Red Writes about the Blues
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  Talkin' Blues Guitar
   Article Series by Lightning Red
Originally Published in the
Delta Snake Review Webzine
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Lightning Red and his series on the origins of the modern electric blues,
and the techniques and hardware used by the legends to get their unique sounds.
Part One: The Texas Sound

Many young players have asked me how I'm able to reproduce or generally simulate the sounds of such blues guitar legends as B.B.King Albert King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker or Stevie Ray Vaughan.

As I've learned by watching and listening to these and countless other great blues guitarists, I may be able to shed some light on a few of the mysteries surrounding the execution of this uniquely American art form.

Since I am most knowledgeable of modern electric guitar, this will be our primary focus. Future topics will cover modern player techniques, axes and equipment, blues tunings, string gauges, fingering techniques, string bending, new amplifier combinations, and whatever topics that may be of interest.

I welcome any input, suggestions, comments, etc. If you note an inaccuracy in anything you read, please let me know. All of us are continually learning.

Contents © 1999  Lightning Red

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Those who I would call the founders of the Chicago or Texas ensemble style electric or modern blues guitar each had a more-or-less favorite brand of guitar that they preferred. Each guitarist, no matter what instrument they chose for a particular recording session or performance, had a distinctive sound.

In some cases their unique audio imprint was due to the guitar/amplifier combination used, while in other instances the playing style was sufficient to determine their unique sound. Although I'm certainly not an expert on these matters, perhaps I can assist the beginning or intermediate-level blues guitarist to capture the sounds that form the foundation of modern blues.

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In this installment, I'll be discussing the origin of the Texas sound, with T-Bone Walker, and the three great Kings.


T-Bone Walker and the Texas Blues Sound:

Some of the first electric guitars were wide-bodied, semi-acoustics made by Gibson and Epiphone (a Gibson subsidiary, I believe). Although not considered a blues player, Charlie Christian is said to be the first to have used a wide-bodied archtop with a magnetic pickup.

T-Bone Walker, who credited Charlie Christian as a major influence, used a wide-bodied jazz-model guitar with "Humbucker" Pickups (except for the Fender guitar, nearly all others used Humbuckers - we'll touch on pickups as we go) The first guitar he recorded with was probably an Epiphone, or a Gibson.

Rather than holding the back of the guitar against his abdomen, (vertical) he held it nearly horizontal with the top of the body and against his abdomen. To help him accomplish this, his strap (the belt-like leather or cloth apparatus looped around the neck or over a shoulder that players use to hold the guitar in front of them) was attached at the foot or back end of the guitar, looped over one shoulder, and tied to the head at the end of the fret board. Perhaps that's why his licks sound so unique.

It's amazing to me that this set-up allowed him to gyrate and do leg splits during his performance, but it worked wonderfully for him. B.B.King, Freddie King and nearly every Texas blues guitarist credits him as a major influence. Like the guitar that he used, T-Bone Walker's style was largely jazz influenced; lightning fast runs occasionally interspersed with string bending. When I played with Milton Hopkins (B.B.King's bandleader for 12 years) in Houston, the T-Bone influence could easily be heard in Milton's wonderful jazzy-blues guitar playing.

If you want to hear where Texas blues originated, listen closely to T-Bone Walker. It's a very thick, clean sound that originated with the deep mid-range tonalities of Charlie Christian. I don't know what amp he used, but the rule is; If you guess a Fender, you're likely to be right. One can hear that the speakers are not being over-driven (pushing the volume up until the speakers begin to distort slightly) but the guitar sounds like it is at maximum volume. Because of this, it's a somewhat dry sound compared to the sustain and screaming sound used in progressively greater degrees by subsequent bluesmen.

Note: Most players will turn the amplifier to full volume and bring the guitar volume up until there's a slight harmonic distortion, a slight feedback, which allows the note to sustain, or continue to sound, for a longer period of time. Again this will be covered in more detail in upcoming articles.


B.B. King and the Single Note Style:

B.B.King's playing was also influenced by T-Bone Walker, but he credits Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker and the New York big bands of his youth as having greatly influenced him. Like Christian, B.B. worked had to make his guitar sound like a saxophone or horn. He wanted it to sing. And when you listen to B.B., you'll seldom hear a chord (several strings plucked simultaneously). He's often said that he doesn't sound good playing alone, or that he was ridiculed by his band members (especially Robert Lockwood Jr., his original 2nd guitarist, who I'd like to mention later) for having a bad sense of timing. But his meandering around the rigidity of the beat is what gives his guitar a voice, what makes it come to life.

In my mind, B.B. King invented the talking single note guitar style. He is the original master at bending the string upward (stretching the string by moving it across the fret) and probably also was the first to use the super fast vibrato exclusively (again shaking, repeatedly bending, the string across the fret). Mr. King learned well from the jazz, dance bands. Unlike Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield, who I'll get to eventually), B.B. easily shifts between blues scales (minor 3rd, minor 7th) and major scales. He does this so effortlessly that it's almost unnoticeable. When he throws in the bends and fast vibrato, his guitar is truly singing.

Every modern blues guitarist owes a great deal to B.B.King. I've not heard of or met one player who hasn't studied Mr. King for hours on end. (For me it was countless years, and I'm still learning). If you want to be a blues player, expect to do the same. Your style will never be complete without at least a basic knowledge of this master's many extraordinary techniques.

From the beginning, Riley Beal Street Blues Boy King played a hollow-bodied guitar with Humbucker pickups (or probably just one mounted on an archtop at first). Eventually he discovered the Gibson ES-345 (or ES-335 TD, or 345 TD) with a stop-tailpiece (again, something for later articles) and has stuck with it ever since. Gibson now makes a Black B.B.King model, but if you can find an early ES-345, buy it.

Note: I am not promoting guitar collecting or buying an axe as an investment. I believe a guitar should be a working tool--not a museum piece. Or perhaps I'm bitter because a replacement for my stolen 1959 ES-345 continues to be out of my financial reach.

This guitar is a hollow-body also, but is termed a thin-line. It is approximately one half as thick as a jazz-style guitar similar to that used by Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker (such as the Gibson L-5, Barney Kessel model, etc).

Unlike most blues guitarists, who tend toward heavier (thicker) strings, Mr. King uses a relatively light gauge set. I don't know what he prefers, but when I attempt some of his wizardry on my Fender Stratocaster (.011, .014, .018, .028, .038, .049 - standard tuning) it's nearly impossible, or somewhat awkward at the very least (again, we will cover string gauges in a future article). However when I used a lighter gauge on my long lost ES-345, I came much closer to recreating this blues giant's miraculous sound.

Several players have done a wonderful job of playing B.B.King's guitar licks on a Stratocaster, especially Jimmie Lee Vaughan on an early recording with the original Fabulous Thunderbirds. I don't recall the title, but Kim Wilson is also in top form as the vocalist. I've also heard a 1983 recording of Stevie Ray Vaughan performing some excellent B.B. King licks at Fitzgerald's in Houston. So it can be done on a Strat, although a Gibson 345, 347 or 335 makes it much easier.

Mr. King has used a countless variety of amplifiers during his career. He's able to get his signature sound no matter what amplifier might be placed on the stage. In the very early days one can hear a tone very similar to that of T-Bone Walker - clean and fat in the middle. But during the late 60's he began turning that amplifier WAY up. When you listen to "The Thrill Is Gone," notice how the guitar sometimes sustains with a singing quality. He has probably increased the amp volume, maybe to full, and set the guitar tone and volume controls about mid-way.

This gives him a full, rich sound with a good deal of overtones (natural harmonics, in this case caused by looping of the signal from the guitar pickups to the amplifier and back through the pickups, etc.). In some live video footage I've heard his guitar scream with feedback. Like Carlos Santana, using that pickup-amplifier-pickup loop to full advantage and making the note sustain, or continue sounding nearly indefinitely. Presently Mr. King has decreased the volume of his amp somewhat, but sometimes cranks it up (increases the volume) to get that sweet sustain.

I want to eventually talk about Muddy Waters so I can explain the Fender solid-body guitars, but let's first look at another of my favorite Texans.


Freddie King and the Slow Hand Sound:

An early promotional photograph of Freddie King shows him holding a solid-body Gibson Les Paul Gold-top with single coil Humbucker-style pickups. On the early instrumental recordings, one can hear a more direct, less rich sound. I don't know what other instruments he might have played, but eventually Freddie King discovered the Gibson ES-335. When I saw Eric Clapton performing "Tore Down" he used a 335 that looked exactly like the one Freddie King had at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival shortly before he died.

Freddie King learned when performing at the Fillmores and outdoor festivals that the kids liked it loud, and he accommodated them. He was making that Gibson scream. I can hear a heavier gauge set of strings being plucked by this big man's thumb (Freddie preferred not to use a pick), and I believe this contributed to his string-bending vibrato being much slower than B.B. King's.

However, on the early recordings it's obvious that the guitar volume is turned up while the amp is down. Even though the single coil pickups on his Les Paul did not have as rich a sound as does the 335, I still believe part of the deadness of his sound was attributable to a lowered volume on his amp. Since they were live recordings which included an acoustic piano, I'm sure the amp had to be kept low.

If you listen to just about any contemporary Texas blues guitarist (including myself), you'll hear a lot of Freddie King. Listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Pride And Joy" when it first goes to the fifth chord turnaround. That descending G-E-D-B-A-G-E, etc. run is classic Freddie King. As well as are countless vibrato moves throughout his music. Eric Clapton cites Freddie King as a primary influence. This Texas legend is probably responsible for Mr. Clapton's perfection of the slowhand technique in which the vibrato sound is accomplished by moving the string across the fret board in an easy flow.

In my opinion, Freddie was one of the first blues players to really feel the funk, to put a lot of syncopation into his artistry. He was a major influence on just about every second generation blues guitarist, and I highly recommend you sit down with a complete collection of his music and go to work. Because his 335 did not have a stop-tailpiece as did B.B.'s, Freddie used longer and/or a fairly heavy gauge of strings which contributed to his slowhand vibrato technique.


Albert King and the Flying V Sound:

Albert King was another blues great who preferred the deep, sustaining tones of the Gibson Humbucker pickups. Unlike B.B. and Freddie, Albert was never without his solid-bodied Gibson Flying V. With an aerodynamic shape that was eventually to be introduced as the military's Flying Wing, this guitar was truly ahead of its time. With the possible exception of Bo Diddley's rectangular shaped solid-body, Albert King's guitar was the one that stood out from the crowd, the one that immediately caught the attention of his new young sixties audience. Every so often I see a player using one, but be cautioned -- don't expect to sit down to practice!

The exquisitely sparse combination of licks that flew off from this blues great's fingers will always captivate me. This giant of a man could do more with four notes than most players can do with one hundred and sixty. The amount of deep soulful feeling that he coaxed from his futuristic axe was miraculous. With just the skin on his thumb (he never used a pick) Albert King could speak eloquently and personally to every generation of blues enthusiast. Everyone wanted to sit-in, to perform alongside Albert, but he didn't like to have some young kid messing up the flow of his message. The more notes someone played, the less respect he gave them.

His deep, wide sound even on the higher strings suggest that Albert King used fairly heavy-guage strings. I'm not sure if he tuned-down (loosened the strings to make them more flexible) as is usually done with very thick strings, but I believe his Flying V with two standard Humbucking pickups had a V-shaped top tailpiece that sat immediately behind the bridge and allowed for increased string flexibility.

Most of his signature licks (note runs) were done on the fourth and fifth strings (usually the G and B) in the G blues position which places the highest fixed note on the B string at the thirteenth fret. The runs at the conclusion of a twelve bar phrase were usually played with the lowest notes on the third fret and the highest on the sixth. Albert was also a master of the slow vibrato, in his case, extremely slow. And although he would occasionally play blindingly fast, those long sustaining screams he did by pushing the B string up at the thirteenth fret are the ones that really do it for me.

 

ciao for now,
Red

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Lightning Red has been playing blues guitar for over 40 years. Although he credits Luther Allison with showing him some "serious licks", he also cites B.B.King and Buddy Guy as major influences. After moving from the Chicago area to Austin, Texas in the mid-seventies, Red began absorbing the state's rich blues heritage and was a favorite of Houston legends Joe ‘Guitar’ Hughes and Milton Hopkins. When Jimmie Lee, Kim Wilson and Stevie Ray Vaughan were unknown club performers honing their craft, Red was there listening closely and witnessed their rocky rise to stardom.

He also performed locally and played on stage with W.C. Clark, Omar, and "little" Charlie Sexton, Marcia Ball, Willie Nelson and a host of legends. His music has an original sound and is a blend of Chicago and Texas – Texicago blues. Red tours the world with the acclaimed acoustic duo LZ Love & Lightning Red, and with his own electric band. Often seen performing at blues festivals, he gets accolades and widespread airplay for his songs and legendary guitar skills.

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