How To Sound Like B.B. King
I think there are very few blues guitarists out there who haven’t wanted to sound like B.B. King at one point or another in their career. B.B. King is the undisputed master of the blues. He is the ultimate blues musician and a player to whom every modern blues guitarist owes a considerable debt.
When I first started playing the guitar as a teenager, I had the amazing fortune to see B.B. King play live. It was one of the best live performances that I have ever seen. B.B. King’s playing truly captured my imagination that night. To me, his style and the way he approached the guitar illustrated the vast possibilities that the instrument offers.
B.B. King was not one for fast licks or flashy playing. His focus was on pouring emotion into every note. His playing evokes deep feeling and captures the spirit of the blues. B.B. King’s tone is key to evoking this emotion. It is beautiful and pure, and unlike that of almost any other blues guitarist before or since.
To help you get closer to those beautiful tones, here I have outlined the details of the gear that King used during his career. So without further ado, here is everything you need to sound like B.B. King:
Despite his career spanning more than 60 years, the gear that B.B. King used remained almost unchanged.
King famously played a black Gibson ES-355 that he called Lucille. It earned this name in 1949, following an incident at one of King’s gigs where the club that he was playing in set on fire. King escaped to safety, only to realise that he had left his beloved guitar inside. He ran back into the collapsing building – risking his life in the process – and managed to retrieve the guitar from the flames. He later learned that the fire had been started by 2 men who were brawling over a waitress in the club called Lucille. King decided to name his guitar Lucille, to remind him ‘never to do a thing like that again’.
Lucille was modelled on the body of an ES-355. But if you want to sound like B.B. King, it’s worth noting the specific features of King’s ES-355, and the modifications that King made to his guitar.
The first notable feature of King’s ES-355 is the Varitone switch. Typically on ES-355s, there is a 3 way toggle switch, which switches between the neck pickup, both pickups and the bridge pickup. The Varitone is a 6 way switch that filters out specific frequencies in each position. This is covered in more detail below. But in short – the Varitone sounds very different in each position, and can be used to produce a whole range of different tones.
King also modded Lucille by blocking up the F-holes on the guitar. This was to combat feedback on stage when he played at high volumes. In the early days of electric guitar playing, guitarists would fill the bodies of their guitars with foam and then cover the F-holes with card or other similar materials. Fortunately, as guitar manufacturing has become more sophisticated, this has been factored into the build of the instruments. So although Lucille is a semi-hollow bodied guitar, it doesn’t showcase the classic F-holes that feature on standard ES-355 models.
The Gibson ES-355
If you want to sound like B.B. King then, there are a number of initial considerations you need to make. The first, is that you need a semi-hollow body guitar, similar to that of the ES-355 that King played. For although the ES-355 was once one of Gibson’s most popular thin line semi-hollow body guitars, production of the guitar was stopped in 1982. Since then, various different ES-355 style guitars have been produced – most of them modelled after Lucille, as B.B. King was the most notable player of the ES-355.
The ES-355 is very similar to the ES-345 and ES-335, but differs in a small number of ways. Some of these are merely cosmetic. The ES-355 has a different inlay on the headstock, and the fret markers start from the 1st, rather than the 3rd fret. The binding on the guitar is also different.
More significantly, when it was first released the ES-355 had an ebony, rather than a rosewood neck. It also had a Varitone circuit – unlike either the ES-345 or ES-335 – and it had the option to come fitted with either a Bigsby tremolo unit, or a Vibrola vibrato unit.
Over the years, both Gibson and Epiphone have released various replicas of Lucille, the most recent of these being a Gibson Custom Shop guitar that was produced in 2019. For whatever reason though, these guitars do not seem to be readily available any longer.
If you want to sound like B.B. King and you are looking for authenticity, you have a couple of options here. The first is to try and buy a second hand version of one of the Lucille replicas. If you go for the Epiphone Lucille, prices start on Reverb from around $950/£750. You can also find the Gibson Lucille replica on Reverb, and prices of that guitar from around $3200/£2500.
The other alternative, is to buy an ES-355. Very few of these guitars are made now, and most of them are produced by the Gibson Custom Shop. As a result, they tend to be in a higher price bracket. But if you really want to sound like B.B. King and are looking to make an investment, then something like an ES-355, 1959 Reissue could be a great choice.
Alternatives To The ES-355
As you can see then, buying a Gibson ES-355 is not without its challenges. The price of a Gibson Custom Shop ES-355 Reissue is beyond the reach of most players, and buying a guitar second hand is also not an option that appeals to everyone.
If that is the case with you, then don’t worry – you don’t need to buy an ES-355 to sound like B.B. King. For although there are differences between an ES-355 and the more popular and readily available ES-345/335 models, these differences are not that profound. In fact, one of the main differences is that the original ES-355s came fitted with a Varitone circuit. Yet whilst the Lucille replica models are fitted with the same circuit, this is not true for most of the Gibson Custom Shop reissues.
I’ll cover the Varitone and how to replicate it in more detail below, but the good news is that opting for a semi-hollow body guitar will definitely get you close to replicating King’s vintage blues tones. And the even better news, is that there are options here to suit all budgets.
If you are slightly more budget conscious, then I would recommend going for one of the entry level Epiphone models:
Beyond the entry level Epiphone models, there are a number of brilliant mid-range guitars that are similar in specification to King’s Lucille. Some of the best options here are as follows:
After the Epiphone models, there is a significant jump in price, as you get to the American made Gibson range. These rarely sell for less than $2500/£2000 and their ES models tend to be at the upper end of their price range. Some of my top choices here are as follows:
Finally, there is also the Gibson Custom Shop range to consider. These guitars are in a higher price bracket again, but could make a brilliant choice if you really want to sound like B.B. King and are looking to make an investment. Some of my top choices here are as follows:
Semi-hollow body guitars have a distinctive sound that you can’t replicate with a solid body guitar. So opting for any of these guitars will help you get close to replicating King’s vintage tones. After that, the next elements to consider are the specific features of King’s ES-335 and the mods that he made to his guitar.
The Varitone Switch
Given that very few guitars are fitted with Varitone switches, I think it is first worth running through what a Varitone switch is and how it works. For although the Varitone is referred to as a ‘switch’, it is actually a 6 way rotary knob that helps players shape their tone.
This knob is connected to a notch filter, which is linked to 6 separate capacitors. The 1st position on the Varitone switch is true bypass. Then in positions 2-6, the Varitone removes certain frequencies from your sound. The amount that the circuit slices away in each position is preset, so in short, the Varitone offers 6 preset ‘EQ maps’.
The character of the sound in each position is really quite different. But you can get a sense of how they differ on this video here. It is worth nothing though – and this isn’t shown in the clip – that in addition to the 5 positions the Varitone offers, you also have your regular tone and volume controls as well as your normal 3 way toggle switch.
This then leaves you with a whole range of tone shaping options beyond those you find on a normal guitar. If you are lucky enough to have a guitar with a Varitone and you want to use it to sound like B.B. King, switch it to position 2. This was the position that both he and Freddie King favoured. The sound of this position is illustrated at the 2.30 minute mark on the video above. Here guitarist Scott Sharrard shows how to dial in a tone reminiscent of King’s tone on ‘The Thrill Is Gone‘ using the Varitone.
Replicating the Varitone
B.B. King did not always use his Varitone switch. As such, you can recreate many of his classic tones without using a Varitone switch or trying to replicate it. So if you are more interested in producing a warm, vintage blues tone, than you are in recreating King’s tone with authenticity, you don’t need to worry about the Varitone circuit. In fact, towards the later years of his career, King stated that he never used the Varitone at all!
Having said that, you will struggle to recreate the slightly pinched and scooped sound you hear on some of King’s songs without using a Varitone. With that in mind then, you have a couple of different options:
The first is to modify your existing guitar. You could buy a Varitone switch kit, and either mod your guitar yourself, or take it to a guitar tech to make the mod for you. Truthfully this isn’t the most straightforward option.
Firstly, the Varitone circuit isn’t popular. A lot of guitarists mistakenly believe that the circuit is detrimental to tone, and so you only seem to be able to find these kits second hand on sites like Ebay.
Secondly, adding a Varitone switch to your guitar is no small undertaking. If you have an Epiphone, then this mod alone could come close to the cost of your whole guitar. And if you have a Gibson ES style guitar, you might be reticent to make such dramatic changes.
If either of these true – but you still want to recreate the sound of the Varitone – then I would recommend using an EQ pedal to sound like B.B. King.
Using An EQ Pedal
In essence, the Varitone switch is not so dissimilar from an EQ pedal. It also slices away certain frequencies in each position. The key difference between a Varitone and an EQ pedal is that the settings of the Varitone switch are hard wired.
As a result, if you mimic the settings on a Varitone with your EQ pedal, you can get close to replicating the sound of the Varitone – without having to making any changes to your guitar.
There is some discussion around the exact frequencies that are removed by the Varitone in each position. There are also those that believe that the Varitone switches that were produced in the 1970s sound notably different. But below is a rough guide to the changes in EQ that happen at each position of the circuit:
1.) Bypass (no changes in EQ)
2.) -8.5dB at 1875Hz
3.) -12dB at 1090 Hz
4.) -15dB at 650 Hz
5.) -16dB at 350 Hz
6) -20dB at 130 Hz
Hopefully you can see then, that if you took an EQ pedal and altered the frequencies as above, you could replicate the different positions of the Varitone switch. As mentioned earlier, B.B. King favoured position 2. So use the figures above as a starting point and keep adjusting until you get the tone you are looking for.
As for EQ pedals – there are a whole range of different pedals to choose from. Some of my top choices would be the MXR M108S 10-Band Graphic EQ Pedal, the Boss GE-7 Band Graphic EQ Pedal, and the MXR M109S 6 Band Graphic EQ Pedal.
Each of these pedals is relatively inexpensive, and will help you to sound like B.B. King, without having to use a Varitone switch.
Regardless of whether you try to replicate the sound of B.B. King’s Varitone or not, it is worth looking at your pickups.
Lucille was fitted with vintage humbucking pickups. Specifically, King’s ES-355 had a 490R Alnico humbucker pickup in the neck and a 490T Alnico humbucker pickup in the bridge.
So if you have an ES style guitar with modern pickups, and are really after authenticity, it is worth looking at vintage style pickups. The obvious choice here is to go for the specific pickups that King used – the 490R in the neck position and the 490T in the bridge position. Beyond that, fitting your guitar with vintage style pickups will do a lot to get you closer to King’s vintage tones. Some of my top choices are:
If you buy a guitar that is modelled after a vintage model (like a Custom Shop guitar for example), it is likely to come stock with vintage style pickups. So if that is the case, you don’t need to go out to buy any new pickups at all. Instead you can focus on other areas of King’s set-up.
Of course, it is also worth mentioning that you can still get beautiful blues tones without fitting your guitar with vintage pickups. But if you really want to sound like B.B. King, using one of the pickup sets listed above will definitely get you closer to those vintage tones.
The Lab Series L5
During his career, B.B. King favoured 2 main amplifiers. The first of these was an amp called the Lab Series L5. Made by Norlin – the parent company of Gibson and Moog – the L5 is a 100 watt solid state amplifier with 2×12” speakers.
This might be somewhat surprising, as solid state amps are not typically associated with beautiful blues tones. Whilst of course you can get great tones from solid state amps, tube amps tend to be the go to choice amongst blues players. In short, this is because when they are cranked, tube amps break up into a very warm and natural sounding overdrive. The same cannot be said for solid state amps.
That B.B. King used a solid state amp like the L5 is perhaps not so surprising though, as he rarely played with an overdriven tone. King wasn’t looking to push his amp into overdrive; he was looking to preserve a clean and crisp tone.
Interestingly, in more recent years, Joe Bonamassa described the L5 as one of the most underrated amps out there:
Everyone knows it as the “B.B. King” amp, but it’s also the Ronnie Montrose amp—and the Ty Tabor amp…It’s simply a kick-ass, solid-state amp. I like the immediacy of the older solid-state amps—they’re so punchy. The new digital solid-state junk is another story, but the old stuff is killin’. B.B.’s tone is great with the Lab Series.
Although King’s use of the Lab Series somewhat goes against the conventional wisdom around tube and solid state amps, there is no denying that it worked for him. King wanted an amplifier with lots of head room that could be played with a clean tone at high volumes. And with the L5, that is what he got.
The Fender Twin Reverb
The other amp with which King is associated is the Fender Twin Reverb. This was the ‘back up’ amp that King used when he wasn’t able to play his Lab Series. In his own words:
The Fender Twin was great, but I have an old Lab Series amp that isn’t being made anymore. I fell in love with it, because its sound is right between the old Fender amps that we used to have and the Fender Twin.
Like the Lab Series, the Fender Twin Reverb is a large amp. At 85 watts and with 2×12″ speakers – it is also powerful and has beautiful clean tones and lots of headroom.
By his own admission, King didn’t pay a huge amount of attention to his gear and the amps he used at different points. As a result, it is quite difficult to work out on which recordings King is playing the L5, and when he is playing the Fender Twin. Perhaps that isn’t really so much of an issue though – because King was using both amps in a similar way. He played loud and clean and relied on both amps for their power and headroom.
Tube Amps To Sound Like B.B. King
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend choosing either of the amps that King actually used during his career. Unless you are playing in very large venues, they aren’t an appropriate choice. They are just too big and too loud for home use. I would also argue that both amps will somewhat limit you, especially if you are looking to produce a range of different blues tones, not just to sound like B.B. King.
This is because although these amps have beautiful clean tones, it is difficult to produce a slightly more overdriven sound through either of them, at lower volumes. And whilst this isn’t a problem when you want to sound like B.B. King, it is problematic if you are looking for a different sound.
With this in mind – and assuming you are doing the majority of your playing at home – I would recommend going for a small tube amp that is voiced similarly to a Fender Twin. And here you want to strike the balance between an amp that has beautiful clean tones and decent headroom, but which you can still push to break up at a reasonable volume.
The great news, is that Fender have some brilliant lower wattage amps that are perfect for home use, across a range of budgets. Some of my top recommendations are:
- Hot Rod Blues Junior IV
- Fender ’68 Custom Princeton Reverb
- ’57 Custom Deluxe
- Fender ’65 Vintage Reissue Princeton Reverb
- Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverb
Not only will each of these amps help you to sound like B.B. King, they will also help you to create a range of beautiful vintage blues tones.
Beyond the smaller Fender amps listed above, there are a couple of additional options worth considering.
The first of course, is to use the amps that King actually played. As mentioned earlier, although I wouldn’t recommend these for a variety of different reasons, if you are looking for authenticity and you have the ability to play loud, then both the Lab Series and the Fender Twin Reverb will help you recreate King’s vintage tones.
The Fender Twin Reverb is still readily available, and would be a great choice if you are gigging in larger venues, or if you need something with more power. The Lab Series is no longer in production, but you can find the L5 on sites like Ebay for very reasonable prices. I’ve even seen them as cheap as $565/£450!
The other option to consider – if you want a solid state amp but don’t want to buy one second hand – would be the Roland Blues Cube Hot Guitar Amp. This is a solid state amp that aims to recreate the beautiful tones of early Fender amps, without some of the drawbacks associated with them. For although tube amps produce beautiful tones, they are often fragile and temperemental, and you have to push the volume to get the most out of them. And this can be challenging if you have friends, family and neighbours you have to consider.
The Blues Cube is 30 watts, which makes it more than powerful enough for gigging, but it has also different power settings. This means you can use it at 0.5, 5 and 15 watts. If you want to sound like B.B. King then, but you are also looking for versatility and practicality from your rig, the Blues Cube could be a great option. As an added bonus, it is also one of the cheaper amps listed here.
Like so many of the early electric blues guitarists, B.B. King didn’t use any guitar pedals. King played with a predominantly clean tone, that on occasion he would push a little bit harder until it was just on the edge of break up.
Having said that, if you really want to sound like B.B. King, I would still consider adding a couple of choice guitar pedals to your set-up. For although King typically played with a clean tone, he often played at high volumes. So even though his amp was not overdriving, he was pushing it, which gave his tone a beautiful warmth and thickness. Just think about King’s tones on live albums like Live At The Regal or Live In Cook County Jail.
It can be quite difficult to dial in the same warm tone if you are predominantly playing at home at a more conservative volume. And this is where a choice guitar pedal or 2 can help.
Specifically, I would recommend adding a boost pedal to your rig.
A boost pedal will push your amp and add a bit of extra warmth and thickness to your tone. There are a huge number of different pedals to choose from (which I outlined in more detail here), but some of my top choices are:
- Xotic EP Booster
- ZVEX Super Hard On Preamp Boost Pedal
- tc Electronic Spark Booster
- Katana Clean Boost Mini
- MXR Micro Amp
If you also want the option of producing a bit more drive and warmth, it could be worth adding a Klon style pedal to your rig. I outlined some of the best ‘Klones’ in this article here, but something like the J.Rockett Audio Designs Archer, or the RYRA The Klone could work well. Even though these are technically overdrive pedals, most guitarists use them as a boost pedal, to add warmth and thickness to their sound.
It is perhaps worth reiterating at this point that King didn’t actually use any of the pedals outlined above. So if you are looking for authenticity, then these are not ‘must have’ pedals. But despite that, I do think there is a benefit in using one of the above as an ‘always on’ style pedal. This will thicken and enhance your tone, without colouring the natural sound of your guitar and amp.
B.B. said to me, ‘Can I play your guitar?… He strummed it a few times and handed it back to me. He looked at me rather quizzically and said, ‘Why you working so hard?…Those strings. You got real heavy, heavy strings.’ I said, ‘Well, isn’t that how to get the heavy, heavy sound?’ He said, ‘No! Don’t be working so hard!’
There is a long held idea that if you want a sweet blues tone, you need thick guitar strings. This has largely been perpetuated by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan has one of the most enviable tones in blues, and famously played 0.13 gauge strings, which by normal standards are extremely heavy.
King was of the opposite school of thought. He believed that you should choose strings that allow you to produce beautiful tones, without sacrificing comfort or playability. King himself played a mixed gauge of strings that ran as follows: 0.10, 0.13, 0.17, 0.30, 0.44. 0.54.
So he was playing a medium gauge on his top strings and a heavy gauge on his bottom strings. Until recently, Gibson produced a set of B.B. King signature strings in this gauge. But for whatever reason, these no longer seem to be in production.
To find a ready made set of strings that match these gauges exactly is a little tricky. But the ‘Skinny Top, Beefy Bottom‘ strings from Ernie Ball come very close and would be a great choice. Some further options I would also recommend are:
Try some of these strings out and experiment until you find what works best for you. Given that B.B. King doesn’t play fast, but does favour big soaring bends and long sustaining notes – I wouldn’t recommend going much lighter than 0.10s, but you could definitely go up to 0.11s if you wanted, and if doing so doesn’t effect your playing too much.
Some Closing Thoughts…
Well there we have it, everything you need to sound like B.B. King.
In many ways, recreating King’s guitar tone is simple.
King stripped everything back and just focused on the essentials, which was ‘Lucille’ plugged straight into his amp. He didn’t have an extensive pedalboard, nor did he use any effects. His signature sound came from his semi-hollow body guitar and a powerful amp with beautiful clean tones and lots of headroom.
So if you want to recreate King’s tones, focus on those core elements. Although the exact gear that King used is prohibitively expensive for most of us, I hope the budget friendly options outlined here have been helpful.
Beyond that – if you want to sound like B.B. King, then you have to put in the hard hours of practice. King is one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time. His playing was extremely nuanced and focused heavily on the quality of each note, rather than on trying to play as many notes as possible. It is a rare style of playing but one one that is very impactful.
If you take the same approach to your playing, and combine that with the suggestions outlined here, then you’ll be well on your way to recreating the beautiful tones of ‘The King of the Blues’
Good luck – and please do let me know how you get on in the comments section!
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