Over the course of his career, B.B. King crafted some of the best blues guitar solos of all time. A huge part of this came down to his soft touch, signature vibrato technique and his beautiful blues tone.
Yet it was also down to his phrasing and note choices. B.B. King created a sound that was unique to him – not just through his touch and use of vibrato – but through the note groupings he chose to construct his solos. This is what I will be covering in this article. Specifically I will be looking at the B.B. King Box and the following points:
- What the B.B King Box is, and how it is constructed
- The rules for using the B.B. King Box in your playing
- How you can use the B.B. King Box to add a different feel to your solos and increase your musical vocabulary
- Example licks based around the B.B. King Box
So without further ado, here is everything you need to know about the B.B. King box:
What is the B.B. King box?
The B.B. King Box is a six note scale that B.B. King created. It is a scale that features a lot in his solos, and is one of the defining characteristics of his lead guitar style. As such, including it in your solos and improvisations is crucial if you want to capture a bit of that B.B. King magic.
The B.B. King Box is so called because it is based around a box shape on the top three strings of your guitar. The construction of the B.B. King Box is as follows:
1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6
Made up of six notes, the King Box is technically a ‘hexatonic’ scale. This is because it contains six notes per octave, with ‘hexa’ originally meaning six. Like similar scales, the box is a moveable shape that you can play all over the neck of your guitar. Typically though, King played it on the top 3 strings, with the 1 (root note) played on the B string. This is what the box looks like in the key of A:
In the diagram above, the root note (shown in blue) is played at the 10th fret on the B string. The 6th note of the box – which in the key of A is F# – is typically played on the string below the root note. In the diagram above, this is the 11th fret on the G string. However, you can also play the same note one octave higher. This is shown on the diagram above at the 14th fret on the E string.
The benefits of the B.B. King box
Before you try to learn any new scale or technique, I think it is worth properly understanding how it will benefit your playing. This might sound obvious, but it is a step that I think most guitarists miss. And it is for this reason that in my opinion so many guitarists end up learning lots of sections of different songs, scales and techniques, without ever really getting to grips with any of them.
This is perhaps not so surprising. Learning new ideas and techniques is not easy. And when your practice time is limited and you are also balancing guitar playing alongside a whole host of other responsibilities, it is easy to default into playing the same old licks and riffs.
I have been guilty of this in the past, but have found that really clearly defining why I am learning something on the guitar helps to keep me focused and motivated.
You might at this point be scratching your head. After all, surely the benefit of learning the B.B. King Box is that it helps you to sound like B.B. King?
This is of course true. Yet I think it is worth digging a little deeper before we look at the specific ways you can implement the B.B. King Box in your playing. Not only will this help to keep you motivated, it will also show you the impact that this new box shape can have on your lead guitar playing.
Here then are the three main benefits of using this new scale (beyond the obvious benefit of adding a bit of that killer B.B. vibe to your guitar solos!):
The upbeat major blues sound
As noted above, the B.B. King Box contains a b3 (flat third) interval. And this means that technically, it is a minor scale. However because of the other notes used in the scale – and specifically because of the major 6 interval – it has a happier and more upbeat sound than the minor pentatonic or minor blues scales.
At first, this might sound like a drawback. After all, there is something counterintuitive about opting for a happy sounding scale when playing the blues. Yet whilst this is true – and a happy and upbeat sound is not always going to be appropriate – it is important to have the option to choose what type of sound you want to create in your blues guitar solos.
The minor pentatonic scale sounds brilliant and works well in a huge range of different situations. But you don’t want to limit yourself to that one sound.
Learning the B.B. King Box will help to improve your musical vocabulary. It will add variety and a totally different feel to your blues guitar solos. And this is one of the key benefits of learning this new scale.
In my experience, when guitarists first learn the minor pentatonic scale, they quickly become comfortable soloing with the first two shapes of the scale. These two shapes form comfortable patterns under the fingers. They also lend themselves to licks that not only sound very effective, but are also often fairly easy to play. It is for this reason that these two scale shapes – and the first shape in particular – feature in almost every blues and blues rock solo ever written.
The problem however, is that a lot of guitarists get stuck in this area of their fretboard. They become overly reliant on the first two shapes. And the longer they continue to limit themselves to these shapes, the more difficult it becomes for them to transition to other areas of their fretboard. If you are in this situation, then the B.B. King Box can really help you out.
As I will illustrate in more detail below, the box not only overlaps nicely with the third shape of the minor pentatonic scale, but it provides an easy point of connection between shapes two and three of the scale.
So if you have found yourself feeling increasingly ‘locked’ into the first two shapes of your pentatonic scale, learning the B.B. Box will help you to navigate around your fretboard with greater fluidity.
The major & minor mix
The B.B. King Box is only a collection of six notes in one specific part of your fretboard. As such, it is unlikely to be the only scale you utilise in your improvisations.
Instead, it is much more likely o be a scale that you combine with the minor pentatonic or minor blues scale – or perhaps the major versions of those two scales. When you do this, you will be mixing the major and minor blues sounds together. And this opens up a huge range of different soloing options. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix are just some of the notable blues guitarists who combine the major and minor blues sounds to great effect in their lead playing.
So whilst learning the B.B. King Box will unlock a whole new scale and sound to use in your playing – more significantly, it will also give you the option to mix this into all of your current licks.
The basic rules of the B.B. King box
When it comes to using the B.B. King Box in your playing, there is really only one key rule to note. And that is that you cannot use the box over a minor blues progression. This is because there are notes within the scale that clash over a minor chord progression. This is particularly the case with the IV chord in a minor 12 bar blues progression. The major 6 interval present in King’s scale clashes with the notes in this chord. And in turn this creates a harsh dissonance that you want to avoid.
However, beyond that one rule you’re free to experiment with the B.B. Box. And you can do so without fear of running into trouble. This is because you can play the scale over all of the chords in a major 12 bar blues. You can play it over the I, IV and V chords and it will sound great over all parts of the progression.
So, as is the case when you play the minor pentatonic scale – it is quite difficult to sound bad or to run into trouble when using this scale. Of course there are notes in the box that sound better over different chords. But it is quite difficult to play any notes here that will really make you wince – provided that you are playing them in a major blues context.
How to use the B.B. King box effectively
Having said that, there are a number of ways to use the B.B. King Box more effectively in your playing. And so here, I will run through three different ways that you can use this scale to create that B.B. feel in your solos, and add a greater variety to your improvisations. These increase in difficulty. So if this material is new to you, work through these points in order and don’t progress through them until you feel comfortable with each concept.
Target the root note
One easy way to create tasteful blues licks is to resolve your phrases on the root note of the key in which you are playing. Following on from our example above and sticking in the key of A – the root note here is the note of A. In this diagram this note is shown at the 10th fret of the B string. The other intervals are also shown on the diagram:
When you play in a key – no matter which key it is – that key becomes the tonal ‘home base’. And in overly simplistic terms, the notes that you play either create a sense of taking you further away from that home base, or of pulling you back towards it.
When you return to the note or chord of the key in which you are playing (in the example above, this is the note of A), it creates a feeling of returning back to home base. It is the musical equivalent of a full stop, and is pleasing to the ear.
So one of the first points you can focus on when using this shape, is to resolve your phrases on that root note.
This focus point certainly isn’t unique to the B.B. King Box. It will work well in all of the existing pentatonic and blues scale shapes in your repertoire. But really zoning in on that root note is something that King does a lot in his playing. And so I think it is particularly effective when using the B.B. King Box.
To bring this idea to life a bit, let’s look at two very simple example licks:
In this first lick, the phrase resolves on the note of A. And it does so in conjunction with the chord of A7 being played (this isn’t shown on the tab but you can hear it on the audio track):
At 60 beats per minute (BPM) this is what this lick sounds like:
Hopefully you can hear that when the note of A is played at the same time as the A7 chord, there is a real sense of resolution. It brings the phrase to a conclusion and it sounds great.
Conversely, in this second lick, the phrase resolves on the note of E. Again it does this in conjunction with the chord of A7 being played:
At 60 BPM, this is what this lick sounds like:
At least to my ears, this lick doesn’t sound bad. It isn’t displeasing to the ear, nor does it create any dissonance. But when compared with the first lick, it lacks a sense of completion. When you end on the E, rather than the A, the lick sounds unfinished. It makes it sound as if you have more to say or somewhere else to go.
So the first thing to keep in mind when using this new box shape, is to resolve your phrases on the root note. And you should take the same approach, regardless of the key in which you are playing.
Connect your shapes
This root note is also useful as a way of connecting shape 2 of the minor pentatonic scale with the B.B. King Box. As mentioned above – a lot of guitarists get stuck playing in shapes 1 and 2 of the pentatonic scale. And I think that part of this is due to the fact that it is not quite so easy to transition between the second and third shape of the scale, compared with the first and second shape.
This is where the B.B. Box can come in handy. By focusing on the root note of this scale, you can play your familiar pentatonic shapes and also transition to a totally new part of your fretboard.
Let’s have a look at this in a bit more detail:
The diagram here shows the second shape of the minor pentatonic scale, with the suggested fingering for the scale. As you can see, the note of A on the 10th fret has been highlighted in blue. This is the root note. It is also a note which appears in both shape 2 of the minor pentatonic scale and the B.B. King Box.
The only difference is that in King’s box shape, the note on the 10th fret is played with the first, rather than the third finger:
In this way, you can use the note of A at that 10th fret to move between your familiar pentatonic shapes, and this new scale. All you need to do is switch your third finger to your first finger when you are playing in the second shape of the minor pentatonic.
This simple switch moves you away from your familiar pentatonic shapes and into a new area of your guitar fretboard.
Mix major & minor
The next step to using the B.B. King Box effectively, is to mix it with shape 3 of the minor pentatonic scale. As illustrated above, you can mix this new scale with the minor pentatonic sound by moving between King’s box and shapes 1 and 2 of the minor pentatonic.
Yet you also have the option to mix this new scale with shape 3 of the minor pentatonic. And this serves two purposes. Not only will it open up a whole range of different licks, it will also help you to feel more comfortable using shape 3 of the minor pentatonic.
I think this is important, because in my experience, shape 3 of the minor pentatonic is one that is under-utilised. I find that a lot of guitarists struggle to move into and out of this shape, and also to create licks in the same way they do when using shapes 1 and 2.
If you have experienced the same difficulty, then learning how to mix this shape of the minor pentatonic with the B.B box will help you to gain confidence in this area of your playing.
Let’s have a look at this on the fretboard:
The notes in dark blue are those which appear only in the minor pentatonic scale. The notes in yellow are those which appear only in the B.B. King Box. And the notes in white are those which appear in both scales. The tonic notes of A are shown in light blue.,
As you can hopefully see from this diagram, there is a lot of overlap between King’s box and the third shape of the minor pentatonic scale. This opens up a lot of opportunity for creating interesting licks and mixing the two scales together. We can see this by looking at some example licks:
This first short lick shows an effective way you can mix minor and major tonalities when using King’s box:
At 90 BPM this is what this lick sounds like:
What works particularly well in this lick – and in those similar to it – is the use of bending at the 12th fret on the B string. This is because you can mix the major and minor sounds by altering the pitches of your bend.
For example, if you bend that note up a full tone (as in the first bend in this lick) you create a major sound. Conversely, if you bend that note up a semi-tone (as in the second bend in the lick), you create a minor sound.
By playing around with this idea you can create a fluid and interesting sound that will add a real richness to your solos.
This second lick mixes major and minor tonalities in a slightly more obvious way:
At 90 BPM this is what this lick sounds like:
Here the phrase opens with a classic B.B. King style phrase. This is based on King’s box and has a more upbeat sound. This changes through the middle of the phrase. Here the notes are all taken from the minor pentatonic box. The phrase then resolves with notes from the B.B. Box. In this way, the overall feel of the phrase is major, yet there is also an edge to the sound provided by the minor pentatonic.
This final example shows how you can use this scale to create fast lines:
At 90 BPM this is what this lick sounds like:
There is a much greater density of notes in this passage. And this highlights some of the slightly jazzier sounds you can create when you combine these two scale shapes. If you were to add in the additional ‘blue note’ from the blues scale, you could extend this even further.
Of course, there are an almost unlimited number of phrases that you can create by combining these two scale shapes. So really go for it! Play around with these shapes and work on creating a whole range of different licks and phrases. This will help you to get to grips with King’s scale, and to start using it in a practical context.
The B.B. King box in context
To get further ideas on how to use the B.B. King Box, I would strongly recommend listening to King using it in context. He uses it extensively throughout his solos. And listening to him use it will give you the best example and a whole range of ideas as to how to utilise it effectively in your playing.
Some of the songs and solos where you can really hear King use the scale are as follows:
- Throughout the song ‘Lucille‘, King uses his box shape in the key of Bb major. In the opening solo in particular, he keeps returning to the note of Bb when resolving his phrases. And in doing so he shows just how effective that sounds when used properly.
- The opening solo in the song ‘Darlin’ You Know I Love You‘ is based around the B.B King Box. This is in the key of Ab major.
- In the song ‘Paying The Cost To Be The Boss‘, B.B. King uses his box in both the opening and main solos. The song is in the key of B major and is a brilliant example of how to use this scale when playing in an upbeat tempo.
- Finally, you can hear the B.B. King Box used by Peter Green in the beautiful introduction for the song ‘Need Your Love So Bad‘ by Fleetwood Mac. Green was influenced heavily by King, and this is a very tasteful and melodic example of how to use this scale in your playing. Green is playing in the key of A major here.
These are just some notable examples. King utilises this box shape a lot in his playing – and as such, you can hear it in a whole range of his songs. So when you are trying to get to grips with this new scale, listen closely to a variety of King’s solos. Put on some of his most famous albums – like Live At The Regal and B.B. King – Live In Cook County Jail and listen closely to his lead guitar work. This will help you to understand not just how King utilises the B.B. Box, but how he mixes it alongside both the minor and major pentatonic scales.
As is true when you are trying to incorporate any new idea in your playing, take this material one step at a time.
It is always better to take a little longer to learn a new scale or technique – but to really understand how to use it – than it is to dive in and fail how to properly use it in your playing.
Start by just learning the shape of the B.B. King Box. Next, try and create a few simple licks using the box shape. Then once you are comfortable moving around the shape of the box, you can start to incorporate it alongside the existing shapes of the minor pentatonic scale with which you are familiar.
This will add a greater depth and variety to your playing, and will allow you to add a bit of that B.B. King magic to your solos.
Good luck! Let me know how you get on, and if you have any questions at all please do get in touch. Drop a note in the comments section, or send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to help.