How to Play Guitar Like B.B. King
If you like blues guitar or any styles of early rock then you are likely a fan of B.B. King! His string bends, vibrato, and staccato picking of his self-made blues scales left a mark on music history and many fans who wished to emulate his playing. Nothing he did was all that difficult as far as guitar mastery goes, he’s the perfect guitarist to emulate for those learning how to play guitar. It’s his unique style and touch that defined his much-loved blues vibe. Here are some pointers to get started at playing guitar like B.B. King.
The Mississippi Delta Blues
One of the reasons King has such a distinct style is his background, he was born on a plantation in Mississippi in the 1920’s. This was an era when New Orleans jazz, southern blues, and Caribbean rhythms were all coming together to form blues rock, jump blues, boogie-woogie and more. King was also a member of his church choir and sang the predominant gospel style of the day, by the 1940’s electric guitars entered the market and he mixed these two talents.
The main style he would have heard as a child was the delta blues and it was often played with a slide at the time. But as the electric guitar became clearer and more overdriven, picking out melodies and solos became common. One of the main hallmarks of all blues styles is the blue notes. A major scale can be labeled as 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 and the main blue notes are the b3, b5, and b7. In some cases even the 4 can be sharpened (#) or flattened (b).
The key to the delta blues and all blues in general, is using these blue notes and chromaticism, this is where we break from the major scale and move in semitones. This replicates the same concept of gospel singing where we use melisma to move along our notes and get a blues vibe. That is why the slide was once so important, as it helps with that chromatic movement and replicates human vocals better.
B.B. King Box
Some musicians of that era took these blues styles in more rocking directions, like Ike Turner, who helped get B.B. King an early record deal. Ike went on to create Rock’n’Roll while B.B. King stuck with a southern blues guitar genre. However he did add a little extra to the blues scales to give himself a more unique sound. He used 6 note scales and most often the 1 2 b3 4 5 6. When you play these notes in any key notice they have a little more upbeat major blues vibe.
This doesn’t make his blues happier but it does make them more vibrant and it is understandable why they caught on so much. One of the first steps to playing like B.B. King is learning and practicing some of his box scale patterns. They can be found in any key and you can learn them through diagrams, beginner guitar lessons, or by playing his songs. “The Thrill is Gone” has great examples of these boxes. And of course you will see he often mixes in other blue notes with his specialized scale.
Besides this special scale his songs were like other blues tunes, he often uses the 12-bar blues progression and he will riff along with minor 7th chords and other extended jazz chords. These are simply major or minor chords with extra notes added on. Be sure when you are reading tablature for B.B. King to understand what chords you are playing over, as that helps your improvisation and soloing.
B.B. King Techniques
B.B. wasn’t the only king of blues, Freddie King and Albert King were both popular at the time too. They also used similar song structures and even have their own box patterns for blues. The difference really boiled down to how they incorporated certain techniques. These techniques are all essential when playing the scales, blue notes, and chords of the song. Your ability to pull off these skills while playing the blues will determine how much you sound like one of the King’s!
Slides, Hammer-Ons, Pull-Offs
These are important to manage the necessary chromaticism of blues. And most of the time we aren’t rushing them. This isn’t shred guitar where we want to play a hammer-on or pull-off fast. In some cases we want space in between the notes, so these techniques will need some finesse. As we mentioned, they aren’t hard, but to get them to sound bluesy takes practice.
B.B. was a master at vibrato and he used various methods, sometimes larger string bends other times he just used a slight movement in his finger on the string. In some cases he often gives the guitar a little shake or move when needed. The point of a pitch bend is to add chromaticism and emotion so you want to pull as much feeling out of one note as possible.
In guitar music a lick is a common phrase or pattern that repeatedly shows up in various genres. If you have already been practicing blues then you know some licks! If not the best way to learn is to start playing songs by B.B. King as his are filled with his specific patterns, and often within his box playing. As you learn new licks pay close attention to how they flow along the blues scale, soon you will see which note orders work best for riffs and licks.
His style, and many other blues guitar genres, often take a light approach to picking and even fretting. It’s not that they aren’t using appropriate string pressure or plucking hard enough, it’s that their hands are relaxed. The goal is to make a nice clean sound, no missing the note, no crowded distortion, and no mess. We want our guitar to emulate a gospel voice, but with more raw electric power. A lot of modern guitar styles are really the opposite of this with their high gain, power chord overtones, and squealing solos. For B.B. King blues guitar we want each note to have an important place in the song!
How to Play Guitar Like B.B. King
If you look up other players on this same topic you will see many guitarists showing you his box patterns, techniques, and tabs. The problem is that while many of these artists can technically play the same notes, they often don’t sound the same as King. This occurs because people are often focusing too much on fretboard diagrams, tabs, and getting the licks right. The emotive aspect of the music is often lost if not played right.
Reading B.B. King tabs is necessary but more importantly it is essential to play along with his songs. Find one section of a song and rewind and play over and over while you practice, that ear training is often what players miss. The muscle memory is easier to learn than the musical memory of how a certain blues note may feel, and the amount of vibrato and bend also needs fine-tuned to your ears and fingers.
Playing guitar like B.B. King and other blues artists is not all that difficult, however sounding as good as they do will take many hours of online guitar lesson practice. Immerse yourself in old delta blues styles and be sure to practice along with live songs. This style of blues is a great reminder that not all guitar playing is in the hands and fingers, your brain also needs to develop memory of rhythm and emotion to get these styles right!