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Guitar Heroes: BB King

Where do I start with this fine gentleman? This guitarist was one of the first players I really noticed when I was younger. Wide-eyed and newly discovering a true love for the guitar, I stumbled across his name on YouTube (which was still a new thing at the time), and thought he sounded like a bit of a character - little did I know how right I was!


In this blog post on guitar heroes, I will not be providing you with an encyclopedic knowledge of his life and career, but presenting some basic information and what his legacy means to me. 

Interesting Facts

His real name was Riley B. King, and he was known to all as one of the hardest working performers of the last century. Despite him having sadly passed away in 2015 at the age of 89, he was still performing regularly for as long as he was physically able to. It has been widely reported that he was appearing in excess of 250 times per year to a live audience, and was even said to have performed nearly every day of the year in 1956 - this has never been accurately substantiated as far as I’m aware but I wouldn’t put it past him.

He had an iconic playing style, that we will discuss in more detail later, but he was equally as famous for his vast repertoire and even more so for the simple image of him wearing a blazer with Lucille strapped around his neck. For context, Lucille was the name he gave any of his guitars that he was playing at the time. The name was borne of an interesting story involving a show, a fist-fight, a venue in flames and also a woman called Lucille - I suggest you research this, it makes for great reading! The guitars that are synonymous with him are Gibson guitars based on the ES family of instruments, though with no ‘F holes’ whilst still being a hollowbody and with a varitone rotary switch, a device that enabled a plethora of tonal options. 

Eric Clapton once referred to BB King as “the most important artist the blues has ever produced” which just speaks for his provenance as a guitar player, but he was always ready to sing the praises of others and accept his own shortcomings. He didn’t see himself as a fast player and so chose to focus his songs in other areas, there was simply no desire to play fast.

His Playing

To me there are a few things that really stick out and sound like no-one else is playing. One of them is a unique vibrato style. Check out the link below for one of my favorite performances of his, there is a really clear view of his left-hand technique here:

BB King - How Blue Can You Get (Live)

The vibrato is very wide, and sometimes very quick but it is not warbly or out of place. It always slots in just perfectly and, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, I inadvertently modeled my own vibrato style after his, something that was pointed out to me many years after the fact. When doing this, the index finger remains static on the string but the hand lifts off the neck and spreads out, relying on the rotation of the wrist to help achieve the correct motion. The skillfulness of his bending combined with the vibrato was what inspired me to obsessively work on the technique myself. 

There was also frequent use of the root note of whatever key he was playing in, but as high on the guitar as could be reached. In the example below, I have highlighted an example in green.

I think this signature of his playing is used in nearly every solo of his that I have ever heard, and anyone that also plays this one note at the same time as him also imparts some of his soul along with theirs.

Check out the solo in ‘Sweet Sixteen’ that I have linked below. The higher note in question can be heard at 4:08, but the whole thing is special anyway. 

BB King - Sweet Sixteen (Live)

His phrasing and articulation was so intertwined with his singing that it almost blended into one. He was as comfortable singing his way through a tune as he was playing through one, though he clearly enjoyed both too much to stick to just one. 

Golden Moments

From his first commercial recording in 1949 to his untimely death in 2015, his career was littered with golden moments and amazing shows. Here are a few of my favorites!

BB King - Thrill is Gone (Live at Montreux 1993)

This is the first show of his I ever witnessed through video, and I felt like I was in the room watching it happen despite never having actually seen him live. He was fast approaching 70 years old in this performance, though his playing, the sound and the energy belie his age at the time. He has a masterful command of the band behind him, and the video features what has to be one of the greatest guitar solos of all time, in my opinion at least. It is only 8 bars long, but the build up to it makes it the ultimate climax. It has it all - the tone, perfectly placed articulations and enough to give you a taste, but make you want more. At this stage he sat down for most of his shows, but he stands for the last 8 bars, one YouTube comment put it the best “when BB King stands up, you shut up!”. 

I have recorded a demonstration of this solo and transcribed it in case you wished to have a go at learning it. Hopefully the short should be available at the same time as this blog post. 

John Mayer & BB King

John Mayer is undoubtedly one of the modern guitar heroes, and despite him singing King’s praises as genuinely as I could myself, starting off the jam in entirely the wrong key just shows how distracted he was by the magnitude of the artist sitting next to him. This show is also a great example of BB King’s trademark humor and light-heartedness. 

BB King - How Blue Can You Get (Live at Farm Aid 1985)

When you perform as much as the king did, you are bound to experience almost every issue on the road. During this performance, he breaks a string somewhere around the 3:00 mark, and then proceeds to change the string whilst singing the main part of the song as if were completely normal - a consummate professional!

Final Thoughts

I think it is clear by this point the profound impact this artist has had on my playing. I was genuinely upset when he passed, for I never got the chance to see him play live. There was also a clear feeling of immense pride in what he performed, and it was clear that his body couldn’t always perform to the same standard towards the end. He persevered and kept going for the love of the blues, and music as a whole, and I think a great many people owe a lot of their playing to his legacy. Put on a live album, such as ‘Live at The Regal’ and sit back, enjoying the show for what it is - a masterpiece. 

I could count on one hand the number of guitarists that have had such an impact with their playing as they did with their singing. A few peers would be George Benson, perhaps John Mayer in previous years. 

It would be a great lesson for anyone to learn a few of his songs, or to try and play something in his style. You might find that you come to discover something new about your own playing. This is something that any reputable guitar teacher can help you with, or the teachers at The American Guitar Academy - some of which have been lucky to see him play in person!



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