40 years later, the Southern classic endures as one of rock’s most famous guitar riffs.
You can’t hear the words “Sweet Home Alabama” without your brain instantly calling up that famous Stratocaster intro. Admit it, you’re hearing the riff right now, plus the chorus and the guitar solo—and you know the earworm will be with you the rest of the day.
You can thank Ed King for that. As part of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s famed three-guitar attack, King co-wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” and created the signature lick, as well as the sweet solo that is such an unforgettable part of the 1974 hit. 40 years after its release, the song still receives regular airplay and the famous riff remains part of the lexicon of rock and roll.
The band from Jacksonville, FL, had other hits, as well. But sadly, they achieved tragic, legendary status following a 1977 plane crash that killed three members of the band (King was not performing with the band at the time). Still, the Southern rock classic that put the band on the map is frequently heard today, an indication of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s continuing legacy.
Been There, Done That
King was a relatively young 24 year old when “Sweet Home Alabama” was recorded, but it wasn’t his first hit record. He had already been part of a chart-topping band—at the ripe old age of 18—when L.A.-based Strawberry Alarm Clock took the psychedelic hit “Incense and Peppermint” to No. 1 in 1967.
“I was lucky both times; I just happened to be at the right place at the right time,” King says, modestly. “But you’ve got to put yourself there, too. Luck is where opportunity meets preparation.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and creator of one of the genre’s most memorable songs (“Sweet Home Alabama” has well over a million airplays on radio, TV, in movies and commercials) now spends most of his time near his Nashville home, enjoying life with his wife Sharon and their English Golden Doodle, Ollie. Ed was nice enough to answer a few questions about the song, the recording and his ongoing love of guitars.
Ed King: Oh yeah. I remember after we wrote it, Ronnie [lead singer Ronnie Van Zant] saying to me, “There’s our ‘Ramblin’ Man.” The Allmans had their big hit and he said that was ours. I believed it, too—it was just a very cool song, from the moment we wrote it—it was like a feel-good song.
GM: What guitar and amp did you use to record “Sweet Home Alabama?”
EK: I used a ‘72 Stratocaster and a 50-watt Marshall turned all the way up. The pickups on that guitar were really bad and even when you turned everything up full, it didn’t really have any kind of natural crunch. That’s why the guitar’s so clean. It was really a good guitar for that song. But it was a lousy-playing guitar, and every time I hear my solo, I can hear myself fighting it.
I was always a Gibson player before I joined the band. When they asked me to play guitar, I wasn’t going to play another Gibson like those guys. So I got the Stratocaster. It was just a bear to learn and a bear to play, and actually, I recorded that solo four days after I started playing that guitar. I can hear myself struggling with it, but the solo was a first-taker.
GM: Did you play a Strat during your entire career with Skynyrd?
EK: Yeah. I think I played a Gibson on a couple of songs. I played a solo on a song called “Am I Losin’” on my SG Standard; and live, I always used my SG Standard on “Free Bird.” I still have that guitar.
EK: No, I went to two Fender Quad Reverbs. Then Hartley Peavy built me an amp; it was the Roadmaster. That was a great sounding amp. I used it most of the time. But I’m not an amp freak.
GM: Any pedals or effects, or were you more a ‘straight-into-the-amp’ guy?
EK: I didn’t use any effects—just maybe a little reverb.
GM: Lynyrd Skynyrd toured with some big acts. Who were your favorites?
EK: The Who tour was great. Frampton was fun, I loved that. But I watched every show on the Who tour.
GM: Do you consider yourself a guitar collector?
EK: I’m very limited in what I collect, because I just only like certain guitars. I’m an old-timer, so mostly Strat, Les Paul; the SG I’m very fond of. I have three acoustics—really not much on the acoustic side. A few basses … I don’t really collect stuff I don’t play a lot.
GM: Gibson’s custom shop recently recreated a “Collector’s Choice” re-issue of your 1959 Les Paul [a stunning, mint-condition, flame-top dubbed “RedEye”]. How did that come about?
EK: I bought RedEye in 1982 from a guy 20 miles up the road. I’d been wanting it for seven years. It’s an astounding instrument. Gibson got wind of it years ago and, because it’s a looker, asked to take a closer look in May. By December 1st, the Collector’s Choice #16 was released and the entire run, limited to 300, are all spoken for.
EK: I was walking on the beach at Assateague Island in Maryland and saw these shells and thought, “That could make a great pick.” The one side’s smooth and then the other, I like the way the ridges grab the strings. I make lots of mistakes, but I get bored easily and I like challenges.
GM: Have you continued to perform since you left Skynyrd in 1995?
EK: I did some shows in 2005 and the Hall of Fame show when we were inducted in 2006. And I’ve done some gigs in Muscle Shoals. But not much.
GM: Do you have any idea how many times “Sweet Home Alabama” has been played?
EK: No, I don’t. It’s funny; BMI gives an award to its writers for a million plays. I don’t think ASCAP has that award, because I would have gotten it years ago. (Laughs) I’ve never even gotten a write-up or a blurb in their magazine. But that’s OK, I don’t really like a whole lot of recognition anyway.
GM: And you can laugh all the way to the bank?
EK: Yeah, I’m fine.