Learn to Play the B.B. King "Dee-Dah" Lick

Learn one of the blues master's signature licks.
By Jesse Gress,

Chances are, one of the first B.B. King moves you ever copped (not to mention the months and even years you spent striving to achieve that “butterfly” vibrato, right?) was his infamous “dee-dah” lick—a now standard b3-to-root motif in the blues vernacular illustrated in Ex. 1a in the key of B minor. You may have even prefaced it with the 4-to-5 bend shown in Ex. 1b, or its quarter-note rhythmic displacement in Ex. 1c. But here’s the rub: While these versions were adopted by the minions, B.B. rarely phrased the lick this way, i.e., with two consecutive sixteenth-notes starting on a downbeat.

Much more typical of King’s vocabulary are Ex. 2a’s dual eighth-notes, Ex. 2b’s double sixteenth-note re-phrasing starting on the and of beat two, and Ex. 2c’s gradually bent, dotted-eighth-to-sixteenth pickup version, the first and last of which are infused with milky, gradual quarter-tone bends. Ex. 3 combines all three variations into a two-bar, B-minor-based, I-chord run (right out of “The Thrill Is Gone”), which works equally well over the IV (E7 or Em) and V (F#7) chords.

Ex. 4a presents a more likely downbeat rendition that adds a second root on the last sixteenth-note of beat one, while Ex. 4b translates it to a broken eighth-note-triplet counterpart. Ex. 5 depicts a relatively rare occurrence of Ex. 1c, except here the whole run is played on the first string, with the opening bend occurring between the b3 and 4 (D-to-E), and the dee-dah lick delayed until the downbeat of bar 2.

There’s really no “right” or “wrong” here. Witness Examples 6a through 6c, which begin a sequence of events that prove through rhythmic displacement—one eighth-note at a time in this case—that the “dee-dah” lick transcends all rhythmic boundaries, and will continue to be embellished and personalized throughout eternity. Thanks, B.B.!

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