The late BB King, also known as the King Of The Blues, was one of the hardest working bluesmen in history, performing an average of 300 shows a year well into his 70s.
These days we’re used to hearing certain stylistic devices on the electric guitar; licks and phrases played and repeated by many, or maybe even most, blues players. But not so in BB’s younger days.
His fluent string bending style and pentatonic phrasing paved the way for much of the next generation. Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and many more blues and rock players would not sound the way they do without the crucial influence of records like BB’s seminal 1965 release Live At The Regal.
Though it’s less about what you play and more about how, there are certain techniques and phrases that will help you sound more like the man himself and we’re looking at a few examples in this month’s tab exercises.
Using a simple setup with no effects pedals and a Lab Series transistor amp through most of the 70s and 80s, BB would hold audiences spellbound with his impassioned delivery.
Of course, ‘Lucille’, BB’s guitar of choice for decades, was a key part of his sound. If you have an ES-335 or a similar humbucker-equipped semi-acoustic, you’ll get a ballpark tone.
1. Royal blues
The gentle lilt of the 12/8 time backing music lends itself to lots of expressive string bends. A hint of overdrive and a splash of reverb helps to set the stage. Take all the time you need to get the pitching accurate on those bends and aim for an un-rushed and laid back performance.
2. High and low
BB liked to jump up to a high register for the occasional note, then resume playing an octave or two below. Notice the quarter-tone bend at the end of bar 1, which gives some bluesy authenticity. Just bend the string ever so slightly as you fret the note.
3. Fluid timing and bends
A classic BB-style lick, the timing is very fluid and should not sound too strict or regimented. The same can be said of the pitching of the quarter-tone and semitone bends. It’s not an exact science, so listen closely as you practise and make sure to spend a little time experimenting.
4. Thrilling blues
Changing key to A minor and timing to a brisk 4/4, this example showcases BB’s signature shallow, fast vibrato. Watch for details like staccato notes (shown with a dot over the note), more quarter-tone bends, slides and triplets. Each play their part in adding up to BB’s signature sound.
5. Turning it around
Watch for the rapid fire ending to bar 2 - only two notes, but deceptively tricky. Phrases like these show that BB would often reach for phrases/patterns that sounded good to his ear, rather than what fell most easily under the fingers: something every blues guitarist should remember!