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10 Things You Gotta Do To Play Like B.B. King

July 1, 2007
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FROM HIS HUMBLE BEGINNINGS AS A PLANTATION WORKER TO HIS RISE TO WORLD-CLASS STATUS AS KING OF THE BLUES, B.B. KING not only personifies every guitarist’s version of the great American dream, he stands as a true model among men. His philosophy of life and dedication to his art form the bedrock of a remarkable 60-year career dedicated to self-improvement and universal brotherhood. A consummate musician and entertainer, King has touched and inspired people of every age, race, and creed.

In the ’60s, his playing was adopted as the gospel by a younger generation of guitar phenoms that included Michael Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and Johnny Winter. Looking back on how each successive stratum of guitarists has built on the ideas of the previous, it’s vividly apparent that B.B. King is single-handedly responsible for much of today’s blues and rock guitar vocabulary.

King has maintained relentless touring and recording schedules since 1950, often playing as many as 300 dates per year. He’s a veteran of an estimated 12,000 gigs and too many sessions to count, though Live at the Regal (1965), Blues is King (1967), Live & Well, and Completely Well (both 1969) are particularly timeless. To stay fresh, King has always kept up with the times by recording with a wide variety of artists, from the Jazz Crusaders and Ray Charles to U2 and Sheryl Crow. He has performed for presidents and was even a featured GP columnist from February through November ’83. Even at 82, King shows few signs of slowing down. How does one begin to emulate such a vast wealth of experience? First, you’ve gotta ...

 

1: DEVELOP BIG EARS

Once a Memphis disc jockey whose handle was “The Beale Street Blues Boy” (yep, that’s where “B.B.” came from) and always an avid listener, King drew inspiration from a deep well of influences. By 1980, his blues and jazz record collection numbered over 30,000 discs! Today, King’s vast library of music has been digitized and travels wherever he does. “My style is a mixture of people that I’ve idolized,” King told GP in 1970. His seminal list of favorites included Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, and his cousin and former mentor Bukka White, and you’ll find many of these players’ characteristic musical traits embedded in King’s playing. And despite being self-taught, King firmly advocates musical education. “Get yourself a teacher, take music lessons, and learn everything you can about your instrument,” he says. “Learn to read music. Later on you’ll be qualified to play whatever you want.”

 

2: FIND YOUR SOUL MATE


Perhaps you’ve heard the tale of how King came to name his guitar Lucille. (He rescued it from a fire started at an Arkansas juke joint when two men began fighting over a woman named Lucille.) But did you know that King’s original Lucille was a little black Gibson acoustic fitted with a DeArmond pickup? Or that King went through nearly every guitar in the book before discovering Gibson’s ES-335 in 1958 and settling on his beloved ES-355 in 1959? “Fenders, Gretsches, Silvertones—you name them, I’ve probably had one,” says King. “When I found that Gibson with the long neck, that did it. That’s like finding your wife forever.”

As of 1992, King was playing his 15th Gibson “Lucille”—which over the years has evolved into the signature semi-hollow sans-f-holes model that he still plays today. King generally disregards the guitar’s Varitone circuitry, opting to adjust the guitar’s volume and tone controls on the fly. “I set my guitar according to how it sounds. I never look down to see what I’m doing,” he says. In concert, King prefers to coax surprisingly overdriven tones (the man hits the strings hard) from a Fender Twin Reverb or Lab Series 2x12 combo, and, except for setting the bass control at about 6, he runs his amp “wide open, all the time. I do that so that when I need extra power, I can get it from the guitar.” It’s no wonder that for the last 30 years, King’s sound has approximated Clapton’s coveted “woman tone” more so than E.C. himself.

 

3: FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY


In addition to his revolutionary string bends, King developed his “butterfly” vibrato (or “trill,” in King’s words)—so named for the way his fretting hand opens up and appears to flutter over the strings—after hearing slide guitarists use the technique to sustain notes. “I think that the best thing I’ve done is learning to trill in such a way that I create a sound similar to that produced by a person using a bottleneck,” says King. “Trying to get that effect is what started me working on my vibrato, which is kind of like a steady pulse, pushing the string up and letting it go without losing control of it. I try my best to make my left hand trill evenly without any effort. Of course, a great deal of practice is necessary before the hand attains the dexterity required to move smoothly enough to get that vibrato. I want to make it just like my heartbeat, something I don’t have to think about at all.” Amen!

 

 

4: INSPIRE CHILDREN


B.B. King’s heart of gold is legendary, and a perfect example came at a concert in the mid-’80s when he pulled a gifted young student of mine named Adam Hokenson on stage and presented the nine-year-old with his pick. But it didn’t stop there. Four years later, Hokenson was a blooming blues prodigy, when I noticed him sidestage at another King concert. He had the plectrum with him and wanted to thank B.B. for it, so we headed backstage and found the King of the Blues sitting alone, eating half of a sandwich. Adam froze mid-step, his jaw practically dragging on the floor. (He’s starstruck, I thought.) Then Adam blurted, “You’re eating my favorite food—tuna on white!” Hearing these words, King reached out and offered his protégé the other half of the sandwich, and the two guitarists proceeded to munch out together, each sporting as big a grin as you’ve ever seen. Small gesture, huge lesson in generosity.

 

5: USE YOUR OTHER INSTRUMENT


While this is a lesson about playing, the biggest mistake you can make when trying to emulate B.B. King is to ignore the other half of his music—his singing. In its purest form, blues is about call and response between voice and guitar, and no electric blues player in history exemplifies this synergy better than Mr. King. His lyrical guitar leads pick up seamlessly where his vocals leave off, and it’s no stretch to say that King’s voice and guitar combine to make one bigger instrument. While most of us would be hard-pressed to sing blues with as much soul and conviction as the Beale Street Blues Boy, we can certainly have fun trying.

 

6: INTRODUCE YOURSELF


Examples 1a through 1f depict six classic intro licks that have become synonymous with the name “B.B. King.” Notice that we’re playing over a slow, 12/8 blues groove in Bb. Unlike many blues-rockers, King is partial to “horn” keys, such as F, Bb, Ab, Db, etc., and each three-note pickup begins on beat four, just before the downbeat of bar 1 in a standard 12-bar blues progression. Ex. 1a’s opening 5-6-root motif approaches a whole-step grace-note slide into a partial Bb chord shape followed by a drop back to the 5. Ex. 1b alters the rhythm of the previous pickup, then approaches the same partial Bb chord via a half-step slide, concluding with a tonic Bb rounded off to beat two. The same pickup leads into a first-inversion Bb triad decorated with a half-step grace slide in Ex. 1c, while Ex. 1d reveals an alternative fingering for Ex. 1a. In Ex. 1e, we raise the pickup notes one octave and replace our chordal downbeat with a high-D bend and pair of tonic Bb’s, the latter embellished with plenty of King’s signature “butterfly” vibrato. Finally, Ex. 1f adds another eighth-note and alters the tones to produce a swinging b3-n3-5-6 pickup into a single Bb. Silky moves!

 

7: PLAY IT YOUR WAY


In addition to putting his own stamp on many familiar T-Bone Walker-style licks, King has developed a unique vocabulary of runs derived from the upper half of the less commonly used hybrid major/minor pentatonic scale pattern located two-and-a-half steps above the standard minor pentatonic blues box. Watch him play and you’ll be surprised by how many “blues box” licks King squeezes out of the compact pattern illustrated in the horn-friendly key of Ab in Ex. 2a. Any essential tones not included, such as the b7, can be achieved by bending the existing ones. You can bend the 5 a whole-step to a sweet, upper octave 6, or one-and-a-half steps for a wailing, over-bent b7, and produce microtonal to spot-on 3’s by bending the 2 a whole-step, or the b3 a half-step. King also uses his 1st finger to bend the 4 a half-step to the b5, or a whole-step to the n5. In Ex. 2b, a six-bar intro excerpt culled from a 2007 performance of the blues standard “Key to the Highway,” every note is derived exclusively from this pattern.

 

8: TAKE A SAD SONG AND MAKE IT BETTER


You can always cram more notes into a slow song than a fast one, but take it from B.B.—quality beats quantity every time. Let’s examine a pair of elegant phrases similar to what King plays on “Sweet Little Angel,” a slow blues in Db. The familiar lazy intro lick and subsequent hurried rhythmic phrase in Ex. 3a are derived from the more common ninth-position blues box, and navigate the I-IV-I change found in bars 1-3 of the 12-bar quick-change progression. Notice how the run ends with another intro lick. Ex. 3b covers the turnaround in bars 11-12 with characteristic lines in both the fourteenth and ninth positions. The closing Db6 punctuation played over the ensemble’s V chord (Ab7) is another King trademark.

 

9: ADOPT A THEME SONG


King has recorded his longtime theme song, “Every Day I Have the Blues” at a variety of tempos, but none more blistering than the swinging jump-blues version found on Live at the Regal. King hits the stage accompanied by a jumping horn chart, then answers the horn section’s questions with short, melodic bursts that fill the spaces in the arrangement. You’ll find both the horn chart (written in the concert key of Bb) and King’s solo illustrated in Ex. 4. Record or have someone play the horn figure to see exactly how these phrases complement each other.

 

10: BECOME A STORYTELLER


If there’s one classic B.B. King solo you’ve gotta know, it’s ... well, any of them. Each one tells a story, so you simply can’t go wrong. We’ve already transcribed King’s biggest hit, “The Thrill is Gone,” in the February ’99 GP, so let’s continue with “Every Day I Have the Blues.” Ex. 5 presents the second solo chorus from the Regal version of this jumpin’ 12-bar blues. King commences by rolling his tone control from full bass to full treble mid-bend—a move not lost on a young Eric Clapton, who later mimicked the technique at the end of his “I Feel Free” solo on Fresh Cream (albeit by switching pickups). Additional highlights include King’s sweet staccato and legato bends, generous use of space, a Charlie Christian-influenced Cm7 arpeggio in bar 9, and all-around swingin’ vibe. Enjoy, absorb, and pass it on! g

 

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