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B.B. King – Talking with the King

Updated: Jul 16, 2023

B.B. King

B.B. King

Talking with the King

by Ken Sharp

B.B. King is championed by pundits as the quintessential blues guitar player. Since his emergence in the Fifties, King, trusty black Gibson “Lucille”” guitar in hand, has wowed audiences with his gritty, expressive voice and spectacular blues guitar playing. He can say more in one note than others can say in a hundred. In recent years, King has received kudos for his high-profile collaborations with rock giants, Eric Clapton (Riding with the King) and U2 (“When Love Comes to Town”).

Currently traveling the world on his farewell tour, B.B. King proves that the thrill will never be gone as long as he’s still making music.

What was the first music that really affected you?

When I was a very small boy, my mother used to take me to church, and the pastor in church played the guitar. That made me want to play it, because I wanted to be like him. I’m not a fast learner. I’m very, very slow. I’m still learning. My first guitar was a little red Stella guitar. It cost me $15, and I was making $15 a month at the time. My boss bought the guitar for me and allowed me to pay it off.

Whwere your guitar heroes growing up?

One was a guy called Lonnie Johnson, who played acoustic guitar and sang blues. Another was Lemon Jefferson. I was told Lemon Jefferson was born blind because everyone called him Blind Lemon. Both of those played acoustic guitars and sang blues. Then I heard of a jazz guitarist called Charlie Christian and it was electrical. And man, did I like that! Another one was a French gypsy, a guy called Django Reinhart; also, was playing acoustic guitar, but he had an amplifier through a microphone. And boy was that good. And one I still have with me on my MP3 today is T-Bone Walker. He played the electric guitar; single-string, mostly blues. Had the big fat chords when you hit them, and I liked that. So those five have been my major influences. I could never play like any of them. I tried many times, but not even today I couldn’t play like them.

What drew you to Memphis?

I was trying to get into the business. I thought I was good enough as a singer and a player to record. And you know, in Mississippi we didn’t even have music stores, or a music store. But I’d heard that in Memphis they had a recording studio; that was one of the reasons I went. It was called Sam Phillips. But I never recorded for him, I recorded in his studio. But I never did play for him.

You’re known for playing your Gibson Lucille guitar. 

It has a long, thick neck on it. I’ve got big fat hands and I’m a big guy. During the early years, it was hard to get a good guitar. It was really hard. I hear people talk about today it’s hard to find a good guitar, but today guitars are like insects to me, there’s so many of them. At that time, I couldn’t make enough money to buy one. I did try many kinds. Whoever designed the Gibson guitars in the beginning did a really good job. One of the things I like about it is if the neck stops to warp – if I take my hand and my hand is like that (demonstrates), but after a while it starts to do this – the guitar neck does. Well, they put a rod in the Gibson guitar. And when it starts to bend a little bit, there’s a little wrench you have that you can tighten it and it straightens it back out again. That’s another thing I like about it. If you notice my fingers, I don’t have big corns on them like some other people because I keep the action pretty close to the frets.

B.B. King

You’ve never been interested in playing a million notes; simplicity is your raison d’etre.

I think that comes from having a damaged brain. I can’t play fast like some guys. My practicing never did allow me to do too much of it. Over the years sometimes I used to play for speed, but I think it’s sort of like how they talk about automobiles; usually you have one or the other, speed or luxury. The average speed of fast cars rides like a wagon. But if you want luxury, soft plush seats and stuff, usually it’s not so economical. Very few people can afford both. I play similar to the way I talk. I’ve never been able to talk fast. I’ve had a speech impediment all my life so to get a point over I sort of have to take time. It’s the same thing with the guitar, whatever I’m trying to say, I can’t say it real fast, so I just do what I can do. So, it’s like a story I once heard that I quite often apply to myself. There was a fox passing under a tree. Many animals was up in the tree eating grapes, so the fox yelled at them, “Throw down some grapes, fellows!” There’s always gonna be some smart aleck someplace, and one of them said, “Well, if you want some grapes, then climb up here and get them!” So, the fox thought to himself, “I can’t climb trees.” Then he said, “Oh well, the grapes will probably sour anyway.” So that’s the way I think about it; I can’t play fast like this guy or like that one, and it probably wouldn’t work out anyway, so I just do what I can do.

Are you a tough critic of your playing?

Yeah. In the early years, you’d go into a little juke joint and you’d play. Somebody else would come in who would play better than you, and you don’t come back. They’re finished with you. I really think I’m kind of like that today; I’m never any better than my last concert. And I make mistakes nightly. But the only part that’s pretty good is when you make a mistake and cover it up without anybody else catching you. That’s the smooth part of it. I’ve got a band, some guys have been with me up to 26 years and when I make mistakes, I feel so ashamed, I don’t want them to catch me. The hard part of practicing; is trying to do the same thing you did when you don’t know you were doing it ‘til you hear it and try to cover it up where they don’t know. Someone might say, “Oh, B.B, you got your new lick, huh? How’d you do that?” “Oh, I don’t know.” Cause I don’t know what I was doing in the first place.

In the late Sixties you began to expand your audience by playing rock festivals. 

Well, it was nice to learn that I could play at some of the festivals. But I never changed my playing. I played just as hard doing the things I’d been doing all the time. I never did try to change. There was times, of course, during my 57 years I’ve recorded many styles of music. But it’s sort of like fishing. You don’t know what kind of fish are going to bite, so you put bait on the hook to try to catch a fish. I do the same thing each night when I’m playing. Like tonight, I don’t know what the people are going to be like. I’ve never asked anybody what it’s like playing where I’m going to be playing that night. I don’t know them, they don’t know me. Some of them have probably heard about me; so, it’s like meeting your in-laws for the first time. Every night you go onstage, you don’t know who the audience are – but they know you. So, it’s your job then as a guitarist, musician, to try and go out there to introduce yourself in such a way that you’re like a salesman; “Hi, my name is B.B. King, this is my guitar, Lucille.” Through my playing, that’s what I’m trying to do.

From jazz to blues, classical to R&B, punk to rock and roll, some say that the electric guitar might be the most expressive instrument in music. 

I’ve heard people play classical music on a harp but then I’ve heard guys play blues on them too. So, it’s usually the person and the instrument. I’ll give you an example: you can have an old piano sitting over in the corner. Before Ray (Charles) died, if he played, he sound like Ray. Billy Joel would sound like Billy Joel; Sir Elton John would sound like himself. You put in it what comes out of you. That makes the difference in the sound, because I know I can take your guitar here or anybody’s, and I will sound like myself. Like a person singing; you learn to sing the way you want to. Now you may try to mimic somebody else, but if allowed to do your own thing, you’re gonna sound like you.

Why do people love the electric guitar?

I don’t know. Maybe this is the age of guitar. In fact, some time ago, it used to be the saxophone. Big bands featured saxophones. People like Benny Goodman featured the clarinet. But it wasn’t too many that masters the clarinet but there were quite a few people that seemed to master the saxophone. Then it was the piano. Today, nearly even guitarist you find plays well – his way. And maybe that’s it.

Your collaborations with Eric Clapton have reaped critical accolades and enjoyed commercial success.

I think Eric is number one. He’s the number one rock and roll guitarist in the world. And he plays blues better than most of us. That’s what I think of him.

Copyright ©2008 All rights reserved. Posted: July 16, 2008.

Photo Credits:#1 Courtesy of BB King. All rights reserved.#2 Courtesy of BB King. All rights reserved.

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