B.B. King is easily the best known blues guitarist in the word. He has walked away with GP’s guitar poll in that category every year since it started. His five consecutive wins made B.B. the first member of Guitar Player magazine’s “Gallery of the Greats.” But not only is B.B. a great performer, he is also a serious blues and jazz scholar whose personal library of rare recordings exceeds 20,000 discs. And when he goes on the road, B.B. is never without at least 30 or 40 cassettes — each carefully indexed in a notebook — which span such musicians as Django Reinhardt, Oscar Peterson, Barney Kessel, Bill Jennings, Big Joe Williams, George Benson, Louis Jordan, Kenny Burrell, Ben Webster, Billie Holiday, Andre Previn, Ray Charles, Johnny Moore, Coleman Hawkins, Eddie Vinson, Etta James, and many, many more (including littleknown artists whose work is represented by only a handful of 78s).
B.B. King knows every nuance, every break, every chord change on his tapes, and his conversation about them is frequently punctuated with, “Listen to this! Watch this slur coming up. Man, that’s right out of Blind Lemon’s version.”
The world of guitar is, to B.B., an everexpanding one — one that grows with each unexpected discovery. It isn’t limited to blues or any other style, and neither is his own scope. One of B.B.’s greatest joys is turning people on to those guitar greats whom time has passed by. He likes nothing better than to watch a listener’s face light up upon that first hearing of Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker, or Elmore James. And ask B.B. who his own favorite guitarists are, and he’ll say, “Well, there are so many, it’s hard to know where to start.” But, in almost rapid sequence he’ll cite T-Bone Walker, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Django, Charlie Christian, Johnny Moore, Saunders King, Bill Jennings, Big Joe Williams, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Chet Atkins, George Benson, Elmore James, Bukka White, Earl Hooker, Robert Nighthawk, Muddy Waters, Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Lloyd Ellis, and Kenny Burrell. And that’s just for starters.
— Jim Crockett
My Ten Favorite Guitarists
By B.B. King
I have had so many favorite guitar players over the years, that it’s hard to just narrow it all down to ten. And I’ve been influenced by other musicians, too — people like alto player Louis Jordan, trumpeter Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, Bobby Hackett, Cleanhead Vinson. I’m a mixture of many people. Like if you listen to Louis Jordan’s phrasing, you’ll hear B.B. King. When you hear men like these play a melody, it’s so beautiful! They may never put anything else in it, but if they were playing about a bird, you could see it flying.
But back to guitar players. I’m as much a jazz fan as I am a blues fan. I like country and western music, too. Chet Atkins, to me, is a master guitarist. But among my very favorites are these ten men: T-Bone Walker, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Johnny Moore, Bill Jennings, Big Joe Williams, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Charlie Christian, Earl Hooker, Robert Nighthawk, and Lloyd Ellis.
T-Bone Walker, for instance, has a touch that nobody has been able to duplicate. I’ve listened to Alexis Korner, Big Bill Broonzy, and others — all possess a certain touch and tone settings that are different. And when I hear T-Bone play, his tone setting is like no one else’s. He has a strange way of holding his guitar, slanting it away from him instead of having it lay flat against his stomach. It’s almost like he were playing a steel guitar, but he curls his left arm underneath, and reaches his fingers up over the top. And he seems to kind of scrape his pick across the strings. How he’s able to hit specific strings, I just don’t know. And that touch he gets! I’ve tried my best to get that sound — especially in the late ’40s and early ’50s. I came pretty close, but I never quite got it. I can still hear T-Bone in my mind today, from that first record I heard, “Stormy Monday,” around ’43 or ’44. He was the first electric guitar player I heard on record. He made me so that I knew I just had to go out and get an electric guitar.
The first electric guitar player I heard in person, though, was a sanctified preacher named Archie Fair in the hills of Mississippi. He was my uncle’s brother-in-law. I must have been about seven or eight. He’d visit my uncle, and when it was time for the adults to go in the kitchen for dinner — the kiddies ate later, if we were lucky—he’d lay his guitar on the bed, and I’d crawl up and play with it. One day, he caught me and decided to show me a few chords: C, F, and G. Even today, I still use those same three chords a lot, and use that I-IV-V progression in many of my songs.
T-Bone used to use a lot of horns, too — trumpet, alto, tenor, and baritone. They made a beautiful sound — like shouting in the sanctified churches in just the right places. He had a good rhythm section, too. And, to me, T-Bone seemed to lay right in between there somewhere. That was the best sound I ever heard.
Blind Lemon Jefferson played acoustic guitar — and just solo — but he played the same kind of thing. His way of execution left you with the feeling that you could hear someone else backing him up. And he had a special way of phrasing, too, that I don’t hear from many people today. Anyone can play 64 notes in a bar, but to place just one or two in that same bar in just the right place, or maybe even let one go by, then double up on it in the next bar — that’s something special. Blind Lemon was my idol.
Johnny Moore was Oscar Moore’s brother. When Oscar was with Nat Cole, Johnny played in a similar trio with Charles Brown, who played piano and sang. This was in the 1940s. When Charles decided to go on his own, Oscar left Nat, and joined Johnny as a duo. Then they got another singer/pianist. After a couple of years, Oscar and Johnny split up. Oscar stopped traveling while Johnny rejoined Charles Brown. I remember seeing Oscar and Johnny playing together in Los Angeles — it was like meeting gods! Johnny used a big Super 400. He used to like to put in quite a few chord changes when he was playing — things like big, fat 9th chords. They were really modern changes, but they always fit what he was doing. He would slide into his chords sometimes, giving a good, bluesy feeling to a ballad. I think people will start talking a lot more about Johnny Moore in the future.
Bill Jennings used to play in Louis Jordan’s band [Tympany Five]. I first heard him on “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman.” Later, Louis featured him on tunes such as “Salt Pork, West Virginia.” I and a lot of other guitar players have lifted things from him. Billy Butler is another guy who listened to him. His rhythm was so even and so driving. You know, once you start a beat to going real good, keep it. That’s what he did so well. So many guys back then were so good that if you listen to those old recordings today, they’re still good.
Big Joe Williams is another great one. His playing with Sonny Boy Williamson was beautiful. Tunes like “Baby Please Don’t Go” were really setting a pace.
Lightnin’ Hopkins was another one like that, another style setter. Blues guitarists have to all come through players like these two. In the same way, lady singers have to come through Bessie Smith, and, later, Dinah Washington — these two covered everything. So did Big Joe and Lightnin’.
Charlie Christian was amazing. I first heard him around 1941 or ’42, There were ten-cent vending machines then — like juke boxes, but with pictures. You put in a dime or quarter, and you could see the most popular people of the day. That’s how I first saw Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Louis Jordan. And that’s how I saw Charlie Christian. I was still in Indianola, Mississippi at the time. To me, Charlie Christian was a master at diminished chords. A master at new ideas, too. And he was kind of like a governor on a tractor. I used to be a tractor driver, and if a tractor is bogging down in the mud, the governor will kick in and give it an extra boost. Christian was the same way — when the band would hit the bridge, he would keep the whole thing flying, and get it really taking off. Barney Kessel plays a lot like him, but with ideas that are more of today. Charlie didn’t fluff notes much, either. A lot of us slide into notes because we aren’t sure. Like if you want to hit a Bb, you hit a B and slide down into it, or hit an A and slide up. But Charlie Christian knew. He was so sure. It really bugs me when someone plays a little flat or a little sharp. All the notes that you play in my band have to relate to the actual pitch. Like if the pitch of C were one inch wide, you could play at the outer edge of that inch, or at the inner edge, but if you get even a tiny bit outside that inch it bothers me. I always play right in the center. I may slide up or down, but I always land in that center.
Earl Hooker was the best slide guitarist I ever heard. To me he is the greatest. He always knew exactly what he was doing. For instance, take a truck driver. I used to drive trucks, too. You tell him to park next to the curb, and he knows exactly where to put the rig. That’s how Earl Hooker played.
Robert Nighthawk was Earl’s teacher. Robert Nighthawk was one of the greatest slide players I ever heard — certainly among the best. I can hear his playing in Earl Hooker. I was influenced somewhat by Robert, but only by his slide work. Earl Hooker, though, could get me both ways.
Lloyd Ellis is something else man. He still lives in Las Vegas. Been playing with Red Norvo the past two or three years. The things he does are unbelievable. Wes Montgomery carried his own chords as he soloed. That’s sort of what Lloyd does, but with rhythm. Lloyd, Red, and Monk Montgomery [Wes’ bass playing brother] had a drum-less trio, but Lloyd’s rhythm playing was so full that you’d swear you heard a drummer in there, too.
That’s ten, but I could go on indefinitely. There’s my cousin, Bukka White — a marvelous guitar player. Wes Montgomery was one of my favorite guitarists, too, and a good personal friend. Barney Kessel is another great player and friend, and so is Kenny Burrell. I never met Tal Farlow, but I love his playing so much that I feel we’ve known each other for years. Herb Ellis is another great one, and so is Muddy Waters — especially in his early slide work. And Django Reinhardt can’t be omitted, either — particularly on some of his rare recordings with just a regular rhythm section. It’s nice to think back to all the wonderful guitar players, but there are a lot of great ones coming up every day, and their playing will influence me, too — just as I hope that my playing will, in some small way, influence others.
Originally appeared in the March 1975 issue of Guitar Player.