Updated: Jan 26, 2021
A Guitar Style Analysis of BB King
What makes BB sound like the King? It’s not just his guitar "Lucille." You don’t need to rush out and buy a Gibson 355. Instead, let’s look at 10 habits I notice in his iconic style of guitar playing. I’ll show you how to incorporate these ideas into your own solos.
Download all the tab examples in a PDF format here:
1. Fewer Notes
For some reason, BB King never learned how to play chords, so we can pretty much ignore all that work we did learning chords on the guitar! That's kind of crazy and as a teacher here in Vancouver I would never let a student pass through my guitar lessons without learning chords. But BB King sure could make that guitar sing with only single notes.
When I’m teaching soloing I often tell my students to say something when they’re improvising. When we tell a story, we pause every now and then to give the listener time to digest what we’ve said. Think of it as punctuation. There are no run-on sentences in his style. You need a period every now and then to sound like BB.
NOTE: There are some genres that requires almost constant movement (be-bop and bluegrass come to mind.) But this ain’t country, this is the blues! And you’ll need to add some periods at the end of your sentences.
A good way to practice this is to use a simple jam track, and tell yourself that you’re only allowed to play for two measures max before you rest. And then make your rests last at least one measure.
I call this "two bars on, one bar off." Of course you won’t always want to be this strict, but the exercise is a way to help you to gain the habit of taking breaks.
2. Lots of space
This really goes hand-in-hand with the previous point, but you’ll notice that when BB finishes a line, there’s often a lot of empty space. Sometimes there's even an entire bar or more before he starts his next line. His pauses are typically longer than many other players. To extend the metaphor, he uses the period more than the comma.
Here's an example that sounds very much like BB King:
I think most us guitar players can learn from this and certainly I need to be reminded of this sometimes. It’s my nature to want to fill up ever bar with all the licks I’ve been practicing in the past week. Sometimes we’re afraid that the emptiness will be boring. But of course it’s the emptiness that makes the music as much as the sound.
Give your audience a moment to digest that beautiful lick you just gave them. Let them drink it in before you start another.
3. Lots of Bends
This almost goes without saying, since we are in the blues genre and the bend is one of the most blues-y things you can play on guitar. I also listen to a lot of jazz guitar and those guys rarely ever bend a note, except Herb Ellis. But even then when he does it, suddenly it sounds like the blues, and less like jazz to me.
I’m going to give you a page from my latest book on this one. If you’re fairly new to soloing, a good thing to do is to memorize some of the best places to bend in the pentatonic shapes. For example, have a look at this diagram that’s right out of my book:
These are great notes to bend not only because they can be played with your third finger – which is stronger – but also because these notes will bend in pitch to other significant tones in the scale.
For example, if you bend that first note written above, you'll get either the pitch of the blue note (with a half-step bend) or to the fifth of the scale (if we bend a whole step), which gives some nice resolve.
4. Deep vibrato
This is something often talked about with BB King’s playing. And it’s something that is quite different than my own habits so it’s a great thing for me to consider too. First, what is deep vibrato? It just means that we bend the string back and forth quickly, and BB bends it harder than most of us do. Certainly harder than I tend to.
This is a stylistic choice. It’s not necessarily the correct way to do it. But it is a cool way to do it. And BB certainly was in the habit of digging deep on that vibrato.
Try improvising any simple line, but make the last note of the line a hard vibrato.
5. Frequent Use of Vibrato
BB King uses vibrato a lot! Some guitar players don’t necessarily add vibrato – maybe just now and then. But BB does it at the end of most of his lines. It's a stylistic choice (or habit) gives his playing an added sense of drama.
Put on a jam track and try ending every line you create with a generous amount of vibrato. Lay it on thick. Over time you will start doing it without even thinking. And then, one day, perhaps you will start to choose for yourself how frequently or not you prefer it, stylistically.
6. Staccato string of eighth notes
Here's a real secret that others don't talk about. First, listen to the Intro to the original 1969 recording of "Thrill is Gone." The first note is held with some sweet vibrato, then you get this string of notes that sounds so good -- like he’s too cool for school -- and they’re all played short – staccato. Maybe not quite staccato. But they’re not held their full length either. They’re cut just a little short.
Here's a similar example below. These notes are not the same as I don’t want to get a copywrite strike. But you get the idea:
If you're not familiar with the notation, those little dots above the notes are telling us to play these short. It doesn't mean to play them fast, it just means to cut the sound off each time.
This is a level of touch and feel that we hear from the top guitar players in the world. It’s not just the notes they play, it’s how they play each one.
7. Not much travel on the fretboard
If you look at tablature to any of BB King’s famous guitar intro’s and even his solos, you might notice that there isn’t a lot of travel on the fretboard.
Again, this might be something particular to the blues genre, but even so, for me I sometimes get afraid of staying in one shape on the fretboard for too long. I start to worry if I might be sounding boring if I’m not flying up the fretboard a few times. But that never seemed to bother BB King. He’s perfectly happy staying in one small area. And he was sure good at playing engaging melodies with just a few notes.
Try it out with a jam track. Limit yourself to just a small space in the pentatonic shape for a while. Try to make just a few notes sounds as melodic, memorable, and sweet as you can.
8. Focus on the Root
Since BB King isn't moving around as much as others do, then what is he focusing his notes on? It's amazing how many times BB King will play the root of the key, over and over. He keeps coming back to it. I mean why not? It sounds great. It is the period at the end of the sentence.
So if we’re in A, he’s gonna keep hammering that A note A LOT. That means you might want to memorize where those roots are in your pentatonic shapes. This is another thing you'll learn how to do from my Guitar Soloing Like a Pro Book.
Here's an example for you. In this case, the root is the 10th fret of the B string.
9. Mix Major and Minor Pentatonic
This one is more advanced, but it’s essential for sounding like BB King. First, let’s get a little theory out of the way. Have you ever noticed that we often use the Minor Pentatonic scale over a Major key?
Theoretically that should not work, but using that minor-over-major sound is truly the sound of the blues. And BB could do this seamlessly.
It sounds difficult but it’s not as hard as you might think, though it will take some practice. Again, we can just memorize the appropriate shapes and then mix and match the shapes. Here’s a good place to start ---
Notice in the first measure we descent A minor pentatonic but last on C# (the 6th fret). That note isn't in minor pentatonic. It's in the major-- it's the major 3rd of an A Major chord.
Then we move up the fretboard to what some people call the "BB King Box." That second measure is all major pentatonic, but the third measure has a C natural -- now we're back into the minor pentatonic.
This is a bigger subject that I want to handle in this blog post but it gives you a taste of it. If you want to learn more we can also set up some one-on-one guitar lessons online or in-person in the Vancouver.
Keep in mind, this trick will not work well on his song “Thrill is Gone.” Why is that? Because that song is in B MINOR. It’s not a major key. But on “Everyday I Have the Blues” you can go to town. Try playing Major pentatonic over the I chord, then Minor Penta over the IV chord you get very nice results.
10. Tone – Okay tone nerds ... we can do a brief mention about tone. If you don’t own a Gibson 355 -- and who does it’s an uncommon guitar -- then really any humbucker guitar will do. And let’s face it, his favourite amp was the Lab Series L5 which hasn’t been made in years, so good luck getting your hands on one of those.
But any good clean tone will do. He also liked Fender Deluxe’s and that classic Fender tone. So whatever you have at home, dial in a clean tone and add a touch of spring reverb to make it shine and you’re good to go. No pedals required!
This one is a bit of a bonus that most of us may never achieve, but let’s keep in mind that BB King was also a great singer. I find it interesting that people don’t talk about that so much. His guitar playing overshadowed his talent as a singer. But next time you pull up some of his songs, make sure to also listen to the man sing. He could really make you believe the words he sang. He felt it, he meant it, and he showed us that in both his guitar and in his voice.
Now can I sing like BB? ... I’ll stick with the guitar then....