BB King — Blues Guitar Music Legend Part 2
BB King's guitar style may seem simple, yet upon analysis it discloses a sophisticated awareness of melody, harmony, and rhythm. He seems to always hit the right notes, phrases like no one else, and has a vibrato that is universally recognized. BB approaches the guitar as if it were another voice, not just as an instrument. He plays guitar as if he were singing through it. When he has to take a breath, his guitar does as well. He claims that his sound is not something that he learned, it is just the way he asserts himself as a person and as a guitarist.
Stylistically, what separates BB King from his peers is his firm rooting in the jazz as well as the blues idioms. One of BB's major influences was jazz guitarist Lonnie Johnson, who was one of the first guitarists to visualize the guitar as a single-line solo instrument. BB also listened extensively to Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt and to horn players such as Lester Young, Johnny Hodges and Bobby Hackett. His blues guitar influence comes primarily from T-Bone Walker. BB softened Walker's somewhat strident style, adding a vibrato that he developed while trying to copy the bottleneck slide guitar sound of his cousin Bukka White. The rest is pure BB King, which is a combination of elements that has produced one of the most distinctive blues guitarists ever!
BB draws from a large pallet of harmonic and melodic devices. Although he is primarily known as a single line player, he does play chords — specifically triads and double stops which he uses to punctuate his solos. Check out his chord intro to the song "Please Love Me" and his rhythm chord comping during the saxophone solo in the song "You Upset Me Baby". Perhaps the most identifiable feature of BB King's sound is his "Bee-Sting" vibrato. He does his vibrato completely from the wrist, as he shakes his whole hand rapidly and evenly. Even though this is a much imitated sound, only BB can make it "sing" the way he does. BB's knowledge of jazz harmony allows him to introduce harmonic concepts into his soloing that are more sophisticated than the typical pentatonic ideas used by most blues guitarists.
The most unique quality of BB King's style is his ability to combine jazzier elements with a rock solid blues sensibility. I was fortunate enough to hear BB King and his big band play live at the Civic Center in Baltimore, Maryland back in 1969. The big band sounded incredible — a real wall of sound — and BB's guitar playing just "wailed" and filled the Civic Center with some of the most exciting blues guitar music I've ever heard. Fortunately, for aspiring blues guitarists there is a wealth of blues guitar tab books available as well as an instructional DVD course taught by BB King himself!