Look. I’m a shitty guitar player and I know it. I have two guitars: one acoustic and one electric. I suck at both.
You may wonder why I have two instruments that serve to remind me of my incompetence every time I pick them up. I bought an electric guitar so I could make noise. All you need to create soul-satisfying noise with even the shittiest electric guitar is a distortion pedal, a crummy little amp and a knowledge of power chords (find the root, find the fifth and rock the fuck out). I have an acoustic guitar because a.) it’s easier to use a guitar to figure out the chords to rock songs since most are written on guitar and b.) with an acoustic, I don’t have to plug into an amp to identify various chord voicings (which are clearer on an acoustic guitar anyway).
I know exactly why I suck at guitar, and no, it isn’t because I’m a girl and girls simply must have long, manicured fingernails to complete whatever fashion statement they’re trying to make. I’ve never had long fingernails because they interfere with piano playing—when my fingernails are too long, it sounds like I’ve hired a castanets player to provide accompaniment. Long fingernails also screw up my flute playing because they make me think my fingers are longer than they really are and I wind up failing to press the keys with the necessary accuracy and pressure.
No, I suck at guitar for two reasons. First, I think standard guitar tuning is stupid and confusing. Violins, cellos and mandolins are all tuned to fifths so it’s easy to figure out where you are on the neck. Guitars are tuned to fourths with one interval tuned to a major third (the G-B transition). When I’m trying to identify the notes in a simple lead solo, that major third short-circuits my brain every time. Those little dots on top of the neck don’t help at all.
The second reason probably involves a recessive gene thing: I have a terrible time with guitar picks. I have trouble holding on to a pick when I’m trying to pluck individual strings, as in an arpeggio. It’s really a drag on the acoustic guitar because I usually drop a dozen or so down the soundhole in between string changes; I’ve tried all kinds of picks and they all wind up inside the body of my guitar. Playing on a solid-body Strat negates that problem, but even when the picks aren’t tumbling to the floor I can’t play anything beyond a two-note arpeggio on a power chord to save my life. It’s frustrating because I can play beautiful arpeggios on the piano and flute, but on a guitar all those damned strings get in my way. I suck on the downstroke, I suck on the upstroke. For years I believed I was doomed to remain a chords-only strummer, banished permanently from the realm of guitar heroes.
Recently I sought help for my disability. A friend in the States sent me a guest pass to Master Class, an online video training site with loads of courses on everything from self-help to cooking to music. I immediately honed in on two guitar classes, one with Carlos Santana and the other with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave fame. I should have known that Carlos would take a New Age approach to the topic, so his advice on how to locate my “feel” and get in touch with my inner spirit didn’t really scratch my particular itch. Tom was infinitely more helpful in terms of providing useful techniques and I’ve been using his ideas from the module on increasing speed to improve my arpeggio picking. I can now pick the legendary intro to “Supersonic” with an accuracy rate of 50% if I play it at half-speed and don’t breathe.
That’s an improvement over my usual accuracy rate of 20% at no speed peppered with lots of “fuck!s.”
A couple of weeks after my last lesson with Tom, I took another look at my review plan for 2021. Nothing really grabbed me, so I started scrolling through my music library and found King of the Blues Guitar. My first reaction was, “Haven’t I already done this one?” but a quick check of my posts told me I’d missed it. “Yay!” I said to no one in particular. “I love that album!” I loved it even more after I began my research and learned more about Albert King’s bizarre approach to the guitar:
- Because he was left-handed, he played right-handed guitars upside-down—but rather than restringing the guitar, he left it as is, with the high E string on top.
- He used a variety of dropped open tunings to allow for more emphatic bends and to get around the limitations of standard tuning: C#-G#-B-E-G#-C#, open E-minor, F major and (when he moved to Stax) a C-B-E-F#-B-E pattern.
- Since he never used the 6th string, I don’t know why he bothered to tune it, but whatever.
- Most importantly, he rarely used a friggin’ pick! Albert King was a thumb-and-fingers kind of guy.
Lights flashing frantically in my little blonde brain, heart beating madly with hope and anticipation while desperately trying to avoid flagellating myself for not having thought of it sooner, I picked up my acoustic guitar, picks-in-the-hole rattling away, and tried to pluck “Supersonic” with my thumb. I nailed it within five minutes. Searching my memory for another arpeggio, I thought of the recently-departed Hilton Valentine and his guitar on “House of the Rising Sun,” and within fifteen minutes I had it down pat.
Albert King is my man!
Historical contradictions abound in blues biographies, and Albert King’s is no exception. The man we know as Albert King was born Albert Nelson in 1923, and could have been born in any one of three places in Mississippi: Indianola, Arcola or Aberdeen (most likely the latter). His father may have abandoned the family when Albert was five; it’s likely that Albert moved with his mother and two of his sisters to the area surrounding Forrest City, Arkansas when he was eight (I have no idea where the other ten siblings wound up). The only thing we know for sure is that Albert spent his youth on plantations picking cotton and manning a bulldozer in an area of the country where white supremacy was a cherished and strongly-protected institution (and in many ways still is).
Whether it was his father’s influence (unlikely, given his early departure) or an encounter with some itinerant picker on the plantation, Albert developed a fascination with the guitar, progressing from a self-made diddley bow to a self-made cigar box guitar to a real acoustic guitar that he purchased for $1.25. Eventually he was good enough to join a band, and spent several years traversing the Delta, picking up tips from guitarists like Elmore James and Robert Nighthawk.
Throughout the ’40s and early ’50s he was known as Albert Nelson, but once we get to 1953 things get a little weird. He changed his name to Albert King and told people he was the half-brother of the more famous B.B. King, offering B.B.’s father’s name (Albert) as “evidence.” Though he had identified (and misspelled) Aberdeen as his birthplace on his Social Security application, he now claimed he was born in Indianola, shrewdly relocating his roots from the Alabama border to the Mississippi Delta. He even named his guitar “Lucy” in line with B.B.’s christening of “Lucille.” These little white lies apparently increased his drawing power, and though B.B. was rather miffed about it at first, he let go of his irritation after meeting Albert. “He wasn’t my brother in blood, but he sure was my brother in blues.”
To achieve that kind of acknowledgment from B.B. King was remarkable, given that nothing came easy for Albert King. One fundamental difficulty involved his physique: Albert King was a big, strong southpaw, somewhere between 6’4″ and 6’7″ and weighing in at about 250 pounds. With those big hands and fingers, he was unlikely to dazzle an audience with nimble, high-speed picking, so he had no choice but to break the rules and come up with other ways to create an authentic blues sound. All those alternate tunings loosened the strings to enable broader string-bending, but Albert still had to face the challenge of left-handedness in a right-handed universe. He solved that problem by teaching himself to pull the strings from on high instead of the standard bending technique of pushing from below, using his strength to bend multiple strings at the same time. As Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns would later observe, “Albert’s guitar was always out of tune with everything else, but he was such a strong man he would just bend the notes back in!”
For the next decade and a bit longer, Albert toiled in relative obscurity, playing the club circuits in the midwest and south and making a few records that were largely ignored. His career remained in hit-or-miss mode for a few more years, but during that period an Arkansas disk jockey by the name of Al Bell became quite the fan of Albert’s inimitable style. The magical threads of the universe finally came together when Bell became a promotions man at Stax Records in Memphis and sweet-talked Albert into signing with the label. It certainly didn’t hurt Albert’s prospects that his new backing musicians were Booker T. & the M.G.’s and the Memphis Horns, imbuing his music with the signature Stax sound, strengthening his connection to R&B and adding touches of funk and soul to his music. Stax released several singles that eventually formed the bulk of the 1967 album Born Under a Bad Sign, and though the album itself did not chart (R&B albums rarely charted during that period), three of the singles did—and Albert King finally started drawing serious attention within the music world at the age of forty-four. Later that year, Albert King found himself playing at Fillmore West; a year later, Cream covered “Born Under a Bad Sign” on Wheels of Fire; a year after that, Albert King was a featured soloist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
The original version of King of the Blues Guitar was released in 1969 and consisted of eleven tracks. The version I chose to review is the 1989 reissue that contains all eleven tracks from Born Under a Bad Sign and six more Stax recordings released on 45’s, including two instrumentals that showcase Albert’s distinctive guitar stylings. The Born Under a Bad Sign tracks are marked with an asterisk because I’m an anal bitch and I like to keep things straight.
“Laundromat Blues”*: This clever little pun-filled number from Stax songwriter and session musician Sandy Jones Jr. tells the tale of a babe so horny that she can’t wait to compile a full load of laundry before heading down to the laundromat to receive a full load from the guy she keeps on the side. Exactly where these two lovebirds consummate their relationship is unclear, but I hope that the laundromat is just the rendezvous point and that she doesn’t get banged with her head in a clothes dryer while pretending to look for that missing sock. Unlike most men who pride themselves on their obliviousness, Albert is “gettin’ madder every day” and issues two warnings: “I don’t want you to get so clean, baby/You just might wash your life away” and “The laundry’s gonna trap you, darlin,'” a line that indicates that Sandy did some field research and knew his way around a lint trap.
The interplay between Albert’s voice and guitar is fascinating. First, he never plays while he’s singing, making a clear distinction between vocal lines and guitar fills, giving both more prominence. I’ll let Mike Bloomfield explain the more complex levels of interaction:
. . . 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.
That “crooner vibrato” melds beautifully with the smooth sound of the Memphis Horns and would serve Albert well as he expanded the range of his song selection to include R&B and soul. Those deep bends on the solo express both his outrage and a firm resolve that his baby’s got to stop this shit right now—a communication much more effective than his linguistic threats.
“Overall Junction”: This is a nice little warm-up number credited to the man himself that opens with Steve Cropper supplying the classic three-chord blues riff in the key of E as the horns provide a countering rhythmic response. Albert’s contribution alternates between a single-string solo and a multi-string bend attack that sounds so sharp and clean that you’d swear he was using a pick if you didn’t know any better. I imagine that all those years of picking cotton and guitar must have resulted in some of the thickest callouses known to medical science, which may help to explain his rare mingling of power and ease.
“Oh, Pretty Woman”*: A.C. “Moohah” Williams was a high school biology teacher who made the leap to promotions director at WDIA Memphis when they switched from country to R&B in 1949. A. C. would stay with WDIA for over thirty years, serving as a disk jockey and program director while writing a few songs on the side, including his most famous number, “Oh, Pretty Woman.” This ode to the unattainable natural beauty who “Says all your cheap paint and powder ain’t gonna help you none” is a perfect foil for Albert’s understated, shy-guy vocal style, suitable for pleading but never coarse enough to cross the line into actionable threats. His guitar solo is appropriately understated, expressing sweet anguish in the bends but refusing to extend the emotional range to a point-of-no-return. When comparing and contrasting Albert’s approach to Mick Taylor’s version on the Bluesbreakers’ Crusade album, I have to give the edge to Albert for managing those boundaries—Mick comes across too strong, just what you’d expect from a younger man with excess testosterone and insufficient life experience.
“Funk Shun”: The second King-penned instrumental is an example of false advertising, as there isn’t anything funky about this straight-up slow blues number. Though the track features Albert’s longest solo, I don’t think it’s one of his best efforts as he seems to lose touch with the sense of economy that marks his best guitar work. The one spot where he recovers that discipline is in the stop-time passage about two-thirds of the way through the song. For the most part, I focus most of my attention on Donald Dunn’s always marvelous bass and the horn section.
“Crosscut Saw”*: OUCH! While I usually appreciate the double-entendre featured in dirty blues songs, I ain’t gonna let no man with a crosscut saw anywhere near my delicate privates! And I’m sorry, but “I’m a crosscut saw, just drag me ‘cross your log,” sounds like two guys attempting penis-to-penis sex, which I didn’t know was even a thing. Here I ignore the gruesome lyrics and just enjoy Booker T. and the MG’s as they nail the Afro-Cuban rhythms and Albert’s sprightly guitar work. I’d really like a demographic breakdown of this record’s purchasers, as I’d like to prove my hypothesis that the buyers who drove “Crosscut Saw” to #34 on the R&B charts were all men who like their women dry. DOUBLE OUCH!
“Down Don’t Bother Me”*: Albert is on top of his game in yet another of his own compositions that revives the classic there-ain’t-nothin’-I-can-do-to-please-this-woman-woe-is-me tale. Singing at the top of his narrow range with feeling that approaches the bursting point, he wisely leaves the bursting to his guitar fills, which follow the lines in unusually short order. The solo is a knockout call-and-response between Albert and the horn section that matches the intensity of the verses and anticipates the gloriously strong finish. It may be the shortest song in the collection, but as I’ve always told the insecure men I’ve bedded over the years, “It doesn’t matter how long it is—what matters is what you do with what you’ve got.”
“Born Under a Bad Sign”*: Listed as a songwriting collaboration between Stax R&B singer William Bell and Booker T. Jones, we must also give credit to Lightin’ Slim, whose “Bad Luck Blues” featured the key line, “Lord, if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all” as well as the astrological portents Bell referenced as a starting point for “his” creation. The song’s crossover potential involved replacing the standard 12-bar blues structure with 10 bars in an I-V-IV pattern and a sinuous minor blues scale rhythmic line that gives the song a rock/R&B tinge. I don’t know exactly why I feel this way, but this song cries “Memphis” more than any other song from the city that claims to be The Birthplace of Rock & Roll and Home of the Blues. It feels like a warm summer night on Beale Street with its moderately slow tempo, slick and sexy horns and plenty of sweet, soulful bends from Mr. King. His single-string solo is the epitome of simplicity and in an unintentional tribute to Peter Green, Albert lets out a little scream of appreciation in response to one bent note. The man is feeling it!
I’ll end any suspense right here and now and endorse the Jack Bruce-Clapton version as a more than credible cover, and while I’m into mini-appendixes, allow me to remind you that if you are lucky enough to be able to select the time, place and circumstances of your demise, there’s only one way to go:
You know, wine and women is all I crave
A big-legged woman is gonna carry me to my grave
Hopefully you will have pulled out before having your coronary.
“Personal Manager”*: The B-side to “Born Under a Bad Sign” was co-written with David Porter, one of music’s greatest, most-honored and least-known contributors. In addition to his prolific songwriting in multiple genres, Porter was the very young man who convinced a little record company in Memphis to start recording soul music and brought his buddy Booker T. into the fold as a recording artist for what would soon become Stax Records. At this point in his career, Porter was a songwriter for Stax and had just begun to work with another young songwriter named Isaac Hayes.
Albert King may have been born under a bad sign, but at this point in his career, he had arrived at the gates to musical heaven.
“Personal Manager” is a slow blues number that opens with Albert clipping off a few two-note chords before settling into his more comfortable one-note-at-a-time style. While the interplay between Albert and the horns isn’t as crisp as it was on the A-side, his solo validates the phrase in his Stax biography: “master of the single-string solo.” The lyrics are pretty much the old “Let me careth for thee, O sweet and fragile creature,” and though I’m intrigued to learn more about what he means by the offer “to be your milkman every morning/Your ice cream man when the days are through,” he loses me with a deal-sweetener that simply won’t cut it with a girl who has now experienced three lockdowns (with a fourth on the way):
I’ll take care of all of your business
So you can stay at home
No! No! Anything but that! Go ahead—whip out that crosscut saw but please let me out of the house!
“Kansas City”*: What the hell, everyone else has recorded this song, so why not Albert King? His voice is perfectly suited to the toned-down Wilbert Harrison approach and he’s got a first-rate rhythm band behind him, so why not? One could argue that Albert gives the horns too much room during his solo, but shit, they’re Stax horns and they sound good anywhere and everywhere. Donald Dunn is coming through nice and clear on my right . . . so yeah, I’m good with it.
“The Very Thought of You“*: What the hell? Well, this is certainly out of the . . . blue(s)! This song was first recorded in 1934 by the Ray Noble Orchestra featuring Al Bowlly on vocals, and proved to be something of a precursor to the British Invasion in that it was one of the few British recordings to become a #1 hit in the USA before all those scruffy guys showed up thirty years later. Ricky Nelson came out with a “rock ‘n’ roll” version (probably due to a suggestion from his cornball father), giving new meaning to the word “dreadful.” Little Willie John made some noise with a doo-wop version that’s probably the best of the lot, but this isn’t much of a lot.
Albert was apparently so obsessed with this song that he re-recorded it in 1978 on an album called (ironically) New Orleans Heat. Even the most powerful microwave oven in the universe couldn’t heat this sucker, so I’m not exactly why Albert found the song so appealing . . . though there may be something in Mike Bloomfield’s specific use of the world “crooner” in describing Albert’s vocal style. I will give Albert credit for a sincere and heartfelt performance—but any thoughts he had about becoming the next Billy Eckstine were seriously misplaced.
“The Hunter”*: Y’all know I have an absolute hatred of real guns, but I’m 100% cool with love guns. Etymologically speaking, I wonder which came first—“shoot” as in “shoot your wad” or “shoot” as in “shoot a gun?” Why do we “shoot” photos and golf and drugs and dice? And why is “shoot!” a polite substitute for “shit!?”
Stand by for my new website: altetymologychick.com.
Albert King never quite attained the levels of testosterone expressed in the work of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker or Robert Johnson, but he’s definitely “up” for this one. After a somewhat tentative opening featuring Albert plucking a single string over a duet of Booker T. on percussive piano and Steve Cropper on guitar (nice neck slides there), a snare hit cues those marvelous horns so we can get down to the serious business of displaying male bravado. Albert seems to particularly savor the descending notes that end the key line, “I’ve got you in the sights of my love gun,” pausing just a bit before he sings the words “love gun.” He delivers those two words as if he’s looking his babe straight in the eye with his big one forming a noticeable bulge in his trousers, and damn, is he proud of his reliable member or what? He abandons all pretense of gentlemanly behavior when he almost-but-not-quite growls the line, “And when I pull the trigger, there will be no misses.” That’s my man! Leave it all in my playing field and don’t spill a drop on my sheets! He cools off a bit during his guitar solo but finishes strong with even more bravado. “I’m the big bad hunter baby,” he cries. “You ARE the MAN!” I reply, cleverly manipulating the male ego to inspire a second go-round. “How can I miss when I’ve got dead aim?” “You can’t, baby—now aim that thing right at my sweet spot.” The music fades, leaving the rest of my fantasy to your wicked imaginations.
“I Almost Lost My Mind”*: This Ivory Joe Hunter number is a perfect vehicle for Albert’s voice, with a melody comfortably within his vocal range and a narrative that demands a singer who knows what it’s like to feel the pain of loss. Everybody who’s anybody has covered this song—Nat King Cole, Eddy Arnold, Eddie Cochran, Bing Crosby, Fats Domino, Jerry Butler, Willie Nelson—and it speaks volumes about American culture that the most popular version came from Pat Boone, the paragon of white bread entertainment who absconded with many a song of black origins and made them palatable to the sexless masses. Of the versions I’ve listened to, the one that most resembles Albert’s is Solomon Burke’s, but Solomon doesn’t come close to matching Albert’s ability to express difficult emotions. I love the arrangement, especially the surprising inclusion of Joe Arnold’s flute, reinforcing the fleeting nature of romantic love.
“As the Years Go Passing By”*: Another perfect fit for Albert’s vocal talents, this Peppermint Harris minor blues was first recorded by Chicago blues guitarist Fenton Robinson back in 1959. The original featured a rather energetic piano counterpoint, replaced here by a more subtle but still remarkably nimble performance by Booker T, who gets a chance to show off both his R&B and classical training in support of Albert’s suitably lonesome vocal. Albert does some of his finest guitar work on this song, especially in the beautifully fluid solo, which contrasts nicely with the texture of the punctuating horns. My only complaint here involves track placement—surely the compilers could have separated the two of the saddest and best songs in the collection to reinforce the diversity of the album.
“Cold Feet”: Hmm. This sounds more like an advertisement for Stax artists than a real song, but it made the R&B Top 20 in ’68 as an A-side single, so what the hell do I know? If Peter, Paul & Mary could name-drop the Mamas and the Papas, Donovan and The Beatles and make the charts, I’m certainly not going to begrudge Albert King a little low-effort success.
“You Sure Drive a Hard Bargain”: The B-side of “Cold Feet” is a much stronger effort and clearly the better song. Written by Stax songwriter Bettey Crutcher and producer Allen Jones, the thrills in this song are found in the obvious confidence and heightened spirit of the post-Born Under a Bad Sign Albert King. His guitar playing is crisp, his voice strong and the interaction with the band is both tight and seemingly effortless.
“I Love Lucy”: This is a one-time-only joke with a weak punchline that only works if you don’t know that Lucy is Albert’s guitar.
On second thought, it doesn’t work either way.
“You’re Gonna Need Me”: Once again, the B-side trounces the A-side, making us forget all about Lucy. This King composition is a straightforward blues with some interesting chord variations and a far more intricate horn arrangement than you hear in any of the songs on Born Under a Bad Sign. Albert’s solo is loaded with bite and bend, and though you don’t notice it at first, the connection between the fills and his solo phrases feels more fluid—the man is now in full command of his faculties.
While I was working on this piece I remembered that this is Black History Month in the United States. I had to remember it because the French have yet to recognize that particular observance due to their belief in the doctrine of universalism, or “color-blindness.” The French would rather avoid the topic of race entirely and pretend that everything’s hunky-dory. It’s difficult to square that head-up-the-ass attitude with reality or with the historically documented Parisian embrace of African-American musicians, writers and artists, but the French are often a mystery to everyone except themselves.
So let’s place Albert King in the proper historical context, and we do that by admitting that our awareness of Albert King qualifies as pretty damned close to miraculous. Any black person born in the United States goes to bat with an 0-2 count while a hostile crowd screams for the strikeout. Though certain legal protections have been introduced in an attempt to mitigate those profound disadvantages, dealing with racism remains a daily reality for African-Americans to this day. Albert was also born dirt-poor, bereft of high-powered connections and had little in the way of formal education—traditional or musical. Though his demeanor was anything but threatening, nothing can trigger white fragility as effectively as a big, strapping black dude, so he was unlikely to find much in the way of assistance from the white power structure. Despite those enormous obstacles, once he fixated on the impossible dream of escaping the plantation via a musical career, he refused to let anything get in his way.
The essence of Albert King lies in a rare combination of self-assurance, ingenuity and an almost unfathomable optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers. If you’re going to celebrate anyone during Black History Month, Albert King deserves your serious consideration.
At the time Peter Green passed away, my drafts folder contained three reviews on albums featuring Peter Green: John Mayall’s A Hard Road, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Then Play On. I had finished the intros (always the hardest part for me), but in each case, I developed writer’s block and found myself unable to move forward.
I finally had to admit to myself that the problem was that I really didn’t give a shit about “the other stuff” on those albums. All I cared about were the Peter Green tracks.
I consider myself a John Mayall fan but I don’t think his work on A Hard Road reflects Mayall at his best; his vocals sound unusually strained and he was still working out the finer points when it came to integrating horns into the mix. As for the two Fleetwood Mac albums, I place the blame solely with Peter Green for insisting on a second guitarist so he wouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of playing frontman. I’d rather listen to a full orchestra of fingernails on chalkboards than listen to Jeremy Spencer with his silly vocalizations and pedestrian slide playing, and though the Danny Kirwan of Then Play On shows promise, some of his contributions reek of early flower child music. On all three albums, Peter Green’s work is several cuts above the contributions of his colleagues.
When I heard the sad news, I realized that in the context of a completed life, commenting on a few flawed albums filled with irrelevant material would represent a great disservice to the memory of this unusually gifted artist, so I started thinking that a playlist of selected tracks might be a better approach. The challenge I faced was pithily expressed by one of my top commentators (Dean) who noted in response to a thread that arose from my review of Future Games, “The Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac (through 1970) discography is a mess.”
I found motivation enough to overcome those obstacles in what seems to be the norm in Peter Green bios, obits and retrospectives: briefly acknowledge his status as a great guitarist then capitalize on the human fascination with tragedy. When I revisited the documentary Man of the World, I found myself frequently shouting at the screen, frustrated with the comparatively little attention devoted to the music and the inordinate amount of time devoted to tabloid-quality amateur psychologizing (Noel Gallager is the next-to-last person I’d hire as a psychoanalyst, right after his brother). I resented the emphasis placed on “Oh, what could have been if he hadn’t fucked it all up by taking too much acid” rather than what the man actually accomplished—which was more than most musicians can only dream of achieving.
We’re talking about artistic achievement here, not commercial success. The most insightful comment Peter Green ever made about his approach to guitar was this: “I like to play slowly and feel every note. It comes from every part of my body.” I’ve always felt that the greatest musical artists are imbued with a reverence for musical sound, likely ignited in early in the learning curve when they plucked a note a certain way, stumbled across an unusual chord, or happened upon a pleasing combination of notes and tempo. The true musical artist is engaged in a constant search for those fleeting epiphanies in sound, beautiful timeless moments of pure wonder—and Peter Green was a true artist.
Some of the choices I made are obvious; others less so; and I’m sure some will complain about certain omissions. Let me clarify things: this is not a “best of” list but a selection of tracks revealing different facets of Peter Green’s artistry.
“The Stumble,” A Hard Road, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers: This high-speed shuffle may seem a contradiction to the “play slowly and feel every note” mantra, but it demonstrates a few important aspects of Peter Green’s style and personality. Remember, Peter Green had the apparent misfortune of succeeding Eric Clapton in the role of Bluesbreakers’ lead guitarist at a time when juvenile delinquents were spraypainting “Clapton Is God” on Arvon Road. I’m not sure who was responsible for selecting this Freddie King number to demonstrate Green’s licks, but since Clapton had already demonstrated his mastery of the fretboard on Freddy’s “Hideaway,” this was a pretty ballsy decision.
If Green felt any pressure about going up against a god he sure doesn’t show it here. For the first couple of go-rounds he sticks pretty close to the patterns in Freddie’s original, but as the song progresses you begin to notice Peter filling his phrases with a few more notes than Freddie. The difference becomes quite noticeable when he travels to the upper reaches of the fretboard (where Freddie only made a few brief appearances). What strikes me most is his tonal clarity at high speed; instead of the usual unintelligible flurry used by turbo-charged guitar heroes to impress the masses, every single note is clean and distinct.
Some guitarists thunder, some rain, but with Peter Green, it’s like listening to a spring shower where you can hear sweet music in each and every drop.
“The Supernatural,” A Hard Road, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers: Having proven he could match Clapton or anyone else in a high-speed competition, Green confirms his “each note” artistic manifesto in “The Supernatural.” It’s important to note that this isn’t simply a set-piece featuring guitar and a modest supporting cast but a layered composition melding multiple octaves within the limits of four-track recording capability, completely designed by Peter Green. Mostly famous for its masterfully controlled feedback followed by thrilling slides down the fretboard, “The Supernatural” was described as “haunting” by Mayall; I would add the word “mesmerizing” to complete the picture.
Though it may not be apparent at first, “The Supernatural” is a blues in D minor—a scale Green would continue to explore over the coming years in what I interpret as a quest for perfection . . . but more about that later.
“The Supernatural” also launched what seems to be an eternal question in the guitar community: “How can I create the Peter Green tone?” Well . . . you could start by picking up a ’59 Les Paul and setting the pickup switch to the middle (dual-pickup) position . . . but I’m afraid you still won’t get there, no matter how many pedals you try and amp settings you tinker with. For one, Peter Green’s ’59 wasn’t just any old Les Paul, but the result of a boo-boo at the Gibson factory.
Jol Dantzig wrote a piece on Premier Guitar describing how he had the opportunity to play Green’s ’59 back in 1984 courtesy of Gary Moore, who bought the guitar from Green—for exactly what Peter had paid for it back in the ’60s (Metallica’s Kirk Hammet bought it a few years back for $2M). Plugging into a ’68 Marshall Plexi, they each played some of Green’s works and managed to reproduce the tone. “Up to this point in time, I’d been the owner of a few original Sunbursts, and our shop had bought and sold plenty more. But none had the eerie tone that Green’s guitar demonstrated in the middle selector position with both pickups on.” Being the curious sort, Dantzig suggested to Moore that they disassemble the guitar to see if Green had messed with the innards. Their initial investigation revealed nothing but factory standard, but Dantzig was one determined investigator:
A pickup creates current through the use of a magnetic field coupled with coils of wire. Both the wiring and the orientation of the magnetic poles determine polarity. If you alter either of these, you change the phase of the pickup relative to another pickup. So, with the wiring intact, I decided to test the magnetic polarity with a compass. Bingo! The magnet was reversed on one pickup. Because the pickup internals looked undisturbed, I concluded that it must have been a mistake at the factory. With Gibson having made over ten thousand electric guitars that year, the odds of the mistake showing up in Green’s guitar seems incredible.
All well and good, but even if you could pry the original from Kirk’s grubby mitts, the truth is Peter Green used multiple pickup settings within the same song and used a Strat as often as a Paul. So, you might be able to get Peter Green’s tone on this song but unable to reproduce it on that song.
The harder truth is stating the obvious: you’re not Peter Green.
“Greeny,” A Hard Road, 2003 Expanded Edition, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers: In the intro I expressed some disappointment with A Hard Road, but a lot of that disappointment vanishes when I listen to the expanded edition. Not only does the grander version give us more Peter Green, but Mayall sounds like he’s having more fun.
In addition to tone, Peter Green is also renowned for his vibrato, an effect most often created by bending the strings. Nearly every lead guitarist on the planet uses some vibrato, most obviously in those moments when they bend strings in an attempt to replicate the cry of pain and anguish in a blues or blues-influenced number. What’s remarkable about his work on “Greeny” is how Green applies vibrato in tiny bursts—like on the second note on the simple four-note core motif, turning a rather pedestrian theme into something that gives me the chills every time I hear it. Though Peter Green could do the guitar hero schtick as well as the best of them, his best work is found in the slower stuff or in songs with a nice, easy tempo like this one.
“I Loved Another Woman (all takes),” Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, 1999 re-release: This expanded edition is quite educational because of its inclusion of multiple takes, giving insight into the nature of Peter Green’s quest for perfection.
- Take 1: Peter’s guitar sounds fabulous, but his voice could have used a bit more of a warm-up. He stops the take a minute into the song, claiming “Sorry, I forgot the words,” but his subsequent feedback to Mick Fleetwood (“you came in a faction late”) tells us that Fleetwood’s tardiness in syncopation is probably what threw him off. This happens a lot in recording—you hear something that sounds a teeny bit off but you’re not entirely sure, so you shoulder on for a while, but that damned little fuck-up is still on your mind and will eventually destroy your concentration.
- Take 2: Peter’s voice is still a bit strained but not enough to spoil the mix; a sharp critic would likely write it off to a stylistic choice—the exhaustion of losing his best gal. McVie and Fleetwood seem to play with a bit more conviction, and Peter’s hard-picked solo is gorgeous and damned sexy. If I had been in the booth, I might have given it a thumbs-up, but the engineer’s “Come and have a listen to it,” communicates some doubt. Try again.
- Take 3: Peter stops after the first phrase and indicates someone (Fleetwood?) “didn’t come in straight away.” Another fractional error.
- Take 4: The engineer cuts it off midway; we have no idea why. He just shouts out “No” and that’s that.
- Take 5: A very promising start with another beautiful solo collapses into ghoulish laughter near the end of Peter’s wordless, falsetto recitation of the melody. Right before the cut I hear a noise like paper shuffling or shoes scuffing, so that may have been a distraction. What’s nice is that Peter ends it with laughter, helping to relieve any pressure in the studio.
- Take 6: Peter says, “Hang on to my tit,” which could mean that whatever caused the distraction in Take 5 might have been attached (no, his voice doesn’t convey the pain of nipple clamps) or in a shirt pocket. Before he begins this take he asks for more fractional improvement from the band; in response to a request from a band member (sounds like Fleetwood), he agrees to play the intro a bit slower. On this take, Peter has more command of his voice; his voice-cracking sounds more intentional as opposed to a problem with the pipes. For reasons unknown, he cuts things off mid-take.
- Final Version: The clarity of instrumental separation clearly shows the effect of mastering; McVie’s bass is more prominent and Peter’s tone is . . . well, it’s frigging beautiful, with just the right amount of reverb to thicken his vibrato. He absolutely nails the vocal, burnishing his credentials as one of the most underrated blues singers of all-time. I also like the way the song fades on his wordless vocalizations (ooh-ooh’s), giving the listener the feeling that the pain of losing his baby is going to stay with him for a long time.
This is the second in a series of three Peter Green D minor blues numbers; the third is the much more famous “Black Magic Woman.” I chose not to include the Fleetwood Mac version largely because I think Santana’s version realizes the song’s full potential by expanding on the song’s innate Latin feel. I’ll explain more when I review Abraxas later this year; for the present, give Peter Green due credit for writing one of the greatest minor blues songs in music history. Mission accomplished.
“Albatross,” English Rose, Fleetwood Mac: Fleetwood Mac’s first #1 hit in the UK provides further proof that though they share a common language (well, sort of), British and American cultural tastes do not sync as often as PBS viewers would have you believe. The song didn’t even chart in the U. S. unless you count #4 on The Billboard Bubbling Under the Hot 100 as “charting.”
The most obvious choice for the source is Santo and Johnny’s 1959 hit “Sleep Walk” from that marvelous era when instrumentals were as likely to chart as vocal performances, with Chuck Berry’s “Deep Feeling” a close second. According to the songwriter, neither answer (if stated in the form of a question) would earn you a cent on Jeopardy. “I heard John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers’ cover of Jimmy Rodgers’ The Last Meal – that’s the blues singer, not the country and western one. I thought I would take it and develop it. I called it that because of that reference to the back of a giant albatross mentioned in the Traffic record ‘Hole in My Shoe.’”
What sounds like a steel pedal guitar is actually Green playing his Strat on his lap. Recent addition Danny Kirwan helped Green complete the composition and supplied the harmonic guitar support that Jeremy Spencer was never able to pull off. You can tell that Green is savoring each note in this exceptionally slow (67 bpm), meditative number, and kudos to Fleetwood for using timpani mallets to create the shimmer.
“Stop Messin’ Around,” Mr. Wonderful, Fleetwood Mac: Mr. Wonderful was one of those experiments that didn’t quite pan out. In an attempt to duplicate their live sound, the album was recorded through a P. A. system. Even producer Mike Vernon, who embraced the idea, had to admit its limitations: ” . . . we never actually really captured the live performance in a studio – with the exception of “Stop Messin’ Around” from the Mr. Wonderful album.”
With support from Christine Perfect (later McVie) on the 88’s and the saxophone duo of Steve Gregory and Johnny Almond, Green finds his guitar and vocal grooves right from the get-go. Like Sinatra and Billie Holiday in many of their vocals, Peter’s guitar phrasing defies the fixed rhythm, falling slightly behind on occasion and anticipating the beat on others. Though he only devotes two verses to vocals, he sounds positively joyful as he calls out his baby’s bullshit. And I love his high-end bends on that last go-round—as sexy as sexy gets.
“Last Night,” Blues Jam at Chess, Fleetwood Mac, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Shakey Horton, J. T. Brown, Buddy Guy, Honey Boy Edwards, S. P. Leary: Peter Green was very hard on himself when he didn’t measure up to his own lofty expectations, and in the documentary Man of the World, he waves off his contributions on Blues Jam at Chess (or Fleetwood Mac in Chicago, whatever) as feeling out of his element in the presence of some great black blues musicians. White guilt aside, his discomfort is actually clearer in the rougher vocals than his guitar work. I picked this piece because his vocal is in sync with the song’s essential feeling and his guitar is generally limited to economical support in the form of brief fills and light support for Shakey Horton’s harmonica solo. His solo comes in at around the 3:20 mark, an equally economical performance featuring his scintillating vibrato with just the right amount of notes and not one note more. I imagine a report card somewhere that reads, “Peter plays well with others.”
“Man of the World,” The Best of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Fleetwood Mac: Part of the motivation in bringing Danny Kirwan into the fold was to give Green a true guitar partner; the other part involved Peter Green’s desire to expand the band’s playing field beyond blues-based rock without losing the essence of the blues. “To my mind,” Green told journalist Ian Middleton, “a blues doesn’t have to be a 12-bar progression. It can cover any musical chord sequence. To me, the blues is an emotional thing. If a song has the right emotion then I accept it as a blues.” Music is largely an emotional experience, and Peter Green was a master at expressing and evoking emotion.
With its baroque-style chords having more in common with the songs on Odessey and Oracle, “Man of the World” bears little resemblance to the music on the first two Fleetwood Mac albums. And though the structure is a long way from 12-bar blues, the song expresses sentiments associated with the blues through a combination of lyrics and Peter Green’s vocal abilities.
By this time, Peter Green was becoming deeply disillusioned about the life of a rock star and its essential disconnection from reality. Over a soft background of electric guitar and bass, in musical phrases marked by frequent appearances of minor chords and variants thereof, he sings gently and self-deprecatingly about his “dream life” in the music business . . . then suddenly raises his voice in anguish to deliver a thoroughly shocking sentiment:
Shall I tell you about my life
They say I’m a man of the world
I’ve flown across every tide
And I’ve seen lots of pretty girls
I guess I’ve got everything I need
I wouldn’t ask for more
And there’s no one I’d rather be
But I just wish that I’d never been born
While some tend to interpret that line (and much of the “The Green Manalishi”) through the lens of Green’s future bout with mental illness, I would remind people that such sentiments are part of the stock in trade when it comes to the blues. What’s shocking is hearing them in what sounds like a perfectly lovely ballad. Green softens the blow by attaching his anguish to the absence of true love, but you can’t help but notice the not-so-hidden message that his desperation is aggravated by a feeling that the life he’s living is something of a fraud:
I could tell you about my life
And keep you amused I’m sure
About all the times I’ve cried
And how I don’t want to be sad anymore
And how I wish I was in love
“Man of the World” may or may not sound the alarm in terms of Peter Green’s mental state, but it is certainly a signal that Peter was searching for a way out of a dilemma. It’s also a terribly beautiful piece of music.
“Oh Well, Pts 1 and 2,” Then Play On (Rhino Records Deluxe Edition), Fleetwood Mac: I will be forever astonished that Peter Green considered Part 1 “just the packaging” to get to Part 2. He felt that Part 1 an irrelevant piece based on a “throwaway riff” and should have been surgically removed from future compilation albums. To my ears, both parts are essential, forming a holistic composition concerning the modern manifestation of yin and yang: the aggressive, competitive, extraverted world of the daily grind where image has more value than substance versus the introverted, reflective world where we recover from the general toxicity to ponder our thoughts and emotions.
To my ears, Part 1 is three minutes and twenty-four seconds of some of the fiercest rock ‘n’ roll ever recorded. The joint guitar crescendo is tremendously exciting, forming a sort of musical question that is answered with a stunning moment of near silence broken only by Mick Fleetwood on cowbell before Peter enters with his stop-time, no-more-bullshit, proto-rap lyrics:
I can’t help about the shape I’m in
I can’t sing, I ain’t pretty and my legs are thin
But don’t ask me what I think of you
I might not give the answer that you want me to
The self-deprecation is typical Green; the refusal to continue to play Mr. Nice Guy is the emerging Green, sick and tired of playing the game. In the segment covering “Oh Well” in Man of the World, Peter identifies the guitar as a “Michigan” he bought from some fellow in the North Country (most likely a branded Harmony guitar) and used only on this one song to get a different sound—the rawer, less-embellished sound we’d eventually associate with garage rock. Part 1 ends with a bass pushing the recording limits of the era (Green indicated he played a six-string bass on the piece) fading into the strum of a Spanish guitar that marks the beginning of Part 2.
Mick Fleetwood commented in Man of the World that at this time Peter was beginning to play more of a Brian Wilson role in the band, imagining and creating sound collages combining traditional rock instruments with other sounds and textures. In Part 2 he uses the contrasting timbres of Spanish and electric guitar to build a minor key soundscape contrasting hope and despair, light and dark; later he uses the deep melancholy of a cello (played by himself) in contrast to the wistful yet earthy sound of a wood recorder played by one Sandra Elsdon (a much better textural choice than a metal flute). Employing Jeremy Spencer on piano, he mixes the various elements to form an intermediary crescendo, following the peak with an extended cello-Spanish guitar duet that I’d say was the loveliest musical passage he ever recorded. After another brief moment of silence, the piece turns into sort of a dirge with Fleetwood providing the boom for a few measures before we return to blessed quiet, the recorder now a faint, fading sound in deep background over Peter’s gentle strumming. In a brilliant move, he ends this largely sorrowful segment on a major chord, closing with a bit of hope for our tension-filled world. Of the thousands of what-ifs that haunt the story of Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac, “Oh Well” is the one that brings up my deepest feelings of regret: the combination of power and compositional promise of Fleetwood Mac at that moment of time was beyond exceptional.
“The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown),” Then Play On (Rhino Records Deluxe Edition), Fleetwood Mac: Even more so than “Man of the World,” people classify “The Green Manalishi” as a descent into darkness that clearly reveals the onset of mental disease.
That’s one way to look at it. Peter described it as a song about a bad dream he had. Hey, wait a minute! I’ve had bad dreams! I need meds! Gimme my meds! Lots of meds!
I find this kind of Monday morning psychologizing by non-experts both insulting and unfair to Peter Green’s memory. At this point in his life, he had been moved by the catastrophic famine in Biafra and wanted to do something about it. As his thinking about the situation progressed, he looked at his own life and figured out he was making more money than anyone deserved to make, given the existence of millions of people simply trying to survive another day. Naïve idealist that he was, he tried to get his fellow bandmates to give all their money away and invest it in charitable causes, a proposition that didn’t go over too well with the boys.
Peter Green was always very clear that “The Green Manalishi” was about money and the old adage that money is the root of all evil. Yes, he was taking acid at the time, but given the hundreds of musicians who also partook in the psychedelic experience, his usage was hardly unique and not necessarily problematic in relation to this composition. Yes, the song is on the dark side, but right around this time, Black Sabbath was inventing an entire genre of dark sounds that we now refer to as heavy metal and is considered so socially acceptable that you can win a Grammy for conjuring up such harsh sonic imagery. The opening is somewhat reminiscent of Eric Burdon’s “When I Was Young,” and as far as I know, no one suggested that Eric or any of his bandmates should have been committed to a mental institution. What I hear is a compelling, bitter attack on the power of money and its corrosive power; it sounds more immediate and possibly more ominous because Peter really feels it. The soundscape (enhanced enormously by the line “The night is so black, the darkness cooks”) is appropriately creepy, marked by tightly coordinated guitar duets and sharp cuts, with Peter’s eerie falsetto completing the ghoulish painting of a world gone mad due to unrelenting greed.
“Timeless Time,” The End of the Game, Peter Green: Shortly after Peter Green left Fleetwood Mac, he released his first solo album to universal scorn. The End of the Game isn’t really as bad as the critics make it out to be, biased as they were by their insistence that Peter should stick close to the blues-rock formula that made Fleetwood Mac the darlings of the late ’60s.
There are problems with the record, most involving the method of construction: Peter engaged his band of brothers in a series of jams, then cut and spliced what he thought were the best parts. It’s obvious that his perfectionist streak had dimmed somewhat, particularly in relation to Alex Dmochowski’s bass, which frequently overpowers the mix. Still, there are some good musical ideas on the album, especially those that lean towards modern jazz.
I chose “Timeless Time” for this essay because of something I learned watching Man of the World. Peter’s introduction to the guitar came via his brother Lenny, who had purchased a guitar only to find out he was tone-deaf. He gave it to his ten-year-old kid brother Peter and showed him three chords: E, A and B7, the classic blues combination. According to Lenny, “after about six to eight months, Peter was doing really well.”
When I listen to “Timeless Time,” where Peter’s guitar is extraordinarily quiet and limited to a single channel, it calls up images of a kid in a room with the door closed, cradling his guitar, playing wherever his fingers lead him, repeating a few riffs that charmed him, experiencing the wonder of musical expression by playing slowly and feeling every note.