Our hearts our heavy today with news of the death of our longtime friend and everyone’s electric guitar hero, B.B. King
For more than half a century, B.B. King has been such a constant and comforting presence in the world of music that it's probably lost on a good deal of fans just how revolutionary his stinging left-hand vibrato and sharp bends sounded when he hit it big in the late '50s with records like "3 O'Clock Blues", "Rock Me Baby," and "Sweet Sixteen." King's breakthrough onto the pop charts came when he signed to ABC Records in the '60s and began working with arranger Onzie Horne. King's studio recording of "The Thrill Is Gone" made him the first blues artist to reach the Top 20 and took him from the R&B club circuit to rock theaters like the Fillmore and eventually Carnegie Hall.
By the late 60s, King had found a new and appreciative audience who had grown up on rock n' roll but whose heroes like Mike Bloomfield, Duane Allman, and Jimi Hendrix had always cited B.B. King as the master of the electric guitar. Guitarists to the left and right of B.B.'s sound--and that includes Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton, Otis Rush, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, Gary Clark, Jr, Buddy Guy, Lonnie Brooks, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Son Seals, Robert Cray, and dozens of others--all acknowledge that B.B. is the man who showed them what an electric guitar could do.
King made his first mark in music as a vocalist before revealing his revolutionary style with hit singles on the R&B charts and through constant touring, sometimes up to 340 nights on the road.
And though King modestly claimed he was never a so-called rhythm guitarist, Austin residents tell of a good-natured three-guitar pull between Stevie Ray and Jimmy Vaughn at the Continental Club in the late 80s where B.B. backed up the brothers with killer rhythm, patiently watching the two brothers to duel it out, until finally B.B. called an end to the fracas with a sky-splitting bend that brought the house down and left the brothers laughing like two school kids whose Dad just reminded them who was boss.
Riley B. King was born on September 16, 1925 to sharecroppers in Berclair, Mississippi outside of Itta Bena (known as "Home In the Woods") in the central part of the state. As a boy, King recalled hearing records at home by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jimmie Rodgers, and his cousin, Booker White. On his own as a teenager after the death of his parents, he discovered the "King Biscuit Time” radio show which broadcasted from KFFA, out of Helena, Arkansas and featured harmonica great Sonny Boy Williamson. King soon moved to Memphis to seek his fortune. Check out "She's Dynamite", which was cut at Sun Records with Sam Phillips for a terrific example of how enchanting and powerful his vocal delivery was at an early age.
To hear King in full-bloom, check out the recent documentary B.B. King--The Life of Riley
, featuring narration by Morgan Freeman and interviews with Slash
, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Ron Wood as well as new and vintage footage with Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana, Dr. John, Leon Russell, and John Lennon
For the uninitiated, take a listen to B.B. King Live at the Regal
or Live at Cook County Jail
. They are two of King’s greatest recordings and are a must-have for any great music collection. (John Lennon quotes "Live at the Regal" throughout The Beatles final studio album, Abbey Road.
King worked extensively with Epiphone on the Lucille
model and there's no other archtop like it in the world (except B.B.'s, of course).
In September 2003, "Mr. Epiphone" himself Will Jones had the chance to chat with B.B. at the B.B. King Blues Club in Nashville, just before he took the stage to celebrate his 78th birthday where they talked shop about tone and guitars.
Mr. King, what is your opinion of the Epiphone Lucille?
: They are great! People tell me sometimes that they would love to have a Lucille of their own but that the Gibson costs too much for them. I say to them- Have you tried the Epiphone Lucille? There are no other guitars any better for the price. The Epiphones are terrific.
Your Lucille is famous and unique for its stereo outputs. Why stereo?
Well, hey, if you're going to do something, why not go all the way? I like to get all the highs and lows and with stereo you can run one amp set for treble and one for bass and you can get the best of both!
Some folks out there I'm sure would love to know about the VaritoneTM switch on your Lucille. Could you please explain?
It is good for getting different tones or if you prefer a particular sound. I just leave my toggle switch in the middle position and the Varitone™ at twelve o'clock and then I can get as much bass or as much treble as I want. I can adjust my sound while I play and nobody knows I'm doing it.
Your Lucille is a semi-hollow of course, why no f-holes?
I don't want feedback when I'm playing unless I WANT feedback! Many times when your amp and guitar are too close you just can't control that. I know how to get feedback from Lucille when I want it, that's why she doesn't have them, much like a solid body Les Paul. I tell you that guy made the best guitar ever made; all we did is copy it a little. Of course, ours is bigger and prettier, but don't tell him that. You know my first guitar was a Stella and I played an Epiphone long before I became friends with Gibson"
Other than blues, what kinds of music do you enjoy? For example, being in Nashville, country?
I like some of all kinds of music. Country I've always felt is a cousin to the blues. Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, crazy about Hank Williams. There was no finer guitar player than Chet Atkins. Like I've said I believe all music is good, some people present it better. I've recorded with everyone from Pavarotti to John Lee Hooker. I like some of all of it!
You’ve influenced so many superstars.
Many of them don't tell me personally, and you may find that hard to believe, but I read an article one time about John Lennon where he said if he could play guitar like anyone, he would want to play just like B.B King. That made me feel really good.
Finally, Mr. King, what is the best advice you can give up-and-coming and beginning guitarists?
Well, that reminds me of a story of these two kids walking around in New York City. They came upon this old guy eating a pastrami sandwich. They asked him, Sir, How do we get to Carnegie Hall?
The old fellow replied, Practice, practice, practice
! I never practice like I should and never have, really. I play a lot and make mistakes and then have to cover them up. I then go back and practice what I messed up or else I'll be expected to know how to do it again when it was a mistake to begin with. The band gets confused when I do something they are not expecting, so the best thing I can still do is practice. Tell them to practice!"