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Riding with the Other King When I began thinking about which players were associated with this notorious Gibson, the visual images came to me in waves. But there was more than those images among the surprises in those waves. As I pondered the vision of Albert King playing his famed late-’50s korina Flying V it, dawned on me that his tone was also influenced by something else. I’ve discussed King’s use of his thumb in another column, but that’s not what I’m talking about. That “something else” was coming from an angle that I hadn’t thought of until now. It’s common knowledge that King played left-handed but kept the guitar strung for a right-handed player—literally and figuratively upside down to us right-handed players. While the seminal King album I’ll Play the Blues for You was blasting through my stereo monitors, I tried an experiment on a whim because of what I noticed and observed: I flipped one of my right-handed instruments around to play it in this righty/lefty, southpaw-strung-northpaw manner—fretting with my right hand and using my left thumb as a pick, like King did.
So what did I notice? There was a really different character to the sound! One side of the equation is that, using only your thumb or bare flesh really changes up your sound (that’s part of Jeff Beck’s magic). But then a moment of discovery hit me like a ton of lead. You see, Albert King not only played left-handed and upside down, but he was also picking backward as a result of this unorthodox playing approach. Technically, his downstrokes are upstrokes (relative to standard guitar stringing), which really altered the attack characteristics and tone produced from the note hit. Furthermore, this would have created another pending challenge as well, because if he were to play rhythm patterns, he would have to use either an upstroke or grab at the cluster of notes with his fingers to achieve the correct note order and/or chordal voicing that wouldn’t sound weird to listeners.
Just so you know, there are some real pioneers of the electric guitar who also played this way: The obvious three are King, fellow blues great Otis Rush, and surf guitar originator Dick Dale. Others include Doyle Bramhall II (Arc Angels, Eric Clapton), Coco Montoya (John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers), and Eric Gales.
How Exactly Does the Tone Differ?
The sound of an upstroke is more delicate as a right-handed player working against gravity. But, this changes quite a bit when you’re attacking a note from the opposite side and able to do most of your bending with gravity instead. In fact, Stevie Ray Vaughan was known for hitting the strings with quick, repetitive (and very percussive) upstrokes to get closer to Albert King’s sound. If you try doing this technique using only downstrokes, you’ll discover that it just doesn’t get you that same sound at all. When you pick it properly—and with enough force—from this “wrong side” of the string, you’ll hear a brighter, more biting attack. It seems to have a rawer attitude, too.
Since the chord shapes are so upside down themselves, this lends itself to a different sound as well. Here I want to suggest something a bit off the cuff: I thought it might be really cool to hear how this would sound as a right-handed player, so it seemed that the best way to really pull this off would be to take a random guitar and reverse the direction of the nut and the bridge saddles. So, voila—I did it! And I found out that you can discover all these tonal surprises and more as you play the fretboard in a totally new orientation. Who knows, you might even find a completely different voice and/ or style(s) in the process. I’m betting those of you out there who are more adventurous might find something of value here. I mean, talk about totally turning the tables! It’s most definitely a new game of musical chairs when you explore the fretboard from this viewpoint.
Creating Some New Calluses
But there are a couple of things to take into account as you proceed. First off, if you do a decent amount of fingerstyle playing, you might imagine that the calluses on your picking hand will aid you in this exercise. However, you have to keep in mind that King played most of this stuff with his thumb, so it might take a while to develop a thick enough callus to get through this adventure pain-free. If you want to make things a little easier on yourself, use a pick—Dick Dale and Otis Rush didn’t have a problem doing so. Speaking of Dale, please do yourself a favor and listen to the sound he developed. Especially his brutally consistent tremolo picking. Then compare what you heard there to other surf bands from the golden age. Lastly, I have to bring up Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (1895- 1987), who pioneered her own brand of alternating-bass-note “Cotten picking” style on her acoustic guitar. Yes, she was also guilty of playing in the manner described here and she may have been the first famous player to turn the guitar around and play it left-handed. I really believe that Cotten could’ve been an influence—directly or indirectly—on quite a few lefties. You never know.
Have fun and we’ll see you next month.
Dean is the chief designer of "Snake Oil Brand Strings" (sobstrings.net) and has had a profound influence on the trends in the strings of today.