Celebrating the Musical Life of B.B. King

When we lost B.B. King on May 14, 2015, it was one of those earth-shattering, catastrophic events that make everyone take notice.

When we lost B.B. King on May 14, 2015, it was one of those earth-shattering, catastrophic events that make everyone take notice. Even those with zero affinity for blues music or guitar players could feel that something momentous and sad and never-to-be regained had occurred that day.

We lost a man who was such a tireless evangelist of the blues—and music in general—and one of the last surviving links to the plantations of Mississippi and its musical chroniclers of woe and hope. But King was so much more than a living history of war-era blues music. He also adored jazz, and he studied and read and practiced and lived in order to bring more depth to every note he played. He delighted in performing for young, white hippies in the ’60s—when his act expanded into pop culture— and, somehow, he evolved beyond the love-ins, folk fests, and dance halls, and continued to thrill audiences of all types until shortly before his death. It seemed like he was always with us—whether he was slightly under the radar, or scoring huge pop hits such as Riding With the King with Eric Clapton in 2000.

Even as his musical powers diminished in his last years, his jovial, unbowed spirit could still inspire fans. He seemed to truly live for music. But his skill as a player and his history weren’t the only reasons people revered him. He was also humble. Approachable. A charismatic celebrity, and, in later life, a very rich man, but one without all the star trips and entitled behavior. He was witty and kind and a gracious teacher to all who sought his wisdom. He encouraged most every musician he met. He probably wasn’t a saint, but he appeared to be as close to one as an earthbound mortal could be. These are some of the reasons why his death had such resonance, and why, even a few months later, his absence is still felt so deeply.

The GP staff struggled a bit with how exactly to pay tribute to such a beloved and important guitarist. A man who—much like the mission of this magazine since 1967— worked tirelessly to bring the joy of guitar playing to as many lives as possible.

The answer was right in our archives.

King had been a huge part of the extended Guitar Player family from the beginning. We first featured him in 1969, and continued talking with him well into the 2000s (his last cover feature was October 2000). He’s in our Gallery of the Greats, and the great man would occasionally stop by the office to jam back in the magazine’s early days.

So while other publications can publish retreads of King’s biography that, no matter how well written, can’t mask that the facts can be found online and myriad other places, Guitar Player possesses decades of transcripts where B.B. talks directly to us (and you) about the music he made, his gear, his influences, his technique, and more.

And we want to share that with you now. We want B.B. himself to tell you the story of his life.

We can’t publish everything we have in our archives in one issue, of course. (Someday, I promise we’ll figure out a way to make our entire archival resources available online.) We hope we’ve selected some of the best bits for you to read here. Long live the memory of B.B. King!
—Michael Molenda


“The first electric guitar player I heard in person was when I saw a sanctified preacher named Archie Fair in the hills of Mississippi. He was my uncle’s brother-inlaw. I must have been about seven or eight years old. 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.”


“The idea [to change my name] came from the local radio station where I was working, WDIA. I was singing some advertisements for Pepticon—one of those ‘cure all’ medicines. Later, I became a disc jockey with my own one-hour show, and they would call me the ‘blues boy’ or the ‘boy from Beale Street.’ A lot of times, they’d shorten it to ‘B.B.,’ and I liked that. It has stuck with me all this time.”


“During the late 1940s, guitars hadn’t really come into being, if you will. It was a bitch to try to get a good guitar at that time—just to try to get one. And when you did get one, you better hold onto it—don’t loan it to nobody. If you did, they didn’t come back. Nobody had any idea that the guitar would become what it is today. I’ve tried so many guitars through the years—you name them, I’ve probably had one. But when I found those Gibsons, that did it. That’s like finding your wife forever. This is she! They had the ES-335, and then they had a new idea for the ES-355, so that’s the one I’ve held onto.”


“We used to be put down as blues singers. I’ve quite often said that if you were a black person singing the blues, you were black twice. And if you’re a white person, you were black once. But my cousin Bukka White used to tell me, ‘Dress neat and clean like you’re going to try to borrow some money from a bank. When you’re dressed up, the white people see you, and you look like a preacher or something like that, so you get by a little easier.’ After that, I started a trend for my own band. I got used to dressing up, and I liked it.”


“My first Lucille was a little black Gibson acoustic guitar, and I used a DeArmond pickup on it to electrify. My first amplifier—the very first one I ever had—was a little Gibson amp with something like an 8" or 10" speaker in it.”


“Musicians influence me by how they phrase. Even though they may be in different categories— some are jazz and some are blues— when I hear their phrasing, each note seems to say something to me. And it doesn’t have to be 64 notes to a bar. Just one note can tell me a whole lot.”


“I believe that your sound comes from within you, because I can do that with almost any amp. You can manufacture a sound by having a wah-wah pedal or something, but the actual sound comes from within you. You know, if you have a piano sitting out in the lounge or someplace, and Ray Charles is playing it, he’s going to sound like Ray Charles. If Elton John is playing it, he’s going to sound like Elton. My point is that it’s your touch and your soul that makes it sound the way it does.”


“Let’s put it this way: I won’t say I invented [fingerstyle , perpendicular-to-the-neck] vibrato, but they weren’t doing it before I started [laughs]. I will say that I’m still trying. Bukka White and quite a few other people used bottlenecks. But I have stupid fingers. If I get something like that in my hand and try to use it, it just won’t work. So my ears told me that when I trilled my hand, I’d get a sound similar to the sound they were getting with a bottleneck. And so for about 33 years, I’ve been trying to do it, and now they tell me that I’m doing a little better.”


“I cannot play and sing at the same time. I just can’t do it—I’ve never accompanied myself. I’ve always been featured from the very beginning. I still can’t play rhythm worth anything, because I never had the chance to really play in a rhythm section. But I know a few chords.”


“Each person has their own idea of what they want something to sound like, and you can’t tell anybody how something should sound to them. But I will say that if something doesn’t sound good to you, you can bet it won’t sound good to others. Now, if you don’t care what it sounds like to others, then you aren’t going to make any money or pay your bills.”


“I was at the Apollo Theater one time, and a critic gave me one of the greatest compliments anyone has ever given me. He said, ‘B.B. King sings, and then Lucille sings.’ That made me feel very good, because I do feel that I’m singing when I play. That’s why I don’t play a lot of notes like some people. Maybe that’s the reason most of my music is very simple—that’s the way I sing. When I’m playing a solo, I hear me singing through the guitar.”


“I’m kind of in a hurry when I record, but Eric takes good time doing it. He makes sure that each detail is worked out the way he thinks it should be. I would trust him completely. If it was something he felt that we—as a whole— didn’t do like he thought we could do it, he’d mention it. We’d go back and do it over. He knew what he wanted. It was Eric’s idea to revisit some of my old songs like ‘When My Heart Beats Like a Hammer,’ ‘Ten Long Years,’ ‘Three O’clock Blues,’ and ‘Days of Old.’ When we first talked about doing a record together, I said, ‘Eric, I trust you with the songs. You choose them, and if I have a problem with anything, we’ll talk about it.’ He brought up tunes I had forgotten about. They say elephants have long memories? None of them has a memory like Eric! He was never demanding, and we always talked frankly to each other. Like I said, he knew what he wanted. I didn’t [laughs]. I had no problem with any of the tunes Eric brought in, except one: “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Ray Charles sang that, you know, so I didn’t think I could do it justice. I feel that I’m quite limited, and I don’t like to go beyond what I think I’m pretty good at. But Eric said, ‘B., I can hear you doing it.’ So we recorded it, and, sure enough, when I heard the results, I agreed with him. I think we did a very good job. I told Eric he’s like my lady—he can get me to do things I’d never do!”


“I’ve heard some people say that I’m not playing blues anymore. Okay, so what am I playing? I’m playing B.B. King-style blues, and I play it the way I feel it. I’m not trying to please anybody but the audience and myself. I hope everybody else likes it, but if they don’t—well, the critics have to eat, too.”


“In my room, you’d be surprised at all the things I try, but I never go out on a limb onstage—no, no, no. I make enough mistakes. The guys in the band always tease me. But I’ve learned through these many years of being out there that if you make a mistake, work something into it, so that it’s not a mistake.”


“Many guitarists are so technical that everything is so right there. That’s good— it shows that you practice. But when a guy lives what he’s doing, you can feel it. I can’t tell you what I’m listening for, but when I hear it, I know it. The people who I listened to in the early years—T-Bone Walker, Elmore James, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian— all lived their music.”


“The big mistake about people in the blues is they seem to think you have to be high, completely smashed, or stoned out of your head to be able to play the blues. And I don’t think a guy has to wear patched trousers, either. That image is what people seem to put on us, and it’s wrong. Blues music is like any other kind of music. Some of us excel, and some of us don’t. Some of us are really able to please people, and some of us can’t. But we all have the blues—red, white, black, brown, yellow, rich or poor. You can be successful and still have the blues. I have been fortunate, and yet now I have more to sing about than I ever did before. I look around and read the papers, and I see what’s happening in this country and around the world. There are money troubles. Food is running low is some places. There are oil problems. I go to the prisons and see what’s happening there. I think of my people—the ones I left behind in Mississippi, and all the people in all the Mississippis. We are part of each other, you know. When one person is hurt, it hurts me, too. When I see their condition, I know what they feel, and I feel it. And it hurts.”


“In the early years, I thought that everybody seemed to get a break but me. I wasn’t bitter about it. I figured they got a break because they deserved it. But I thought I did, too. Finally, when the kids started to play blues, they opened up a lot of doors for B.B. King. I pray on it sometimes, and I say, ‘Thank God—better late than never.’ But I was never bitter. I don’t feel I have a reason or a right to be bitter. No, I didn’t get the recognition I thought I deserved, but why should I be bitter about it? You can’t make people love you [laughs]. They love you if they want to. That’s the way life is.”
—A E

President Obama joins in singing “Sweet Home Chicago” during the “In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues” concert in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 21, 2012. Participants include (from left): Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks, B.B. King, and Gary Clark, Jr.


The world was so saddened by King’s passing that scores of tributes flooded the airwaves and social media. Here’s a sampling of some of those remembrances from GP readers, rock stars, and politicians.


B.B. King was the greatest guy I ever met. The tone he got out of that guitar—the way he shook his left wrist, the way he squeezed the strings. Man, he came out with that and it was all new to the whole guitar playing world. He could play so smooth—he didn’t have to put on a show. The way B.B. did it is the way we all do it now. He was my best friend, and a father to us all. I’ll miss you, B., and I promise I will keep these damn blues alive!


There’s not a lot left to say, because his music is almost a thing of the past now. There are not many left to play it in the pure way that B.B. did. He was a beacon for all of us who love this kind of music, and I thank him from the bottom of my heart. B.B. King: Live at the Regal is where it all started for me as a young player.


To say that the loss of B.B. King is devastating to the blues community is an understatement. He defined the blues. He was the blues. He brought blues to an audience that would never have found the blues if B.B. was not the conduit. Never again will there be another as good, gracious, or as kind as Mr. King.


B.B. was one of the last of the great pioneers in the tradition of Chicago blues. Guitar as we know it wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for B.B. and his peers.


B.B. King is the most important electric guitar player for me that ever walked the planet.


No one did more to spread the gospel of the blues. He was an ambassador who brought his all-American music to his country and the world.


In the fall of 1970, some fellow bandmates and I drove the four hours to Chicago to see B.B. King at a wonderful dinner club called Mr. Kelly’s.

After the show, he was sort of hanging around in front of the stage, so I took that opportunity to talk to him. I told him I had been trying to learn how to play the blues by listening to and playing along with many of his records, but, no matter what I did, I didn’t sound like him. I asked him if it was because I’m white and I would just never get it. He laughed and said, “No man, that’s got nothin’ to do with it. Have you ever been treated bad by a girl?”

And I said, “Sure.”

He said, “Well that’s the blues. Now you put that feeling into your fingers.”

A major light bulb went off, and suddenly I got it.

Then, he said, “Learn from the records, but don’t try to copy. Take what you learn and make it your own, because that’s what will keep the blues alive.”

Those two things had a profound impact on how I perceived music and guitar playing, and influenced everything I did musically throughout my career.

GP reader

I met him in Fort Worth, Texas. He was there with U2. I was waiting at the hotel lobby, hoping to run into Bono, and instead, here comes B.B. King with a bodyguard. I was so excited. I got to shake his hand and he gave me his autograph. I asked him if I could hold Lucille. He laughed, and said, “You may.” He took her off his shoulder, and I was so honored. I told him, “I just want to get a little bit of your magic is all.” He laughed out loud, and as he walked away, he nodded and said, “Keep some of that magic!”

GP reader

Three things that B.B. King shared with me:

[1] “When you get on that stage, you’re King Kong. The stage is yours and you should own it. But the minute you leave that stage, leave that ego and that attitude right there. Don’t ever take it with you. No one wants to deal with someone who carries that ego around.”

[2] “I will play the blues until the day I die. As long as I can pick up my guitar and play, I’ll keep going.”

[3] “Don’t chase trends. Just do what you do—even when you have to wait it out for a time. Muddy Waters once told me that a musician is like a horse on a track. It might look like the others are leaving you behind— and they will for awhile—but soon they’ll all come back around, and be right where you are once again.”

GP reader

I saw B.B. perform more than 20 times, and he was always gracious, humble, and quite often hilarious. It was always like being around an old friend whenever I got to see him and chat. I’m a teacher, and he told me he always wanted to better himself. He loved to read, to listen to all kinds of music, and work on song arrangements on his laptop. Once, I told him that the teachers in my district in New York were going through some protracted contract negotiations, and he said, “If you teachers ever need me to help you, just give me and Lucille a call.”

GP reader

I was on a school field trip when I was 12 years old, and Mr. King came into the Varsity in Atlanta for lunch. I wanted his autograph, but the only thing I had for him to sign was a newly purchased copy of the Beatles’ Let It Be. He told me it was a great album, and he’d love to sign it for me.


JC=Jim Crockett, March 1975; AE=Andy Ellis, October 2000; DE=Dan Erlewine, June 1992; JO=Jas Obrecht, July 1991; LS=Lisa Sharken, March 1999; AT=Art Thompson, February 2000; TW=Tom Wheeler, September 1980.

Dan Erlewine checks out Lucille’s specs in 1992.


Anyone who knows anything about B.B. King is aware of his famous story about Lucille…

“I was playing a hall in Twist, Arkansas [in 1949],” he told GP in 1969, “and these men got into a fight and knocked over a burning barrel of kerosene they were using for heat. The whole place caught fire, and I had to run back into the burning building to get my guitar. I learned the men had been fighting over a woman called Lucille, so I named my guitar “Lucille” to remind me never to do a fool thing like that again.”

King has had many Lucilles since that “fool thing” occurred, and Guitar Player staffers were lucky enough to get their hands on one of his ladies twice to detail how he liked his guitars set up.

GP columnist Dan Erlewine got ahold of “Lucille the 15th” in January 1992, and did a “setup CSI” that revealed a neck width of 1.698” at the nut, and a fret size of .098” wide by .045” tall. The neck relief (measured at the 7th and 8th frets) was .030”, which is a lot of relief. Erlewine stated that .015” would be more normal, but he declined to arouse King’s ire by making a surreptitious trussrod adjustment.

Ten years later, in the November 2002 issue, we had another chance at studying Lucille, when GP columnist Gary Brawer examined it for his “Setups of the Stars.” At this time, King was using a 1999 model built by Bruce Kunkel of the Gibson Custom Shop. The guitar was presented to King for his 70th birthday, and it had one modification as a deference to the bluesman’s age—an output jack on the back to accommodate his then-current style of playing while sitting down. The corian nut still had the 1992 measurement, but the frets were now .092” wide by .050” tall—much higher and narrower than what you’d find on a vintage ES-355. Brawer found the neck on the 1999 Lucille to be almost straight.


For the March 1975 issue, 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 perform in recordings?

I’m a mixture of many people—not just guitarists. People like alto player Louis Jordan, trumpeter Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, Bobby Hackett, Cleanhead Vinson. If you listen to Louis Jordan’s phrasing, you’ll hear B. B. King. I’m as much a jazz fan as I am a blues fan, and I like country and western music, too. Chet Atkins is a master guitarist. But among my very favorite guitar players are these ten men…


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. How he’s able to hit specific strings, I just don’t know. And that touch! 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. 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 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 special. 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 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.


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 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 style setter. Blues guitarists 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 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 tiny 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. WesMontgomery carried his own chords as he soloed, and that’s sort of what Lloyd does, but with rhythm. Lloyd, vibe player Red Norvo, and bassist Monk Montgomery [Wes’ brother] had a drumless 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. Django Reinhardt can’t be omitted, either—particularly 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.


For the September 2000 issue, King shared with GP Senior Editor Art Thompson his “rules of the road” for managing his group of musicians.

Everybody has an ego, but sometimes you don’t see it—or they don’t show it—so you have to be diplomatic. If you’re what I call a “stiff boss,” there’s no gray area—either the band will get tired of you, or you’ll get tired of them. I tell my musicians and everybody who works with me, “If there’s something bothering you, let’s talk about it. I’m not Lord, God, master, or any of that. I’m the bandleader and the guy that pays you.”

It makes me happy when the guys are concerned enough to say to me, “How come we have to sound like that here? Why don’t we try this?” I really welcome it, because if you can get everyone’s ideas and put them together, it makes it better. One of the guys in my band has been with me for 21 years, and almost everybody else has been with me between ten and 15 years. There’s no contract, though. There never has been. It’s a handshake deal—my word, their word. Nobody has ever let me down, and I don’t let them down. There have been times when I’ve paid them a month in advance, but they’ve always been there when I needed them. I’ve got the greatest bunch of guys that you could find.

Every household has to have some rules, though, and I have a few. You don’t smoke, drink, or swear on the bandstand. I don’t, so you don’t. If you want to get drunk, do it in your room or someplace, but don’t miss work. You don’t fight, either. If you fight, you get fired. Another rule has to do with wives and girlfriends. A guy has to treat his lady like a lady when she’s around us. It has been that way for 50 years.

A lot of the guys in my band are better musicians than me. Most of them read better and play better. The only thing I’ve got on them is age, and experience does come with age. That’s the part that I ask them to respect. I tell my band, “It’s like we’re on a boat—if anyone opens a hole in it, we all sink.”


The Guitar: Gibson B.B. King Signature Lucille.

The Amp: Lab Series. “I turn the Volume knob full up,” said King, “the reverb is at 2, the treble is at 8, the bass at around 4, and the middle at 5. That’s about it.” King also liked Fender Twins.

Effects: “I don’t use any pedals or nothing,” said King. “It’s just me and the strings and the amp.”

Strings: Gibson B.B. King Blues strings, gauged .010, .012, .013, .024, .037, and .054. Although loyal to Gibson, King also started using Ernie Ball Skinny Top/ Heavy Bottom strings in 1992— gauged .010 or .011, .013, .017, .030, .045, .054—because he didn’t like the wound G in the Gibson sets. “That’s nice if you’re playing jazz,” he said, “but it’s not the sound I’m looking for.”