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[2019-08-14] albertking_born_960

Break It Down: 'Born Under a Bad Sign' by Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan

08/14/2019 12:00 PM

By Jarred McAdams

Blues legend Albert King recorded the definitive version of “Born Under a Bad Sign” in 1967, filling it with his unique idiosyncrasies. He played a right-handed guitar as a lefty, with the thinnest string on top (à la Jimi Hendrix), and played with his thumb and fingers instead of a pick. He also used an unconventional open C#m7 chord tuning (C#-G#-B-E-G#-C#), which he kept secret for years to thwart imitators.

The recording of “Born Under a Bad Sign” used in Rocksmith was part of a 1983 television broadcast called In Session —a live, in-studio performance. For the show, it was suggested that King pair up with a young guitarist from Texas named Stevie Ray Vaughan. At first, King balked – until he realized that this was the same “Little Stevie” he had let sit in at Texas show years before.


“Born Under a Bad Sign” marks a shift to a more modern form of the Blues, one that developed as Rock & Roll became the dominant force in American music. The Blues is commonly based around a particular chord progression known as the 12-Bar Blues:

It’s a very flexible structure; chords can be substituted or altered, or the turnaround (the final bit right before you repeat the pattern) can be embellished or simplified. But this basic sequence is ubiquitous in the Blues, as well as in early Rock & Roll, and continues to be recycled again and again right up to this day. In “Born Under a Bad Sign,” however, this form is just about as stripped down as it can be, almost to the point of unrecognizability:

The song stays on the I chord (in this case, C# minor) through the verses and the first half of the chorus, not changing chords until we get to the memorable lyric, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” The only thing here that clues us in that this is in fact a 12-bar blues is the V-IV-I movement at the end (and, of course, the number of bars).

All those bars of the I chord are filled with the song’s memorable repeating bass vamp. The line rises and falls, often doubled by Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar, while Albert King sings over it, punctuating each line of the lyrics with a guitar lick, up until the solos when King and Vaughan get a chance to go off (check out the video to see King pulling Stevie Ray back from the brink when he nearly launches into his first solo prematurely).

Many legends, from Clapton to Hendrix to Simpson, have offered their own interpretation of “Born Under a Bad Sign.” How does yours sound?

Jarred McAdams joined the Rocksmith team in 2011. He studied composition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and hold a Master's degree in composition from Mills College. Jarred has served as a composer, performer, writer, and video producer for a wide variety of artistic and commercial projects, and has worked on a number of music game franchises since 2008.

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