TUNING AND TECHNIQUE

It’s often stated that the secret of Albert King’s technique was that he was a left-hander playing a right-handed guitar. While basically true, this statement needs a little unpicking to discover its significance.

A right-handed guitarist will push the treble strings up towards the bass strings to bend them, as there’s physically more space available on the neck to do it. But if the very same guitar is flipped around, still strung for a right-handed guitarist, and played left-handed, bending the treble strings towards the bass strings will involve a completely different set of muscles in the (right) hand. It is a clenching action rather than a straightening one, and a much more powerful muscular movement – a clenched fist rather than an open palm. With that in mind, it’s no wonder Albert’s licks can sound so aggressive and so distinctive. Robert Cray believed nobody ‘could pull strings like Albert King, with all his fire and passion. A big-statured person like Albert King played a big-sounding guitar.’

The other ‘secret’ of King’s technique was that he developed his own eccentric tuning when teaching himself to play. This was a drop tuning (bass to treble): C F C F A D. His string gauges were also non-standard: .009, .012, .024, .028, .038, .050. The top two strings were light, the bottom three medium, but it is the extreme thickness of the wound third that immediately catches the eye. Albert’s playing style depended on huge finger strength which enabled him to bend strings up three or more semitones, sometimes clean out of the key in which he was playing. He was also a master of the ‘pre-bend’, where a string is bent before playing, then released after striking the string. This necessitates an intimate knowledge of the instrument, knowing just how far to bend the string before hearing the result. Talking of striking the strings, it is sometimes forgotten that Albert King never used a plectrum. Put all these unusual stylistic techniques together and you have all the ingredients that went into making a one-off phenomenon.

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