What is meant by the indistinct concept known as guitar tone? One semi-detailed explanation I’ve found is that it’s the sound that is the end result of the way a pick or fingers strum a properly maintained guitar and its strings, through all of the various electronics used to shape the signal, and ultimately broadcasted out of an amplifier. Another less technical description is that when we talk about the tone of someone’s guitar, we’re not referring to the way they play, but rather the way that they sound while playing. I think I like that one better. Regardless, when it comes to that hard-to-pinpoint aesthetic of guitar tone greatness, there’s really nobody I like better than the incredible “Texas Cannonball” Freddie King.
One of the famed “Three Kings of Blues Guitar,” along with B.B. King and Albert King, of course (none related), Freddie King sometimes seems to have been forgotten by the larger music world. But guitar aficionados, and guitarists themselves, revere that crystalline, bent-note resonance King was able to create – so much so that he was voted #15 on Rolling Stone’s most recent 100 Greatest Guitarists list by a panel made up only of fellow musicians. How did he accomplish it? Some heavy metal was certainly a key. King used metal rather than plastic finger picks, akin to those utilized by banjo pickers. “Steel on steel is an unforgettable sound,” says Derek Trucks – who placed just behind King at #16 on the same RS poll – “but it’s gotta be in the right hands. The way he used it, man, you were going to hear that guitar.”
Freddie King, a Rock and Roll and Blues Hall of Famer, had dozens of blues-rocking and influential recordings in a two-decade career cut short by his road-ravaged demise at age 42. The two most celebrated songs are likely ‘Have You Ever Loved A Woman,’ later covered for Derek & The Dominos by lifelong devotee Eric Clapton, and ‘Hide Away,’ probably the greatest blues instrumental ever recorded. And, perhaps as importantly, King was famously name-checked in the second verse of Grand Funk Railroad’s quintessential classic rock totem ‘We’re An American Band.’¹
This torrid 1971 tune, ‘Going Down,’ was part of a trilogy of Freddie King album releases done over three years for Shelter Records, spearheaded by the indefatigable Tulsa tunesmith, Leon Russell. In addition, it also launched every indescribable moment of Kenny Powers² brilliance as the opening theme music of the deliriously offensive HBO series, Eastbound and Down. Listening to it on the featured clip here, the only things that could possibly be more impressive than that positively sizzling King guitar tone might be his hedge-like mutton chops or the floppy, shoulder-width lapels on his shirts (best seen at 2:20 and 2:52 on the video). If you’re not suitably impressed by the glass-shattering bite of Freddie King’s tone in these three-plus minutes, I don’t know, you may just be a little tone deaf.
¹“Up all night with Freddie King / I got to tell you, poker’s his thing / Booze and ladies keep me right / As long as we can make it to the show tonight”
²the peerless Kenny Powers