Want to learn to play guitar like the King of the Blues, B.B. King?
The B.B. King Player Study will teach you the key aspects of King’s legendary playing style, including his phrasing, use of vibrato, and incredible tone.
Riley B. King grew up singing in the gospel choir in his Mississippi hometown. The minister there played guitar during services, and taught King his first three chords. King bought his first guitar for $15, a month of his salary at that time. He joined a gospel group to play at area churches before following Delta blues musician Bukka White to Memphis for nearly a year. He performed on local radio programs and had regular gigs at a club in West Memphis.
King’s nickname “B.B.” came from his nickname at a radio station, where he was a DJ and singer – “Beale Street Blues Boy”, shortened to “Blues Boy” and later, “B.B.”. He was a fixture of the Beale Street blues scene by the late 1940s and 1950s, playing in a group called The Beale Streeters. He was signed to RPM records, and began touring across the U.S. with his band, The B.B. King Review.
King became one of the biggest names in R&B in the 1950s with hits like “3 O’Clock Blues”, “You Know I Love You”, and “Every Day I Have the Blues”. He started booking major venues like New York’s Apollo Theater, and in 1956 alone, he booked 342 concerts and three recording sessions.
King and other Black American blues artists inspired a crop of young musicians in the United Kingdom, including Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. King opened for the Stones’ 1969 American Tour.
King prioritized quality over quantity in his playing, using his expressive phrasing to give his guitar a voice. “When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille,” King famously said. (Lucille was the name given to all of King’s guitars).
He utilized a style that became known as the “B.B. Box”, using a pentatonic minor shape down the neck of the guitar and focusing on ⅘ notes. He also stepped outside of the traditional minor pentatonic scale and use microtonal bending – bending notes less than a semi-tone for a subtle effect.
King famously named all of his guitars – usually Gibson ES-355 or variants – Lucille. King said the name originated in the late 1940s, when he was playing a show in Arkansas. A fight broke out in the venue, causing a fire and forcing King and the crowd to evacuate. King returned to rescue his guitar and found out that the men were fighting over a woman named Lucille. As a reminder not to fight over women or tempt fate by entering any more burning buildings, he named the guitar (and all the subsequent guitars) Lucille.
King was inducted into the Blues all of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He won the international Polar Music Prize in 2014. King, who was diagnosed with diabetes in 1990, was a spokesperson for the fight against the disease. He also supported Little Kid Rock, an organization that provides instruments and instruction for kids in underprivileged areas of the U.S. In 2011, Rolling Stone ranked King #6 on their list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.