I’ve been playing guitar for nigh on thirty-two years. Got my first real six-string, (sorry), in November 1983, when I was 11, and although it’s been love-hate since then, I’ve never looked back. In those three decades, my ears have become finely tuned machines, and I can identify most renowned guitarists within five notes.
B.B. King was one of the few guitarists I could pick up just by hearing one note.
Sure, a lot of it had to do with the tone of Lucille, his beloved Gibson ES-335. But anyone else playing Lucille would’ve sounded entirely different. No, it all came from the man himself. The attack of the string, that fierce vibrato, the conversational pauses between his signature phrases. Lucille was the translator, relaying the message sent by B.B. King.
The Blues was born in the Mississippi Delta, and it spread out along Highway 61, the Blues Highway, to Memphis. It was born of sharecropping, field songs, hymnals and hollers. From its acoustic routes, it traveled north to Chicago and became electrified. Riley B. King, (B.B. came from his nickname “Blues Boy”), born on a plantation near Indianola, Mississippi in 1925, traveled the road to Memphis and plugged in. And he never stopped.
If you know what you’re looking for, you can hear B.B. in hundreds of guitarists: his contemporaries, Albert King and Otis Rush; his followers, Eric Clapton and Robert Cray; his disciple, Joe Bonamasa. Anyone can play a B.B. King solo, but NObody could ever make it sound like him. As the man himself said,
When I sing, I play in my mind. The minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille.
That’s the conversation. That’s B.B. sitting down and telling you a story, sharing what he’s seen and what he knows. Hard times, lonesome roads, love gone wrong. America, Americana. Sitting on a porch, sharing a belt from the same glass, trading war stories. And B.B. King could say more with one note than most guitarists say in a lifetime.
The thrill is gone, the voice stilled. But B.B. King’s legacy is everywhere: in every juke joint in every nowhere American town, in every bedroom when a lost kid plugs in his guitar, in every double that chases away the blues. B.B. King, the Voice of America. Pour one out.