popularised its bold and distinctive shape way before the high-gain tones of Metallica, Michael Schenker and the like.

Part of Albert’s unique bending style was down to the unusual tuning he favoured. Reports vary on how he tuned his guitar, but Steve Cropper is reported to have said that Albert tuned C-B-E-F#-B -E  (low to high) during the ’60s Stax Sessions. Luthier Dan Erlewine has said C-F-C-F-A-D. However, you’ll be pleased to learn that our two studies are in standard tuning! 

Aside from his unorthodox tuning approach and distinctive bending style, Albert had a wonderfully rich musical vocabulary with a distinctively raw, driving tone. His sound was much more aggressive than that of his contemporaries and his gnarly tone is evident even on his earliest records (check out the track Cold Feet). 

Our two studies show one example of Albert’s guitar style in the traditional blues context, and one on a funkier piece. Both studies focus on his use of bending, leaving space and using thematic ideas as a basis for improvisation.

To get the most out of these studies, take these licks and phrases and try moving them through all the positions of the major and minor pentatonic scales to see how many different permutations you can achieve from this small collection of ideas. This is a great way of using Albert’s style as a springboard for inspiration and to broaden your own palette of ideas. Enjoy! 

Get the tone

Amp Settings: Gain 6, Bass 5, Middle 4, Treble 6, Reverb 2

Albert used various Flying V electric guitars with humbuckers. There is some debate about whether different wiring gave his sound that nasal, out-of-phase quality. Any low to medium output instrument will do the job nicely. But if your guitar is quite mid heavy, compensate by scooping the mids to help re-create his ‘hollow’ sound. Add light drive and minimal reverb.

Solo 1. Blues in A

This study hinges around the major pentatonic scale with the occasional b3 and b7 thrown in. Traditional blues generally drew from major scale tonalities and it was the inclusion of minor intervals, often hinted at with microtonal bending, that gave the blues its sound. 

Approach these pieces with this mindset and the phrases will start to reveal more melodic options as you adapt them into your own playing. To get the right feel will take practice.

Solo 2. Funky blues in E

This study focuses more on the minor pentatonic tonality in a funky major blues setting. Make note of the inclusion of the major 6 interval (C#) over the IV chord from bar 8. 

This note then functions as the major 3rd of the chord, helping the listener hear a more melodic narrative through the chord changes. While fairly simple from a harmonic point of view, this is a highly effective move and wonderfully pleasing to the ear. Again, getting the correct feel will take practice.

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Phil Short

Phil Short is a sought-after guitarist from the UK. A stadium player, Phil is well known for his technically accomplished guitar style and has showcased his talent touring with Irish boyband Westlife. As well as touring, Phil has been a visiting lecturer at BIMM London since 2017, teaching performance, technique and improvisational skills to the next generation of guitarists. Phil is a monthly contributor for Guitar Techniques magazine, writing the blues column as well as video features on iconic rock legends.