The Three Kings Of Blues

Albert, B.B. and Freddie King

We all know that EC’s Blues playing is a mixture of styles borrowed from different Blues artists, melted together and modified until it became his own style. Sooner or later most guitar players start to discover the roots, the original Blues greats. Among them we have three Kings – Albert, B.B. and Freddie King (there’s another King, Earl (Johnson) King, but although being an excellent guitar player his influence on other guitar players wasn’t in the same league). All of them had a major impact on EC’s playing: during Cream you can clearly hear Albert King with his extreme bends, with Derek And The Dominoes you hear the raw aggressive energy of Freddie King, and later on you’ll find a fluid melodic phrasing a la B.B. King.

Albert King

“Thirty percent of what Stevie [Ray Vaughan] played, he owed to Albert King. He was as good as you get, but he borrowed everthing from Albert King – in a great way.”

“Albert King, too, was so nice. They [Albert King and Muddy Waters] were just like family.”
– Clifford Antone on Livin’ And Lovin’ The Blues [1]

Albert King

We start with A like Albert
Born Albert Nelson in Indianola, Mississippi (like B.B. King, but no relationship) on April 25, 1923, he learned guitar playing on a homemade instrument, a cigar box with strings put on, he also played a one-string barn door guitar in his early days. Completely self-taught, it’s no wonder why he played the guitar completely different than all other guitarists: he played left-handed (like Jimi Hendrix), but used a standard (right handed) guitar without restringing it, just upside down, so the high E-string was on the top. He also used some very special tunings and tried to keep them secret, most likely an E minor open tuning (C-B-E-G-B-E), tuned down three steps, allowing him his most remarkable technique: extreme bends (up to four semitones), wringing the tone out of his guitar. He also used a wound G-string, making it harder to get that tone on a standard string guitar. He was the opposite of a “shredder”: the personification of Blues at it’s best. Using his bare fingers instead of a pick he could make his guitar crying. No fast runs, just a few notes, but played with ultimate intensity, pure blues feeling.

Albert King started his musical career as a child singing in a local gospel choir (his mother, Mary Blevins, was a church singer and his stepfather Will Nelson itinerant preacher), later with the “Harmony Kings”. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson and other Blues artists turned him to the Blues. He played for a night club house band, the Groove Boys, and later joined a band with Jimmy Reed and John Brim. Both played guitar, so Albert switched to the drums. He changed his name to Albert King (after hearing B.B. King’s Three O’ Clock Blues) and met Willie Dixon. With his help Albert started his solo career in small steps, playing here and there and improving his guitar playing.

“You got to get in your mind what you want to play. You’ve got to take your time and learn your bag one lick at a time. And take your time in your delivery.”
“I rehearsed to myself for five years before I played with another soul.” – Albert King

In 1966 he signed for Stax Records, a big deal for him. Laundromat Blues (1966), Crosscut Saw (1967) and the ever-famous Born Under a Bad Sign (1967), played with the Stax’s house band Booker T. & the MG’s, were among the most influential Blues songs in the 60’s, covered and copied by many artists and groups like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Cream. Cream’s Strange Brew is nothing else than a variation of King’s Oh, Pretty Woman. King’s first singles were released on the Album “Born Under a Bad Sign”, still one of the best Blues records ever. His guitar called Lucy was a Gibson Flying “V”, at first an original one (they were build from 1957 to 1959), later some custom made instruments. He played the Blues on it with an unmatched authority.

He kept on recording and touring until his death from a heart attack in 1992. Among his records is the masterpiece I’ll Play The Blues With You as well as a Tribute to Elvis. He played with B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, who assimilated many of Albert’s signature licks. His concerts at Fillmore are legend, he also played several gigs in Europe.

“He was a huge, immense man, and his hands would just dwarf his Flying V guitar. He played with his thumb, and he played horizontally—across the fingerboard, as opposed to vertically. And he approached lead playing more vocally than any guitar player I ever heard in my life; he plays exactly like a singer. As a matter of fact, his guitar playing has almost more of a vocal range than his voice does—which is unusual, because if you look at B.B. or Freddie King or Buddy Guy, their singing is almost equal to their guitar playing. They sing real high falsetto notes, then drop down into the mid-register. Albert just sings in one sort of very mellifluous but monotonous register, with a crooner’s vibrato, almost like a lounge singer, but his guitar playing is just as vocal as possible… He makes the guitar talk.”
– Mike Bloomfield about Albert King, interview with Dan Forte of Guitar Player magazine

Albert King was a really big guy (6’4″, 250 pounds) called “velvet bulldozer”, he was a bulldozer driver in his early years as a musician. A very humble person with a smooth voice.

I’ll discuss two songs from different eras: Born Under a Bad Sign and I’ll play the Blues For You. You can hear it on the original recordings as well as on various samplers. If you have problems with the extreme bends, sometimes up to four semitones, tune your guitar down a half or full step or use extra light strings. You can also slide into the notes, but this gives another sound. Fender players need stronger fingers for the bends because of the longer neck and the resulting higher string tension than Gibson players. However, Stevie Ray Vaughan played heavy strings and was able to copy Albert’s licks by tuning down his Fender Strat a half step. Now, cut your nails and play…

Born Under a Bad Sign

His first big hit has been covered by many artists, including Cream, EC copied a lot of Albert’s riffs and licks. Listen to the solo of Cream’s Strange Brew – it is nothing more than a note-for-note copy of an Albert King solo!

Written by Booker T. Jones and William Bell Born Under a Bad Sign is a 12 bar minor Blues in the key of C# (the Cream version from the Wheels Of Fire – album is nearly a note-for-note copy in G). For most of the licks you can use the Blues pattern at the 9th fret.

The intro (bass) riff and the first licks go (as always in standard tuning) like

I--------------------------I---------------9--------------------------------I-------12------------------I
I--------------------------I-12b(14)~~~------12-9---------------------------I-12-14----14~~-------------I
I--------------------------I----------------------11b(12)-11-9----9~~-------I---------------Born...-----I
I---------2----------------I-----------------------------------11-----11-11-I---------------------------I
I-----2-4---4--------------I------------------------------------------------I---------------------------I
I-2-4-------root note C#---I----This is the main lick throughout the song---I---------------------------I
0:00

I---------------------9---------------------------------------------------------------------9\----------I
I----------12b(14)~~----12-9----------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I----------------------------12------------------------------11b(12)-11-9-------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------11~~---...own...--------------I
I-...crawl-------------------------(...)-..only friend...-----------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
0:15                                                        0:32                            0:34

Most licks fall into this pattern and are easy to find out, but hard to play with that tone. At 1:30 we have some nice licks:

I---14b(16)-------12-14-14b(16)rb14---------14b(16)-------12b(13)b(14)-12-9~---12-9---------------------I
I-----------14~~----------------------ouw!-----------14~~----------------------------you know...--------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
1:30

With this licks you can go through the song. Playing the notes is not hard, but once again – getting this tone using the bare meat of your fingers is the challenge.

I’ll Play The Blues For You

This is the live version from the Blues At Sunrise album, and it’s pure genius. He sings, talks, and after a humble “Excuse me!” he lets his guitar talk. The album was recorded 1973 in Switzerland at the Montreux Jazz Festival (… the crowd was fantastic. Man, I felt like a boy again.). Jerry Beach, an Grammy-nominated writer and member of the LA Music Hall Of Fame composed this song for Albert. The key is G minor, the main riff is a variation of the Born Under A Bad Sign – riff from above. You can use the G minor pentatonic at the 3rd fret. The chords are a bit different from the 12 bar scheme. The main chord is G minor (I), we also have Cm (IV) and Dm (V), but also the relative major chord of Gm, which is Bb. Using the F major/minor barre chord fingering it’s on the fret 3 (Gm), 6 (Bb), 8 (Cm) and 10 (Dm). The chord sequence is Gm – Cm – Gm – Bb – Dm – Cm – Gm, you can also play them as 7th or even 9th chords.

He opening horn section and first licks:

I-----------------------------------------------------------------------3-------------------------6-3~--I
I---horns....-------------------------------------------------------------3-----------------------------I
I-------------------------------------if you're-...-out---5b(6)-5-3---------5-3---3b-----..over..-------I
I--------3----------------------------------------------------------5~~---------5----5-5----------------I
I------5----5-3-5--3---3--------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I--3-5---------------5----5-3-5-3-1-3-----------------------------------The main lick-------------------I
0:00

I-----------3-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------3-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-I were ..-----5-3---3b-------same lick after-------...afraid---5b(6)-5-3~~----------------------------I
I-------------------5----5~~---the Blues for you...-----------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
0:28

We’ll continue using these licks until Albert King starts talking about loneliness, then singing another verse. At 3:16 (excuse me!) his guitar takes over:

I--8b(10)-6-----6-8-8b(10)-6----------8(b)10-6-------6-8b(10)-----------8b(10)-6--------6b(9)-6b(8)-----I
I-----------8~~-----------------hmmm-----------8~~-8------------wouuu------------8~~-8------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------hard to bend----I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------otherwise slide-I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
 3:17

I-6---6---6-8--8b(10)-8b(10)-8b(9)-6---6-------------6-8-8b(10)rb8-8b(9)rb8-8b(10)-8b(9)-6--------------I
I---8--------------------------------8---8--8\-----8---------------------------------------8~-----------I
I--------------------------------------------------------listen to the bends!---------------------------I
I--------------------------------------------------------(hard to tab...)-------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
3:30

I----------------------------6-8b(9)-6b(7)---6\---------------6-8b(9)-8b(9)-6b(7)-6b(7)-6b(7)-6p3-6-----I
I--6-3-------------------8-8---------------8------hmmm-/7-7-7----listen carefully-----------------------I
I------5b(6)rb5-3-----/7--------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-----------------5-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
3:40

I--6b(8)-6~~---3----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I----------------6-3----------------------------------3~~~-------------------------8b(9)-8b(9)rb8-6b(7)-I
I--------------------5b(7)-5-3---3~~~----------------------5b(6)-5-3-5p3---3----------------------------I
I------------------------------5------5----------------------------------5---5--------------------------I
I---------------------------------------5--/4b(5)-5-5--------------------------5------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
3:51

I----3--------------------------------6-----------------------------------------------------------------I
I------6-3---------------------/8-8-8---8~~~--------6-8b(9)-8-6-8---8---8-------------------------------I
I-6--------5b(7)-5-3---3~~----------------------7-7---------------7---7---5b(7)--5-3-5-3---3---5b(7)----I
I--------------------5-----5-------------------------------------------------------------5--------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
4:09

I------6-3-----------3----------------------------------------3-----------8b(10)-8b(9)--6---------------I
I-3--------3-6b(8)~~---3-6-3-------3----------------------------3-6b(8)-8-----------------8~~-8~~-------I
I---5------------------------5b(7)---5b(6)rb(5)----3----5b(7)-------------------------------------------I
I------------------------------------------------5---5--------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
4:20

I-8b(10)-6b(8)------------6b(8)-3-6~~~--3\--------------------------------------------------------------I
I---------------8~~--8~~-------------------------------------------------------3------------------------I
I----------------------------------------------5b(6)~~--3-------horns--5b(6)-5---5-3~~------------------I
I----------------------------------------------------------------------soft-----------------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------5-5-------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
4:30

I-------------------------------------------------------------8b(10)-6~~~----6--------------------------I
I--6b(8)-3-6-6---------------------------------------6/8-8-8---------------8---8~~----------------------I
I--------------7b(8)rb(7)-5-3b---3b-5b(6)rb(5)-3~~------------------------------------...---------------I
I------------------------------5------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
4:44

…and continued all this way. His guitar get’s a bit out of tune, and some bends are hard to play on a standard guitar. However, it’s a great song to play and jam to, getting some of Albert often copied Blues licks – and some SRV licks, too.

B.B. King

When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille.
– B.B. King

Next letter – B, so we’re talking about the more or less “official” King of the Blues: Riley B. “Blues Boy” (B.B.) King. He was born September 16, 1925 on a cotton plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi, a small town 20 miles east of Indianola. His parents, Albert King (again: not the Blues artist from above, no relationship) and Nora Ella King were sharecropping farmers who named their son after Riley King, his uncle. When Riley was only four years old, his mother left his father for another man and moved home to near Kilmichael, Mississippi. Most of the time Riley spent with his grandmother, Elnora Farr.

As often Riley’s first musical experiences started in a church. The preacher, Archie Fair, the brother-in-law of Riley’s maternal uncle William Pullinan, played guitar and showed Riley the first chords. His voice already was well trained and powerful from singing in the gospel choir. He also got the first contacts to the Blues at his Great Aunt Mima’s house. Aunt Mima played Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson records on the Victrola (a simple phonograph) and listened to the Blues radio at her house. Bukka White, a well known Blues artist and his mother’s cousin, visited his family often and played some songs.

Riley was nine years old when his mother died at age of 25, so his father Albert asked him to live with him and his family in Lexington. Riley decided to stay in Kilmichael, his known environment with school and gospel choir, but five years later his grandmother also died. Being alone, he tried to live in the old cabin of his grandmother, farming one acre of land for cotton crop – at the age of fourteen. After less than a year he had to move to his father in Lexington.

He spent two years with his father, but never got familiar to this environment. At age of sixteen he went back home to Kilmichael, working on the fields for the (white) Flake Cartledge family (who loaned him the money for his first guitar), visiting school and his gospel choir again until he felt that is was time to change.

With his cousin Birkett he took a car and went to Indianola. He was able to get a job as a sharecropper and tractor driver for Johnson Barrett, joined a singing group (The Famous St. John’s Gospel Singers) where he played the guitar and played the Blues on the streets of Indianola. More and more the Blues became his major occupation, he soon found out that he could make money with it. In 1944, he married his first wife Martha Denton , an advise from Johnson Barrett to avoid military service.

In 1946 he crashed Denton’s tractor, so with a vew dollars in his pocket he headed to Memphis, searching for his cousin Bukka White. Bukka showed him how to really play the Blues and Riley was able to jam with other Memphis Blues artists. In 1947 he spent one last year on a farm back in Indianola, getting back to his wife and working as tractor driver and sharecropper to pay his debts to Johnson Barrett. In 1948 he took his wife and moved to Memphis again starting his career as a professional musician.

His first public appearance as a Blues artist to a big audience was his playing at the Sonny Boy Williamson radio show on KWEM. It was a big success and led to steady engagements at the Sixteenth Avenue Grill (West Memphis) and to a ten minute radio spot on the Black owned radio station, WDIA. This little spot was advertising a health tonic named Pepticon, the competitor for the tonic Hadacol, which was promoted by Sonny Boy Williamson on KWEM. Riley could play his guitar and sing anything he liked, as long as he promoted Pepticon. The jingle was:

Pepticon, Pepticon, sure is good – You can get it anywhere in your neighborhood

So Riley became the Pepticon man. The ad again was a success and Riley became a DJ of his own radio show. In search for a more concise name he called himself Beale Street Blues Boy (Beale Street was the center of Blues in Memphis), later he changed it to Blues Boy King, and finally – B.B. King. He started his first recordings in 1949, which were only popular in Memphis. In 1951 he released the Lowell Fulson hit Three O’Clock Blues which entered the Billboard R&B record charts. 1952 it was the number one – for 15 weeks. He started touring and got a new contract with Universal Artists in New York. One year later he got divorced from his wife.

B.B. King's Blues Club and Grill

He continued touring, and in the year 1956 he played 342 concerts all over the states, with 55 persons on the road using an old Greyhound bus named Big Red. One day (some sources say it was in 1949, other during the 50’s) he played in a small dance hall in Twist, Arkansas, when two men got into a fight over a woman who today is known only as Lucille. Words and threats soon developed into punches, and as these two men were fighting, they knocked a kerosene lamp, and the place caught on fire. Everyone immediately escaped the fire, but B. B. realized he had left his guitar inside. He went back to get it and barely escaped the fire. Later when he heard the incident was caused by a lady named Lucille, he named his acoustic Gibson guitar Lucille.

During the mid-60’s the Blues became more popular among the white American people, with events like Newport Folk Festival, where the original blues artists like Son House played for a white audience. White guitar players like Mike Bloomfield (and Eric Clapton in the UK) cited B.B. King and other Blues Greats as their major influence. B.B. King started to play in jazz clubs or Rock festivals like Fillmore East as well as in concert halls. He appeared on TV shows and played with many other artists, even with pop/rock bands like U2, and toured all over the world. B.B. died on May 14, 2015 at the age of 89 after suffering from diabetes for many years.

B.B. has played many different guitars throughout his career. Starting with acoustic Martin guitars, he played a Fender Telecaster during his recordings for RPM before he got into Gibson guitars. His most famous guitars among a variety of models he played belongs to the ES (electro-Spanish) series. The basic model is the ES-335 (Clapton played one during his Cream era) and the ES 345 and 355 are variations having stereo wiring. In 1981 Gibson released “Lucille” as a B.B. King signature model. For his 80th birthday Gibson released a special ES-355 Lucille model with an engraved pick-guard with BB King signature & crown logo and perfect finish. The Lucille models don’t have sound-holes (f-holes).

B.B. King’s guitar playing style is widely analyzed and described, his single note runs and fluid phrasing influenced generations of guitarists. He uses the minor Blues scale and adds notes from the major scale resulting in a kind of mixolydian scale – pretty much the same as Eric Clapton. He plays a lot of small tasty bends, usually not more than over one or two semitones (in opposite to Albert King). He is well known for his “hummingbird” vibrato, a fast, intense wrist vibrato with only the finger touching the neck. B.B. doesn’t use many effects, his tone is always warm and a little overdriven. His amp is often a (discontinued) Gibson Lab Series amplifier, a 2×12 combo.

King: I do what we call whole notes. Have you ever heard of them?
St. James: Yes.
King: For example, if you’re in the key of C…I think in terms of the chord. If you play an F chord, you think in terms of what C would be in the F chord. And you think of…many of the chords you might use, you find one of the notes that’s within that chord, even though you don’t play the chord. But the note will blend into it. That’s what I do.
St. James: So you’ll hold on a certain note.
King: I’ll cheat.
St. James: Cheat? That’s not cheatin’, that’s doin’ it.
King: Well, you can call it what you want. But I should be able to play the whole chord, which I’m not good at. So, I’ve found that if you take and play whatever you’re playing, a whole note, if you hold that note, whichever…most of the notes that you might play, that’s why people that call themselves jazz musicians are much better than we are, because they know the progressions. And the reason I mention the chord C is because you don’t have any accidentals in it. So if you want to make a dominant 7th, you would say C, E, G, B-flat. But the C still would work, even in B-flat, because it’s the second or the ninth. So anyway you look at it, you get a good whole note buddy, and hold on to that one. And when you can get your mind straight and start thinkin’, ‘Oh, they’re back in the tonic key now.’ And then you can put your little stuff there. That’s the way I look at it.
– B.B: King, interview with Adam St. James: from guitar.com

The Thrill Is Gone (original release from the album Completely Well, 1969)

“It was such a great groove. Hypnotic and infectious and so damn cool. It was the last track of the last session of the album [which took a total of three days to record] and it was the perfect way to end it.”
– Bill Szymczyk, producer of “The Thrill Is Gone” [Dan Daley]

His divorce with his wife Sue King in 1966, after eight years of marriage (he never married again), inspired B.B. him to record this song in 1969, written by Rick Darnell and Roy Hawkins in 1951. First recorded by the author, Hawkins, it wasn’t very popular, although B.B. played it when he was a DJ at WDIA. When it was released on the album Completely Well in 1970 the song became B.B. Kings biggest hit and signature song.

The original recording (it was released several times later, from live concerts as well as duets with artists like Tracy Chapman) contained a string arrangement, which was something new back then. It was first recorded with a little band of young black and white musicians (Herbie Lovelle on drums, Gerald Jemmott on bass, Paul Harris on keyboards and Hugh McCracken on guitar), when producer Bill Szymczyk had the idea of putting strings on it to adapt it better to a white audience. He recorded it with a 12-piece string section and asked B.B. if it would be okay. It was. The song went to No. 14 on the American pop charts. On his 80th anniversary all-star album he also played this song with Eric Clapton.

The Thrill Is Gone is basically a minor 12 bar Blues. B.B. has played it in different keys, live it’s often in Am, while the original studio version is in B minor. The chord progression is a variation of the common 12 bar scheme and looks like:

Bm – Bm – Bm – Bm
Em – Em – Bm – Bm
Gmaj7 – F#(#9) – Bm – Bm/F#(#9)

The usual I-IV-V progression for a minor Blues in B would be Bm (I – tonic) – Em (IV – subdominant) and F#m (V – dominant), or the minor 7th of these chords.

In this case the 9th and 10th bar is different. Instead of V-IV we have VI-V (in a major flavor), resulting in a very strong change. F#(#9) (V) is written this way because one # is to raise the F and one to tell that it’s a 7thsharp9th (“Hendrix”) chord. Use a chord finger set so that the I (Bm) at the 7th fret is the lowest position.

For the solo guitar we use the first two patterns of the B Blues scale starting at the 7th fret. A comfortable box for most players including some major notes in parenthesis is:

I-----7---(9)-10------12-...19\--I
I-----7-------10-(11)-12---------I
I-(6)-7---9-------11-------------I
I-----7---9----------------------I
I-----7---9----------------------I
I--------------------------------I
Now let’s take a look at the intro:
I--7~~~~-7---10b-7------------------------------------------------10b(12)-12-10-7----10-11-12-12b-12----I
I-------------------10-----------------------------------10-12--------------------12--------------------I
I--root----------------9b(10)-7-7-9---7-------7-9/11~~~-------------------------------------------------I
I--note-----------------------------9---9-9~~-----------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
0:00

I-11b(12)-10------------10h12-12-10-----------12-12b(14)rb12-10h12-10b----10b-------10b-----------------I
I------------12~~---12--------------12-12~~----------------------------12-----12-12-----12--------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Thrill...-I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
0:18

During the vocals you can play something like

I---7/9\7--I
I---7/9\7--I
I---7/9\7--I
I----------I
I----------I
I----------I

The first solo (better: “guitar verse” as he continues to sing using his guitar) starts at 1:38 min and contains mainly the same theme. The songs end with a lyrical solo like:

I---------------------10------10-12-12b(14)-10-12----12b(14)--(14)rb12p10-12-12b(14)--10----------10----I
I-----12-12-12-12~~~-------12---------------------12-------------------------------------12~~--12-------I
I--11---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
3:13

I--12b(14)rb12p10-12-12-10-10-------------------------------7-7--10-10-9--9b(10)rb9p7-7---------7-10-7--I
I-----------------------------12~~-------12-10------------7-----------------------------7--7-10---------I
I------------------------------------11--------9/11-----------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
3:28

I---------------------------7----7----12b(14)rb12p10-12---------10-12-12b(14)rb12p10-12-12b(14)~~~------I
I-10-7--------------------7----7------------------------12\--12-----------------------------------------I
I------9b(10)rb9------7-9-------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I----------------9--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
3:42

I---10b-7-7\----19-19-19-19-19-19-19-19\-----I
I--------------------------------------------I
I---------------Root note--------------------I
I---------------Signature lick-----------...-I
I--------------------------------------------I
I--------------------------------------------I
3:56

It’s played all this way while the song fades out. As you can see, it’s possible to create a feeling you would die for with just a few notes. No exotic scales, no chromatic runs, just a minor pentatonic scale with a few major notes, tasteful bends and a great vibrato. That’s all you need to make a Blues cry…

Freddie King

Up all night with Freddie King, got to tell you poker’s his thing.
– We’re an American band, song by Grand Funk Railroad

Finally, we have Freddie King. Born in Gilmer, Texas on September 3, 1934 his real name was Frederick Christian (not Billy Myles!). His mother, Ella May King (again no relationship to the other Kings…) supported the musical interests of her son as well as his uncle, so he started playing guitar when he was just six years old. His heroes where Sam “Lightnin” Hopkins (credited for the down home thumb-finger picking) and the jump blues saxophonist Louis Jordan, Freddie learned to play Louis’ records note-for-note on his guitar.

1949 he moved with his family to Chicago, after finishing high school. In Chicago he came round the Blues bars, seeing Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson and all these legends play. At the age of 16 he started playing in the clubs and met Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Eddie Taylor showed him how to use the a metal index finger pick and a plastic thumb pick instead of the common flat pick.

The black Blues fans were very loyal to the style of B.B. King. My father carved out a major niche with the white fans. It just happened. It wasn’t intentional. It just took the young white fans by storm.

Whenever he would compete on the stage with anyone, it was like High Noon.
– Freddie King’s daughter Wanda King, liner notes to Live At The Electric Ballroom

Like many other Blues artists, he worked hard in a steel mill by day and played his gig at night. He got married to Jessie Burnett (from Texas) and made his first recordings for Parrot and El-Bee records. Freddie auditioned several times for Chess records (THE Chicago Blues label at that time), but got always rejected.

1959 he met the pianist Sonny Thompson, who worked for the Federal label, a subsidiary of Syd Nathan’s King Records (James Brown, Johnny Guitar Watson, Memphis Slim, John Lee Hooker,…). One year later he signed with that label and released his first 45: You’ve Got to Love Her With Feeling, followed 1961 by a single (Ferderal 12401) with two of the biggest Blues classics ever (and an EC favorite, too): I love A Woman also known as Have You Ever Loved A Woman and the instrumental Hide Away (or Hideaway, named after a famous Bar in Chicago). With Hide Away King was the first blues artist registering a hit on the pop charts. More instrumentals followed, in the beginning 60’s Freddie was among the best selling Blues artist in the USA.

His first album was the 1961 release Freddy King Sings, followed one year later by Let’s Hide Away and Dance Away With Freddy King: Strictly Instrumental. After some more albums with the Federal label, he signed 1968 with the Atlantic subsidiary, Cotillion Records. After two records produced by King Curtis he signed with Shelter records in 1969 and released three albums, all of them sold well. In 1974, he signed a contract with RSO Records and he released Burglar, produced and recorded by – Eric Clapton, who was also recording for this label. EC and his band played rhythm on some tracks, Freddie plays the solo guitar alone. Freddie loved to play poker with Eric and his band mates:

“Duchess Henderson still has her poker hand from one of Freddie’s poker games with me, Bugs Henderson, Eric Clapton, Freddie and a couple of other guys. I think Freddie won a couple of thousand dollars off Eric that night. Clapton didn’t even know to play poker. He was just having a good time playing with Freddie. He’d stay in on any hand. Freddie kind of cleaned him out. Freddie came up to me afterwards and said, “Those tea bags can’t play cards worth a damn!” Eric didn’t mind, he had a good time anyway.”
– Jack Calmes, Freddie King’s manager, on the CD cover of FK’s “live at the electric ballroom, 1974”

That year, two years before his death being only 42 years old, he also recorded his album Live At The Electric Ballroom (Atlanta, Georgia), containing interesting interview snippets with the Dallas DJ Jon Dillon and the only acoustic performances caught on tape. I’ll discuss a song from this album, which was released 1996.

Single

Freddie started his first recordings playing a 1954 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop with P-90 pickups, which inspired Clapton to get one, although it wasn’t produced anymore until EC came up with it. Later Freddie switched to Gibson ES-335, Es-345 and ES-355 with Varitone-switch and Vibrola-tremolo. Sometimes he also played a Firebird.

What’s so special about Freddie King? He played with a thumb and an index finger steel pick and put his guitar strap on his right shoulder. He melted rock music elements into the Chicago/Texas mixture Blues. He was an aggressive performer, on stage he was the hard working Texas Cannonball. Let’s see, why.

Live At The Electric Ballroom

(…) Freddie King smiled at me as I approached him. His hair was still styled in a perfect processed pompadour and he wore a dark sharkskin suit. As he reached down to gently shake my small nervous hand, I stuttered something about how many times I’d seen him and how great a guitarist I though he was. He thanked me, and then I asked him who Billy Myles was. “Was he another great guitarist I should listen to?”
Freddie King started laughing and looked at his band member and said, “Can you believe this boy asking me about old Billy Myles.” I felt embarrassed and apologized for asking such an apparently stupid question. Then Freddie King said something I’ll always treasure.
“It’s not a stupid question, son.” He said. “Billy Myles was a friend of mine who wrote some songs for me. He was my friend just like you’re my friend.” I walked away on cloud nine. (…)
– Dave Alvin, from the liner notes for FREDDIE KING: LIVE AT THE ELECTRIC BALLROOM 1974

Why did I choose this album? Released about 20 years after his death, it shows all aspects of the late Freddie King live in concert. With That’s Alright and Dust My Broom it includes the only two unplugged songs ever released. Although he claimed “I’m not an acoustic guitar player!” he showed that he was a complete guitarist, mastering both acoustic and raw electric Blues. The album includes interesting liner notes from his daughter, his manager, band mates and even Johnny Copeland (during a gig Freddie went on stage and took Johnny’s guitar to play!), another Blues giant. It’s a fun to read all those little stories, even the “tea bag” Clapton gets his comments.

Let’s take a look at King’s version of Bessie Smith’s classic Ain’t Nobody’s Business (Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness), which was also the encore song of Clapton Nothing But The Blues tour 1994/95. Composed by Grainger and Robbins it is not a typical standard Blues, strictly speaking it hasn’t much of a Blues form, similar to Nobody knows you, a 16 bar Blues with chord changes that don’t fit into the I-IV-V standard. Bessie Smith recorded it back in April 1923 on Columbia, another different version was recorded in 1928 by Frank Stokes. More popular is Jimmy Witherspoon’s version from 1949.

As mentioned, the structure is a bit more difficult than a standard Blues and the key is also different to the original from Bessie Smith (Bb) and the one EC played (A), so it’s good to know the key (C#) and chords:

General chords:
M: Major
m: minor
7: 7th

I(M)  - iii(7)  - vi(m) - iii(7)
vi(7) - iii(m7) - vi(7) - ii(m) - vi(7)
ii(m) - vi(7) - ii(m) - ii(M)
ii(7) - vib(aug) - V(7)

I(M)  - iii(7)
vi(7) - IV(M)
I(M)  - V(7) - I(M) and vi(7) - ii(7) - V(7)  (turnaround)
Key of C#:

C#                  F7        A#m               F7
There ain't nothin' I can do, nor nothin' I can say,

A#7        Fm7   A#7 D#m  A#7
That folks don't criticize me.

D#m           A#7          D#m        D#
But I'm gonna do just as I want to anyway,

D#7                        A#aug G#7
I don't care if they all despise me.

C#          E7
If I should take a notion

A#(7)     F#
To jump into the ocean,

C#                G#7           C# and A#7 - D#(7) - G7 (turnaround)
It ain't nobody's business if I do.

Let’s take a look at the first notes of the intro (which is about half of the song!). It contains the most common Freddie King style licks also used in other songs, as well as his communication with the audience (are you listening? Let me hear you etc.). For this style it’s easier to use the major pentatonic and add notes from the minor pentatonic, because Freddie did it this way. He also has several bends to in-between notes, the signature lick starts identical two times, but ends in different bends.

I--------9-11b(13)--11b(12)-11~~-----9-11b(12)-11p9---------9-11-12-11b(12)--11b(12)-11p9----9-13b(14)--I
I--9--11--------------------------11----------------11---11-------------------------------11------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
0:00

I-12-9----9------9~~~-----------------------------------------9-----------------------------------------I
I------12---9-12---------12-9---------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-----------------------------11b(12)rb11-9---------9-11b(13)---11b(13)rb11-9b--------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------11---11----------------------------11-----------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------------11-10-9---------------I
I-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------12b\9---------I
0:23

… thank you ……THANK YOU!- … (talking about Smith, Witherspoon and BB King) …

I--------9-11b(13)-11p9-----9---13b(14)-12p9----9--------------------------------11b(13)-11b(13)--------I
I--9h11-----------------11-------------------12----(14)rb12p9-------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------12b(14)p9--(...)-----+keyboard------------I
I------------------------------------------------------------------------feedback---response------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
1:58

I-11b(13)-11-9-11b(13)-11~~~----11b(13)-(13)rb11-9--13b(14)-12-9-----9----------------------------------I
I-------------------------------slow-----------------------------12----/14~~~--12-----------------------I
I---------------------------------------------------------------------------------11b(12)-11-9----------I
I----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------11-------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
2:18

I---------------9------------------------------------9-11b(13)-13rb11p9----9--11b(13)-------------------I
I----9------------9-12-9------------------------9h11--------------------11------------------------------I
I----9--11b(13)----------11b(13)---11------9h10---------------------------------------(...)-------------I
I-11----------------------------------9-12--------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
I-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I
2:27

Most of the time you can play staying in this box. Try to find out the different bends and how they change the meaning of a note. It’s pure Blues feeling – talking with a guitar.