(Yes, I did promise a guide to passing Rockschool Grade 6-8 exams... but then this happened. Back to normal next month)
On May 15th the music world lost one of its true icons. The tuxedoed titan of the blues, Lucille's longtime and ever-faithful lover, the man whose elegance and humour was mirrored in his exquisite guitar playing – the one and only BB King is dead.
I'm not a particularly sentimental person, and I can't claim to suffer the grief that BB's family and friends must be suffering. But I must admit to shedding a tear for a truly great musician, and a truly inspirational man. So I think it's an appropriate tribute to examine BB's contributions and the musical legacy he left us with.
Born Riley B. King on September 16th, 1925 in Mississipi, BB was largely raised by his maternal grandmother after his mother left his father for another man when he was just four years old. His first exposure to music seems to have come singing in the gospel choir at Elkhorn Baptist Church in Kilmichael, and at age 12 he acquired his first guitar (accounts vary as to whether he purchased it himself or was given it by blues guitarist Bukka White – White's mother and King's grandmother who was raising him were cousins). There are also stories of a very young Riley King nailing a string to the wall of his shack, nailing the other end into the ground to create tension and playing the string with a bottle as a slide.
In 1941, while working on a plantation aged 16, young Riley heard the new “King Biscuit Show” on local radio – a show dedictated to blues guitarists, and it was at that moment that his ambition crystallised. He took his next step in 1943, leaving the town of Kilmichael to work as a tractor driver, and got his first break playing with the Famous St Johns Quartet on local radio station WGRM in Greenwood, Mississipi. During this time, BB travelled and played locally in many towns around the area, before taking his next big step in 1947 – hitchiking to the capital of Southern music Memphis, Tennessee to join his cousin Bukka White.
This would lead in time to a 1948 performance on blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson's radio show on KWEM, and eventually blossomed into King's own show on WDIA as a singer and disc jockey, gaining the nickname "Beale Street Blues Boy" – soon enough “Blues Boy” became BB and the legend that we know was born!
It was during his time at WDIA that BB met T-bone Walker, one of the very first electric blues players and fell in love with the electric guitar, declaring “I knew I'd have to have [an electric guitar] myself. 'Had' to have one, short of stealing!"
BB was able to build on his success in radio to become a professional blues guitarist in 1949, working under contract to RPM records with his band, the BB King Review. Many of these early recordings were produced by Sam Phillips, who would go on to found Sun Records where many of the early recordings of rock & roll legends Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and many more.
RPM backed several tours across the USA in the early 1950's, and it was on one of these tours that the legend of Lucille was born.
Lucille has had many forms throughout her life – most recently in the shape of the drop-dead gorgeous Gibson 335- derived signature model introduced in 1982. But her origins are a good deal more humble.
During his touring days, BB and his band would play many bars and juke joints across the southern USA. During one show at Twist, Arkansas, a fight broke out and started a fire which quickly spread throughout the building. BB, his band and most of the crowd escaped, only for BB to realise that his beloved $30 acoustic guitar was still inside! So he did what any self-respecting guitar player would do – he dove straight back in to the blazing building to retrieve it.
Later he would find out that the two men who started the fight had been brawling over a woman named Lucille – and both had died in the fire. King named his guitar Lucille to remind himself never to do anything as crazy again as fight over a woman or run into a blazing building.
For anything other than his guitar, that is.
In 1980 Gibson launched the BB King Lucille model based on the Gibson ES-355 hollow body guitar, the main difference being the lack of f-holes, and in 1999 was briefly joined by a Little Lucille model based on their now discontinued Blueshawk model (this model has largely been airbrushed from history by Gibson).
King continued to record and perform during the 1950s. In 1956 his schedule including a record-breaking 342 shows, and still found time to form his own record label, Blues Boys Kingdom, based out of Beale Street, Memphis.
With the British Invasion of the 1960s, white blues artists such as Eric Clapton and Paul Butterfield brought blues to a new audience, crossing the racial divide, and many of these players were quick to give credit to their influences. The “Three Kings” (B.B., Freddie and Albert – none related) were given a massive boost by this new exposure, and B.B was booked as the opening act for the Rolling Stones tour in 1969, and in 1970 won a Grammy award for what would become one of his signature songs, “The Thrill Is Gone”.
Throughout the 1980s King maintained a vigorous touring and recording schedule, playing 300 dates a year, and in 1988 his profile was raised yet again when he collaborated with stadium giants U2 on the track “When Loves Come To Town” from the Rattle & Hum album. U2 Singer Bono described this as a humbling experience - “I gave it my all with that opening howl, but when BB took over I just felt like a little girl..”, and in 2000 he and Eric Clapton recorded “Riding with the King” which would garner another Grammy as “Best Traditional Blues Album”
Despite age and health problems, B.B kept up his schedule into the new century, rounding off his long career of international touring with a performance at Glastonbury Festival in 2011 and an emotional concert filmed at the Albert Hall featuring Ronnie Wood and Slash, among others. I caught this on Sky Arts in 2013 and the reverence, affection and respect for the now 86 year old B.B was palpable, and I strongly recommend any fan of guitar playing to check it out.
B.B continued to perform regularly, mostly in the domestic USA, until October 2014 at the House Of Blues in Chicago when he was forced to pull the gig due to health issues. Sadly, this would be his last performance as his diabetes forced his health into terminal decline. He would go into hospice care in May 2015, and on May 15th, a series of small strokes caused by his diabetes took his life while he slept – and the world lost an icon. A man who took the blues from smoky, dirty deep South juke joints to playing in front of presidents and royalty, a true giant of a musician. The world is less for his passing.
BB King was the undisputed master of the right note in the right place. The late great Stevie Ray Vaughan once commented on a jam session - “..and he got up and played one note, and I died”. He was particularly noted for his instantly recognisable “butterfly” vibrato, achieved by pivoting his fingertip on the string while resting the knuckle joint against the neck of the guitar (for more discussion of vibrato techniques, see Zero Point Guitar).
He was also a master of elegantly blending minor and major pentatonics to great effect in “jump” blues tracks like “How Blue Can You Get?” - this effect is in large part due to his use of the “BB Box” pentatonic fingering. Those of you familiar with Progressive Guitar Training Vol. 1 will recognise this as the Trapezoid fingering – for example, in the key of A minor, this fingering places the root (A) under the first finger at the 10th fret B string, the b3 ( C ) under the third or little finger at the 13th fret. The 4th ( D ) and 5th (E) are easily accessible at the 10th and 12th frets on the top E string, and the b7 (G) sits within easy reach at the 12th fret G. A high root note (in this key, the A on the 17th fret top E string) is another B.B hallmark.
This fingering allows an easy switch to major pentatonic, as the 2nd (B) is easily accessed at the 12th fret under the third finger, allowing for a bend up to the major 3rd (C#), and the 5th can be bent up a tone to reach the 6th (F#). B. B was adept at blending the “colours” of these intervals to effortlessly achieve sophisticated, jazzy sounds while keeping his phrasing natural and unforced.
B.B also possessed a stunning command of dynamics – listening to his recordings, you hear his band go from a whisper to a roar and back, following the nuances of his voice, and this is mirrored in the guitar playing. Check out the intro to “The Thrill Is Gone” - the opening B note leaps out of the mix at you, while the pentatonic phrase that follows is played with the utmost delicacy. The intro to “Outside Help” is a masterclass in dynamics, the band swelling behind Lucille as the phrases build in intensity before falling back to almost nothing as the vocals enter.
Interestingly, minimal though it is, B.B's phrasing can be hard to pin down and duplicate. Certainly, “The Thrill Is Gone” many phrases are on the opposite side of the beat to what you would expect – most player will drop in a couple of pick-up notes on the off beat, leading in to the “big” note on the downbeat. B.B doesn't bother with that, coming straight in on the downbeat and playing less than you think... but somehow manages to make it work without ever sounding amateurish.
This partly stems from his background as a vocalist – indeed, to the non-guitar fraternity, B.B was a singer who played guitar. By his own admission, he never got a grip on playing chords, so would use single note lines as a counterpoint to his vocals. This meant he was more influenced by the phrasing used by singers more than by other guitar players (aside from anything else, in the 1940s and early 1950s, there was far less guitar music around to learn from – B.B and his contemporaries set the template that the subsequent generations would follow and build on). Indeed, B.B described his own style as being heavily vocal-influenced: “When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille.”
When the world lost BB King, we lost one of the music world's few remaining connections to the birth of electric blues. And it's safe to say, without the blues there would have been no rock & roll, no Rolling Stones, Hendrix or Cream... rock and pop music would sound very different today.
So much of the music we take for granted now has its roots in the sharecropper's huts where musicians like B.B, Freddie and Albert King, Buddy Guy, T-Bone Walker and more grew up. The electric guitar is a comparatively young instrument, but it's effect on music has been out of all proportion to it's lifespan – and the musician's of B.B's generation are the last ones who were in at the beginning and defined its sounds and expressive qualities. As guitar players, we should realise that these musicians are our roots, and created so much of what we have now. Moments like this are times to reflect on what these men gave us, go back and revisit their old recordings from when music was new and changing and no-one knew what this incredible brand-new instrument could or couldn't do, and to learn from them. Sit down with your iPod and modelling amp and pick out a few of the King's greatest licks from his earliest recordings when it was all new. There is no better way to honour him.