On El Dorado, the 6-string wizard cops a vintage vibe with Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach.
Marcus King is a young man with an old soul. His considered and assured manner of speaking is reflected by his music’s subdued intensity and old-school sound, belying the guitarist’s 23 years. King possesses a humility somewhat surprising for an artist whose recent accomplishments carry many of the hallmarks of career success, from performing at the Grand Ole Opry to appearing on network television to touring stadiums opening for Chris Stapleton. Looking forward, Gibson is set to release the Marcus King Signature ES-345 and Orange will release his signature MK Ultra amplifier. Surely, nobody would fault a young artist in King’s position for having some swagger about themselves, but the guitarist stays grounded and understands that, while he may know a few things, he still has much more to learn.
King was raised in a musical family who helped to instill a pragmatic confidence in the budding artist. “I had a family behind me that was very supportive and told me that it’s a tough career choice, but they all did it,” he explains. While that support kept him grounded to his roots, it also helped King believe in himself and his music: “When I was in high school, there were a lot of people worrying about what they wanted to do with their lives and I was completely confident about what I wanted to do.”
It didn’t take long for the young guitarist to reach some important ears. King managed to catch the attention of Warren Haynes when, at 15 years old, he snuck into a club to get his demo to the elder guitarist. Haynes was so impressed that he went on to release the Marcus King Band’s 2015 debut, Soul Insight, on his Evil Teen Records label.
Since then, King has only continued to grow as an artist and player. He recently moved from his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, to Nashville, where he hit it off with producer and Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, who King chose to produce his newest album, El Dorado. The first of King’s albums to be recorded without the Marcus King Band, El Dorado completely immerses the guitarist in Auerbach’s retro-minded aesthetic. King tracked at Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound studio, and to give him an authentic throwback experience, Auerbach tapped the rhythm section of keyboard player Bobby Wood and drummer Gene Chrisman—longtime members of the Memphis-based 827 Thomas Street Band, who backed artists such as Elvis Presley, Bobby Womack, Aretha Franklin, and many others on countless sessions.
El Dorado is a mostly mellow affair that takes much of its inspiration from the Southern soul of the ’60s and ’70s. The release finds King throwing down lyrical licks with a smooth and straightforward tone on the cornerstone ballads “Beautiful Stranger” and “Break,” and the electric piano-driven slow blues “Wildflowers & Wine.” While he leans toward outlaw country to rip some twangy bends on the Willie Nelson tribute “Too Much Whiskey” and draws on dark, fuzzy, blues-rock tones à la Billy Gibbons on “Say You Will” and “The Well,” the vibe always stays soulful.
PG connected with King during a tour stop in Buffalo, New York. We got the lowdown on El Dorado and his new signature gear, and learned what inspires his music.
Let’s start with your guitars. Are you playing your new signature model Gibson ES-345 on this tour?
Yeah, man. That’s the one I have out on the road with me. It’s been my number one for the last year-and-a-half. It really holds up.
The signature model is based on a vintage ES-345 that belonged to your grandfather, right?
That guitar is the patriarch of the prominent instruments in my life. That’s what started it off. It’s a ’62 ES-345, and my grandfather bought it in ’64 in Great Falls, Montana, basically on doctor’s orders. He was sick from ulcers because he hadn’t been playing. He was in the Air Force and he had three kids—two twins and my dad, who was the oldest—and he was just stressed out. I couldn’t imagine being as stressed as I am now and not playing, yet that’s what he was doing. The doctor told him to get a guitar and pick it back up, so he bought that ES-345 and a Fender Super Reverb.It’s red and has a sideways Vibrola on it. The story I was told is that it was a model that was initially made custom for Hank Garland and it somehow ended up in Montana.
And how did you end up owning it?
My grandfather took such great care of that rig and he played that guitar straight through the Super Reverb until he couldn’t play anymore. When that happened, the guitar just went away into a back closet somewhere and it was preserved like a fine wine. My dad was given the guitar after my grandfather passed, when I was 14 years old. My father didn’t want to see or play the guitar because it carried a lot of sentiment for the family. He just kept it locked away and I’d go play it every now and then, and that would be where I’d feel the most inspired and joyous playing, with this guitar.
When I was 18, I was going on my first long trip with the band to New York City and my father gave it to me. He said he prayed about it and felt like my grandfather would have wanted me to have the guitar. It was kind of like going into battle and receiving a secret weapon. I like to use it for special occasions and when I’m recording. I used it on the Grand Ole Opry and I’ve used it in the studio, but aside from that, now I usually just bring the prototype [of the Gibson Marcus King Signature Model] because it’s a really good road guitar.
TIDBIT: Producer Dan Auerbach drafted members of the fabled 827 Thomas Street Band to back King on El Dorado.
How did your signature model come about?
I’d taken my guitar all around the country with me and flown it in the old case a few times. They’d try to put it under the plane and I’d have to make a fuss and try to get a seat for it and all the terrible things you do to try and make sure it doesn’t ride in the belly and get broken.
I was finally fed up with that and started talking to Gibson about making me a 345 I could take on the road, and they made me one with a flame top. It sounded great and I said, “I’m gonna worry a lot less about this guitar.” I played it for maybe a year or two. Then I asked them about really looking at my guitar and seeing if they could replicate it. That turned into making a signature model and I’m honored.
How does it feel? When it’s in your hands, I imagine you can tell it’s a different guitar.
They’ve gotten it damn close, but you always know the difference. This guitar looks like a really well-preserved guitar from the ’60s. They managed to capture the essence of something that’s remained untouched from that era, something that you’d find in Songbirds [guitar museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee] or in someone’s house under a bed. They’ve maintained that quality.
You also have a signature Orange amp on the way: the MK Ultra.
For a while now I’ve been using Orange amps when I would go out of the country. Before that, I would use Homestead amplifiers, out of Pennsylvania—a really great boutique company. I still use Homesteads in the right setting.
When I’d go overseas, I would hire a backline from Orange. My bass player started using Orange cabinets and they kept asking me what they could do for me to get me playing Orange, so I finally said, “I need something really simple that’s just plug-and-play ready.” I wanted three knobs on the front of it and I wanted 6L6s. They whipped this thing up down in Atlanta and I just fell in love with it. I have two 2x12 cabinets with [Celestion] Vintage 30s, and it really rocks. Aesthetically, I always think of that Stevie Wonder video from Beat Club where they’re playing Orange amps. It’s so rad.