B.B. King is the undisputed master of the blues.
He redefined the electric guitar and totally changed the way that it was played. He introduced techniques and a style of playing that was wildly different to anything that came before. In doing so, he had a profound impact not just on the blues, but also on rock music, and all of the later genres that were born out of rock. It is little exaggeration to say that every guitarist in the modern era – regardless of the genre that they play – owes a debt to B.B. King.
Even today – over 70 years after B.B. King’s career began – there is so much that we can learn from studying King’s approach to the blues. This ranges from the nuances of his technique, to his approach to soloing, to the mindset that made him not just an amazing guitarist, but one of the most beloved musicians of all time.
In fact, there is so much that we can learn from B.B. King, that this list barely scratches the surface. But here I have tried to highlight the key characteristics and traits that made King such a brilliant blues guitarist. I hope this helps you to learn from him and develop your own playing.
So without further ado, here are 10 lessons you can learn from B.B. King:
1.) Master The B.B. Box
The B.B. Box is one of the most distinctive elements of B.B. King’s playing. In essence, it is a six note scale that King created. It features a lot in his playing, and so including it in your solos and improvisations is crucial if you want to capture a bit of that B.B. magic. The B.B. box is based around the following notes of the major scale:
1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6
It is a moveable shape that you can play all over the neck of your guitar. Typically though, King plays the B.B. box on the top 3 strings, with the 1 (root note) played on the B string. This is what the B.B. box looks like in the key of A:
Here the root note (shown in red) is played at the 10th fret on the B string. The 6th note of the B.B. 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 it one octave higher, shown on the diagram above at the 14th fret on the E string.
The beauty of the B.B. box is that it works when you play it 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 equally effective over each part of the progression.
This is not true over a minor blues progression. It is very difficult to use the B.B. Box effectively in a minor blues context. But if you want to add a slightly different flavour and some sophistication to your playing, you should definitely learn this scale.
King uses the B.B. box in pretty much all of his lead playing. So stick on Live At The Regal or Live At Cook County Jail to hear how King uses the box when soloing. Alternatively, another great example can be heard on ‘Need Your Love So Bad’, by Fleetwood Mac. Peter Green was heavily influenced by King, and during the opening solo of the song he plays the B.B. box in the key of A (as above) to brilliant effect.
2.) Float Like A Butterfly
B.B. King’s ‘butterfly’ vibrato is exceptional. It is without question one of the most distinctive elements of his playing. When King first learnt the guitar, he wanted to imitate the sound of his cousin Bukka White, who was a slide guitar player. Using a slide allows you to play the micro tones in between notes, and to sustain notes for longer. It is a unique sound that closely mimics the human voice, and you can’t really replicate it with a regular playing style. However, B.B. King managed to get very close through his use of vibrato.
If you want to develop the same vibrato and create a similar sound to King, there are two key elements to focus on:
The first is the placement of your fretting hand. A lot of blues guitarists grip the neck of their guitar hard with their thumb when they apply vibrato. B.B. King does the opposite. He shifts his hand away from the neck and puts all of the weight on to the finger that is applying the vibrato. The only point of contact he maintains with his guitar is his fretting finger. Other bluesmen like Eric Clapton adopt a similar technique. But typically Clapton and others only use this ‘floating’ vibrato style with their first finger. B.B. King is unique in that he almost always moves his hand off the neck, regardless of which finger he is using to apply vibrato.
Adopting this style of vibrato is challenging enough using your index finger. But applying it with your ring and little fingers is very challenging. Stick with it though, as it is a key skill to develop if you want to sound like B.B. King.
The second key characteristic of King’s vibrato is the pace at which he moves his left hand. The finger he uses to apply vibrato moves very quickly. It is almost like a trill, but executed just with a single finger. Yet despite the speed at which King’s finger moves, his vibrato doesn’t actually move the string very much. He doesn’t alter the pitch of the notes drastically. Instead his vibrato adds sustain and feeling to his playing.
To see King illustrating his distinctive vibrato in depth, watch this video from the 2.11 minute mark. It is one of the best instructional videos you can watch if you want to learn from B.B. King.
3.) Develop Your Digits
To execute this style of vibrato, you need to develop strength and dexterity across all of the fingers in your fretting hand. If you watch videos of King, you will see that he uses all of his fingers when he is playing. Admittedly, he doesn’t often bend with all four fingers, but he certainly doesn’t neglect his little finger either. In fact, it is one of the primary fingers that he uses to slide up the neck and change positions. This sets him apart from a huge number of blues guitarists, famous or otherwise.
A lot of bluesmen neglect their little finger when they are learning to play, and then they struggle to break that habit as they advance. So they end up playing just using three fingers. This then becomes a bit of a handicap, as having strength and dexterity in all of your fingers helps you to play quicker, reach notes more easily and voice more complex chords.
In addition to playing with all four fingers, King has a lot of strength in each of his fingers. Like Albert King, he often plays big bends of more than one tone. He also executes a lot of full tone bends using just his index finger. This is something that most players struggle to do, but it’s a skill worth learning. It will give you greater freedom to move around the neck, and to add bends and embellishments to all of the notes you want, rather than just to those that you are physically able.
Head to the 14.20 minute mark of this video, to learn from B.B. King directly and see how he bends with his index finger, as well as navigates the fretboard with all four fingers.
4.) Make Life Easy On Yourself
In addition to his finger strength, part of what helped King hit big bends was his choice of guitar strings.
Amongst blues guitarists there is a long held belief that you need to play thick guitar strings if you want a sweet blues tone. This belief has been perpetuated by Stevie Ray Vaughan, who famously played 0.13 gauge strings.
Whilst it is true that in many ways your tone will benefit from using heavier strings, it doesn’t guarantee good tone. In fact, playing with heavy strings causes problems for a lot of players. This is because using heavy gauge strings makes playing more challenging. It makes it more difficult to execute bends and apply vibrato effectively. Tone starts in your hands, and if you can’t play properly, your tone is never going to be good, even if everything else in your rig is perfect.
This is an approach that King adopted early in his career. He played 0.10-0.54 gauge strings and now has his own set of Signature Gibson strings, should you want to try them out. During his career, he also urged others to consider using lighter strings too. As Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top once recalled:
I, too, once believed in the heavier gauge string as a superior tone source…However, thanks to the graciousness of B.B. King I learned that a lighter gauge string offers superior playing comfort…Try it. You may like it.
Long story short, don’t feel compelled to play super heavy strings in search of tone. Learn from B.B. King and make sure that you are never sacrificing comfort or playability in your quest for better tones.
5.) Stop Spending
B.B. King once said that, “Notes are expensive, spend them wisely.” It is one of my favourite quotes from any guitarist. And it is a quote that perfectly sums up King’s restrained approach to playing. He never plays for the sake of it, and there are very few – if any – wasted notes in his solos.
It is not easy to play in this way. In fact there is a common misconception that playing only a handful of notes at a slower tempo is simple. Yet as British blues guitarist Matt Schofield argues so convincingly:
To do something simple very well – to get rid of all of the fluff and nonsense – and to just cut it down to the basic essence, is much harder to do, than to be all over the (neck). There are a million guys who can do that…
Leaving space between notes is not something that comes naturally to most guitarists. And so it is certainly easier said than done. But if you want to play like B.B. King, you need to exercise restraint when you are soloing. So when you are next practicing your soloing or improvising, try and play 50% less than you would normally. Just focus on the key phrases that you want to express and on the quality of your playing. It will feel strange at first, but your soloing will improve dramatically over time if you keep practicing in this way.
6.) Bend Like B.B.
Arguably, B.B. King was the first guitarist to take bending to a new level on the guitar. And this is why his impact on the instrument is so profound. Prior to King, bluesmen like T-Bone Walker had played around with small quarter note bends and blues curls. But King really kicked things up a notch, crafting a very vocal and expressive playing style through his use of bends.
In fact, King never holds back on his bending. There are very few notes that King plays that he doesn’t embellish with a little curl or a quarter bend. And he combines that with semi-tone bends, full tone bends, one and a half tone bends, pre-bends, etc etc.
The result is a very developed and sophisticated bending style. Just look at this opening passage from King’s song ‘Lucille’:
Even within this short passage King implements a whole range of nuanced bends. Copying this element of his playing is not easy. But to get closer to playing like the ‘King of the Blues’, really focus on your string bending technique. It will make you a much better blues guitarist.
7.) Start A Conversation
Trying to recreate King’s playing style is extremely difficult. From his note choice, to his spacing, to his use of dynamics – every element of his soloing is just so advanced. And tackling all of the nuances of his playing in one go can at first seem a bit daunting.
One trick to help you with this, is to start thinking of your guitar as an extension of your voice. King constantly likens playing a guitar solo with having a conversation. This might sound a bit odd, but for King, the analogy helped to define his approach to lead guitar. And when you think about it, there are strong parallels between a conversation and a guitar solo:
In a conversation you have to pause for breath between words. If you talk non-stop at someone, it is very difficult to land your point and very easy to overwhelm your audience. The same is true of a guitar solo. Your solo will have more impact if you pause between phrases and don’t fill it with an endless stream of notes.
When speaking, you place more emphasis on some words than others. It is very unusual to speak at one volume; you naturally raise and lower your voice to bring attention to the key parts of your speech. This is the same as using dynamics in your lead playing. You can’t just play at one volume; you need to adjust your playing to focus attention on the key passages you want to highlight.
If you were telling a story to entertain friends, you would pace it correctly. You would slow down in some parts, pause, and add emphasis where needed. Then you would build the story to the punch line, where you would really hammer the message home. You can treat your guitar solo in the same way, starting slow and building it to a powerful conclusion.
The analogies go on and on. So when you are trying to capture the essence of King’s playing, keep returning to this idea. It will really help to keep you on track and will greatly improve your lead playing.
8.) Find Your Roots
Eric Clapton once said of B.B. King: “I can tell B.B. from just one note. Most of us can, I think.” And it is absolutely true. King has a way of captivating you with very simple phrases, often using just a handful of notes.
One particular note to which King regularly returns is the root note. It is a simple technique, but one that King uses to great effect. He hits the root note, applies his signature vibrato and just lets it ring out. Either that, or he jumps up an octave (or sometimes more) to hit the root note, but in a higher register on the guitar. This is one of King’s classic moves and is instantly recognisable. You can hear this on a lot of his songs, but it is illustrated nicely in the opening solo of Guess Who.
To rely so heavily on the root note might feel odd at first. Often guitarists will try to avoid the root note, because it can easily be smothered by the root chord. Yet King proves that if you pick root notes in different registers and play with them with passion and the right touch, it can sound amazing.
9.) Live The Simple Life
Like many of the early bluesmen, B.B. King didn’t have a whole array of different guitars, amps and pedals. He relied on his trusty Lucille (a Gibson Es-355 without F holes) and either a Gibson Lab L5 amp, a Fender Super Reverb or a Fender Custom Twin Reverb. By the standards of most guitarists today, his rig was very simplistic. Yet he created a beautiful blues tone that countless blues players have since tried to replicate.
Whilst it is overly simplistic to dismiss the effect that gear can have on your tone, if you spend more time looking at new guitars and pedals online than you do practicing, it might be worth adjusting your priorities.
I know that G.A.S. (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome) is no laughing matter. We’ve all suffered with it and we’ve all spent too much time looking at new gear we either don’t need, or can’t afford. But learn from B.B. King and adopt a simple approach. Find a set up that works for you, treat it with love and care and then focus on creating the most beautiful tones that you can. Whether you decide to name your guitar and dedicate a song to it is up to you…;)
10.) Never Stop Learning
It would be remiss of me to write an article like this on B.B. King, and not cover his philosophy and approach to the blues. If you have ever seen any videos of King, then you will know that he possessed a simple but very profound wisdom. The depths of this wisdom are too great to explore here, but as it pertains to being a better blues guitar player, I believe there are two key lessons you can learn from B.B. King.
The first, is that you need to feel the blues. This is not something that you can capture through a particular technique or by using certain phrasing. It is something that goes much deeper than that. Often, the notes that B.B. King plays are not technically difficult. But he plays them with such soul and feeling, that they strike to the very hearts of his listeners. His guitar playing truly epitomises what the blues is all about.
Focus intensely on the quality of your playing at all times. One note played well and with feeling is better than ten that are rushed and conveyed without emotion. If you keep that in mind, then you will become a much better blues guitarist.
The second lesson is less technical, but equally important. And this is to remain open minded and always willing to learn. Despite being lauded as ‘The King of the Blues’, King always remained humble. He was open about his weaknesses as a musician – reportedly describing himself as being “horrible with chords” at a late stage in his career – and he remained consistent in his quest to become a better guitarist. Adopt the same mindset. Enjoy the process of improvement, be open to instruction and new ideas and you will become an infinitely better musician.