This is an excerpt from the October 2015 issue of Guitar Player, featuring a cover story devoted to the late great B.B. King. Pick up your copy at the newsstand or purchase one right here online.
For the March 1975 issue, B.B. King revealed to GP’s then-publisher Jim Crockett the players he dug the most. Here they are—right from the bluesman’s mouth. How many of them are you aware of or have heard performed in recordings?
“T-Bone Walker has a touch that nobody has been able to duplicate. 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. I just don’t know.
“And that touch! I’ve tried my best to get that sound—especially in the late Forties and early Fifties. I came pretty close, but I never quite got it.
“T-Bone was the first electric guitar player I heard on record—from “Stormy Monday” around 1943 or 1944. He made it so I knew I just had to go out and get an electric guitar. T-Bone used a lot of horns, too—trumpet, alto, tenor and baritone. They made a beautiful sound. That was the best sound I ever heard.”
BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON
“Blind Lemon Jefferson played acoustic guitar, and just solo, but his way of execution left you with the feeling that you could hear someone else backing him up. He had a special way of phrasing 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 especial. Blind Lemon was my idol.”
“Johnny Moore was Oscar Moore’s brother, and when Oscar was with Nat King 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 and Johnny rejoined Charles Brown.
“But 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 bit fat 9th chords. They were really modern chords, but they always fit what he was doing. He would slide into his chords sometimes—giving good blues feeling to a ballad.”
“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 like ‘Salt Pork, West Virginia.’ I have lifted a lot of things from 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 Bill did so well. So many guys back then were so good that if you listen those old recordings today, they’re still good.”
BIG JOE WILLIAMS
“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 style setter. Blues guitarist have to all come through players like Big Joe and Lightnin’. It’s much the same reason why lady singers have to come through Bessie Smith and, later, Dinah Washington. Big Joe and Lightnin’ covered everything.”
“Charlie Christian was amazing. I first heard him around 1941. There were these vending machines then—like jukeboxes but with films. you put in a dime or a 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.
“To me, Charlie Christian was a master at diminished chords—a master at new ideas, too. He was kind of like a governor on a tractor. 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.
“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 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 can play at the outer edge of that inch or at the inner edge. But if you get even a tine bit outside of 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. He always knew exactly what he was doing. For instance, take a truck driver—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, and he was 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! The things he does are unbelievable. Wes Montgomery carried his own chords as he soloed, and that’s sort of what Lloyd does, but with rhythm. Lloyd, vibes player Red Norvo, and bassist Monk Montgomery [Wes’s brother] had a drumless trio, but Lloyd’s rhythm playing was so full that you’d swear you heard a drummer in there, too.”