Fretprints: Ty Tabor

X Marks the Spot
Ty Tabor: Gonzales Photo/Terje Dokken/Alamy.

The turbulent 1980s ended with a tsunami of bands seeking new sounds. Trends like classic-rock redux, blues/roots revivals, nu-metal, grunge, and divergent alternative styles purveyed by Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M., Jane’s Addiction, and Faith No More dotted the horizon.

Among the inimitable genre-defying outfits was King’s X, a power trio (guitarist Ty Tabor, bassist Doug Pinnick, drummer Jerry Gaskill) touted by cognoscenti and seasoned players as musicians’ musicians. Maybe one reason King’s X didn’t attain greater commercial success is that they lived up to that reputation in their challenging story lines, inscrutable lyrics, and elevated musical content.

Ty Tabor was born September 17, 1961, in Pearl, Mississippi, and raised in Jackson, where he absorbed the family’s bluegrass influences and regional rural blues. By his early teens, he was playing guitar in bands that sometimes performed alongside Lester Flatt and Grandpa Jones while concurrently assimilating music of the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Alice Cooper. After high school, he relocated to Springfield, Missouri, and there met Jerry Gaskill (with Phil Keaggy), who helped him participate in recording sessions for the Tracy Zinn Band. In 1980, he played a talent show at Evangel University, where he caught the attention of Doug Pinnick.

The two began collaborating, then with Gaskill formed The Edge, added rhythm guitarist Dan McCollam (followed by Kirk Henderson, Ty’s childhood friend), and worked the Top 40/classic-rock bar circuit. As a trio called Sneak Preview, Tabor, Pinnick, and Gaskill developed a distinctive vocal/instrumental sound. After moving to Houston, they recorded an indie album of original songs.

Heavy big-guitar riffs are emblematic of King’s X. These are made larger and heavier with Ty’s penchant for dropped tunings and his fat tone, both displayed in this example. One familiar facet of his riff making is his pursuit of unpredictable rhythmic elements exemplified by odd time spans, asymmetric phraseology, and punctuating syncopation epitomized in his “Lost in Germany” opening figure (1A). Note the turning-around of the beat in measure 2 as well as the 3/4 bar to accommodate the metric twists as well as the Drop D tuning. Fig. 1B, from “Black Flag,” depicts the use of voice leading to resolve the dissonant C-F (Dm7) to B-G (G7) creating a progression in the otherwise droning Delta-blues-flavored phrase. Note the parallel low dyads in the pattern, another staple of King’s X riffs.

King’s X was born in ’85 and cut its first Megaforce album, Out of the Silent Planet, in ’88. They gained recognition touring with labelmates Anthrax and Testament as well as Robert Plant, Blue Oyster Cult, and Cheap Trick. In ’89 they released Gretchen Goes to Nebraska, a masterpiece “new rock” record that merged The Beatles “white album” aesthetics with metal, funk, progressive, folk, pop, and other tangents. The outing yielded “Over My Head,” which received moderate airplay on MTV. Faith Hope Love followed and was their most commercially successful album with Tabor’s Beatles/Lennon-inspired single “It’s Love” reaching #6 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks. “We Were Born to Be Loved” was a recurring bumper piece played by Paul Shaffer’s CBS Orchestra on “Late Night with David Letterman.” References to C.S. Lewis’ writings, Bible quotations, and occasional lyrical religious undertones led to a skewed public perception of “Christian rock,” a label they denied. 1992’s King’s X, the first of three Atlantic albums, was a darker, more-evolved metallic effort that, despite their growing artistry, didn’t resonate with the period’s alt/grunge predilections – even after Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament maintained that “King’s X invented grunge.” Dogman, produced by Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, STP), addressed the medium with a heavier, streamlined sound, lighter spiritual messaging, and Pinnick as the sole lead singer. Despite critical acclaim and fan response, the album didn’t fare well, lacked a hit single, and stalled at #88. Ear Candy (’96) was their last Atlantic album; production credits for Tabor on “American Cheese” and “Lies in the Sand,” along with additional vocals by Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket) signaled changes and alluded to individual activity.

Tabor recorded his first solo album, Naomi’s Solar Pumpkin, as an indie in ’97, and thereafter signed with Metal Blade for Moonflower Lane, Safety, and Rock Garden – the latter two featured Gaskill and Pinnick respectively. He participated in numerous side projects like Platypus, Jelly Jam, Jughead, and Xenuphobe, and guested with Queensryche, Lillian Axe, and Ayreon. He has released nine solo albums extant in his recent Shades, while keeping King’s X’s five-decade legacy alive. Three Sides of One, from 2022, is their latest.

King’s X’s music epitomizes eclecticism and creativity. Deemed the precursor of “progressive metal,” it is much more – part Beatles, part Hendrix, part Sly Stone, part Free, part Pink Floyd, part Rush, part ’80s metal, and part uncategorizable. Various instrumental aspects of prog sophistication, modern hard-rock mannerisms, and electric blues sensibilities, particularly in Tabor’s guitar improvisation, cycling funk grooves a la Hendrix’s Gypsys, lofty psychedelia pop, and heavy metal textures places them in a category that, in the late ’80s, foreshadowed rock’s future. Moreover, their Beatlesque vocalizing is true three-part harmony and generates a sonic impression beyond the limitations of a conventional power trio. And they humanized their musical world by populating compositions with colorful characters like “Mr. Wilson” and “Sally,” tantamount to “Lovely Rita” and “Sexy Sadie” in the Beatles mythos.

Ty proved the ideal player for King’s X. His pioneering attitude, tone, songwriting, singing, and range of influences contributed much to the band’s ethos, exemplified by the variety of guitar approaches. His lead/solo statements, often colored with short-delay modulation, are largely blues-based in the spirit and tradition of Cream-era Clapton, Hendrix, Robin Trower, Johnny Winter, Dick Wagner, and Ace Frehley, sporting similar pentatonic/blues-scale melody, string bends, and singing vibrato exemplified by “Prisoner,” while another side conveys atypical but memorable melodic expressions (“Summerland”) comparable to Brian May and Phil Keaggy, two significant heroes. He can deliver fleet double-timed lines soaked in distortion and decorated with pinch harmonics and occasional tapping (“What I Know About Love”) reminiscent of ’80s shred, or he can exhibit slow, soulful bluesiness. He often uses volume swells for violin effects (“The Big Picture”) and exploits the whammy bar for dips, dives, wobbling phrases, wide vibrato, and pitch bends (“What I Know About Love”). His soloing frequently functions as an extension of a song, an interlude, or a contrasting soundscape (“Not Just for the Dead,” “Fine Art of Friendship” coda) ranging from ethereal and spacey to lush and orchestral (“Don’t Believe It,” “The Big Picture”). He added sitar colors to “Silent Planet” and “Not Just for the Dead” and sometimes applied independent solo parts for a “double lead,” as in “Mr. Wilson.”

Tabor’s guitar orchestrations are illustrated in the phrases of “Summerland” and “Prisoner” (2A/B). Note the Rush/Police-like arpeggiated pattern in the former, played on a clean Strat doubled with acoustic, and its internal accents and shifted rhythms implying syncopations within the steady 16th-note phrase. In the latter, distorted guitar alternates timbres with clean electric, trading metallic dyads (syncopated) with flowing arpeggiated patterns also distinguished by accents on off beats.

Tabor reimagined the core-riff principle of rock guitar – centerpiece of the genre – setting in motion precedent and mindset that prevail today. His riffs could be power-chord laden, metallic, and heavily palm-muted (“Pleiades,” “Ooh Song,”), oddly asymmetric and oblong (“We Were Born To Be Loved,” “Lost in Germany,” “What I Know About Love”), laced with piquant dissonance made accessible through clever voice leading (“Out of the Silent Planet,” “Mission,” “Chariot Song”), or tough and bluesy (“Over My Head,” “Don’t Believe It”). He often distinguished his riffs with R&B syncopation and unpredictable time spans and rhythmic anticipations (“Everybody Knows a Little Bit of Something,” “I’ll Never Be the Same,” “Fall On Me,” “What I Know About Love”). He toggled between meters (4/4 and 3/4 in “Send a Message”), employed feel and tempo changes in arrangements, and sometimes incorporated non-pitched string-scraped harmonics (“Over My Head” chorus) and other sound effects. The shifting rhythmic accents in arpeggiations made his “Summerland” theme as intriguing as central figures found in The Police and Rush repertoire. Layered guitar is prevalent in Tabor’s music and heard in many forms. “The Difference” rivals CS&N’s finest acoustic-driven moments while mixed acoustic/clean and dirty electric timbres, a frequent combination in King’s X, are used to good advantage in “Summerland” and “The Big Picture.”

Reaching beyond Beatles (“Dear Prudence”) and Van Halen (“Unchained”) implications, Tabor regularly applied Drop D tuning, reflected in seven of 12 tunes on Gretchen. Later, “Black Flag” and “Lost in Germany” also relied on it to facilitate droning low-register open strings, huge open D5 sonorities, and thundering parallel power chords. By King’s X, he was consistently tuning down a half step in Drop D (“Ooh Song”) and later to Drop D a whole step, cited as the “King’s X standard.” Tabor pursued these aspects to even greater heights; employing Nashville-tuned plus Drop-D acoustics in “Legal Kill” and “The Difference” (Drop D capoed at 3rd fret). Other tunings include unusual modal arrangements in “Chariot Song,” “Shoes,” “Black the Sky” and “Don’t Care,” in which low E and A are dropped to B and A; a variation is found in “Human Behavior,” with low C and G bottom tones.

Gretchen Goes to Nebraska is essential, followed closely by Faith, Hope, Love and King’s X. Best of King’s X is a serviceable intro that includes later material and a lengthy live version of “Over My Head” from Woodstock 25.

“Black Flag,” “It’s Love,” “Dogman,” and their appearance at Woodstock 25 provide illuminating glimpses of King’s X at the height of its powers.

Tabor’s distinctive lead guitar is represented in this excerpt from “Ooh Song.” Check out his blend of mannerisms like the wide-interval pull-off figures (G to D) in measure 2 and the general shred implications in the 32nd-note flurry, with the slower blues-based string bends, vibrato, and pentatonic vocabulary of surrounding melodies. Note the interesting inclusion of E (the 9th) in the opening measure. The slurred phrasing in 4, with its atypical use of unisons, provides another taste of his innovations in blues-rock.

Tabor boasts one of the most-atypical sounds in rock, emanating from an atypical rig. On the first four King’s X albums, he favored an ’80s Fender Elite Strat with active electronics, Alnico II pickups, and Freeflyte vibrato (later a Floyd Rose). In the mid ’90s, he used custom Zion signature guitars with Joe Barden pickups and John Mann Resophonic vibratos. Later, he designed a signature model RGX with Yamaha. He has also used various Les Pauls, a Martin D-18, and vintage Gibson acoustics heard in “Legal Kill.” He strung electrics with extra-light GHS Boomers .009-.o42 (.011 on acoustic) and preferred a particular green ultra-thin Mel Bay guitar pick he insists accounts for his tone due to its material and light gauge. He strikes hard with the pick’s edge rather than tip or butt which facilitates “scrapey tones” and more-aggressive attack.

Tabor’s mysterious main amp was a solid-state Gibson Lab-Series L5 removed from its combo housing and made into a rack unit feeding a 1,000-watt Crown power amp and Marshall 1960 cabinets. Drawn to transistor amps in the late ’70s, he has championed their consistency and reliability. He recorded with multiple amps, sometimes combining the L5 with Pearce GR-2 heads. In the mid ’90s he used a 100-watt Mesa Dual Rectifier preamp, tube-driven Mesa 2:Ninety stereo power amp, and the preamp of his Elite (all rack-mounted), with three Mesa 4×12 cabinets, allowing him to achieve his signature tone with different guitars. More recently, he added Orange Crush transistor models to replace the L5. He also occasionally used Vox, Marshall, Egnater, and Randall amps in the studio and played through a Leslie cabinet in “Pretend.”

Tabor’s live effects included an Alesis Midiverb, MXR Pitch Transposer, Ibanez DD-2 and DOD delays, Boss CE-2 chorus and Dunlop Crybaby wah. He prefers boost pedals (like the Mojo Hand Rook Royale) versus distortion or fuzz boxes. In the studio, his chorus sounds came from changing the speed via the tape machine’s VSO, and he used an E-Bow on “Cigarettes.”

Wolf Marshall is the founder and original Editor-In-Chief of GuitarOne magazine. A respected author and columnist, he has been influential in contemporary music education since the early 1980s. His books include 101 Must-Know Rock Licks, B.B. King: the Definitive Collection, and Best of Jazz Guitar, and a list credits can be found at

This article originally appeared in VG’s October 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.