“I have never experienced anything like that. It was like piano strings, and it was so far off the neck”: Lee Ritenour on the time BB King invited him to play Lucille and the guitar made him work for every note

Lee Ritenour and BB King: Ritenour says King's famous Lucille was a tough guitar to play
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Billy Gibbons tells the story of how BB King once tried out his guitar for size and asked him why he was working so hard, advising the ZZ Top man to size down on the electric guitar strings. It was advice Gibbons took onboard. He strung up with a set of .007s and the rest is history.

But BB King was not always so hot on those lighter string gauge, at least not as Lee Ritenour remembers it. Ritenour has revealed that playing the King Of The Blues’ legendary electric guitar Lucille was the very definition of hard work – and that made BB King’s playing style, typified by that vibrato, all the more phenomenal.

Ritenour was speaking to MusicRadar ahead of the release of Brasil, the jazz guitar maestro's new album with long-standing collaborator, Dave Grusin, with the pair scheduled for a pair of dates on 22 and 23 July at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. 

He says he found out the hard way that Lucille was one guitar that bit back hard, with an action like nothing he had experienced before. 

“I was at a festival with him, and I had performed with my band and opened for him,” says Ritenour. “I forget where this was. After my performance he went on and he was on his encore and he put his guitar down on the stand and he was just singing. He saw me standing by the curtain there, offstage, and he shouts, ‘Lee, come on out!’ And he says to the audience, ‘Lee Ritenour! Come on out!’ [Laughs] I said, ‘I can’t, BB, my guitar’s all packed up. I don’t have my stuff.’ He said, ‘That’s okay, play mine.’”

BB King [front] is joined onstage by Lee Ritenour, Robert Cray and Steve Cropper

BB King [front] is joined onstage by Lee Ritenour, Robert Cray and Steve Cropper at the opening of the BB Kings Blues Club at The Mirage. "He loved sharing the stage with all the guitar players," says Ritenour. "He was just something else.” (Image credit: Denise Truscello/WireImage)

Ritenour had played with BB King before. He played rhythm guitar on 1977’s King Size. But this was a different ballgame, live in front of a crowd. 

“I went onstage and I grabbed his guitar,” he says. “First of all, I put the strap on and the guitar was down to me knees. He was a big guy. I adjusted that and then I tried to play his guitar… His guitar!? The strings were off the Gibson guitar, like, I have never experienced anything like that. 

“It was like piano strings and it was so far off the neck, so high off the neck, and then there was all this grease on the neck. It was BB King grease on the guitar that had been baked on there for years and the strings were heavy as hell. I could hardly physically play the guitar.”

Ritenour says experience BB King’s setup first hand made him appreciate the blues guitar icon's style even more. It was not just the technique, of course. Ritenour says he had “a personality with his his music that transcended everybody.” 

But when you got down to it, here was a player whose stock in trade was in manipulating those strings, bending them, shaking them, with a vibrato that was peerless. To play BB King licks on a slinky setup would be an feat of strength let alone with the action like this, but then he was a generational talent. This is what makes him the GOAT.

BB was incredibly strong on guitar. He had this incredible vibrato. Nobody on the entire planet could play vibrato on the guitar like he did

“BB was incredibly strong on guitar. He had this incredible vibrato. Nobody on the entire planet could play vibrato on the guitar like he did,” says Ritenour. “That’s why I remember this story, because cos he had this vibrato that is hard to do when you are playing a guitar like mine that’s normally strung up, but on his guitar? He was something else. He was very special, and he loved sharing the stage with all the guitar players. He was just something else.”

Brasil is available to preorder via Candid. See Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club for ticket details. Our full interview with Lee Ritenour is coming soon to MusicRadar.

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.