B.B. King is championed by pundits as the quintessential blues
guitar player. Since his emergence in the Fifties, King, trusty black
Gibson ďLucilleĒ" 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 (ďWhen Love Comes To
Currently traveling the world on his farewell tour, B.B. King
proves that the thrill will never be gone as long as heís still making
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. Iím not a fast learner. Iím very,
very slow. Iím 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.
were 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 couldnít play like them.
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
didnít even have music stores, or a music store. But Iíd 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.
Youíre known for playing your Gibson Lucille guitar.
It has a long, thick neck on it. Iíve got big fat hands and Iím 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 its hard to find a good
guitar, but today guitars are like insects to me, thereís so many of
them. At that time, I couldnít 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 Ė if I take my hand and my hand is like that (demonstrates),
but after awhile it starts to do this Ė the guitar neck does. Well, they
put a rod in the Gibson guitar. And when it starts to bend a little bit,
thereís a little wrench you have that you can tighten it and it
straightens it back out again. Thatís another thing I like about it. If
you notice my fingers, I donít have big corns on them like some other
people Ďcause I keep the action pretty close to the frets.
never been interested in playing a million notes; simplicity is your
I think that comes from having a damaged brain. I canít play fast
like some guys. My practicing never did allow me to do too much of it.
Over the years sometime I used to play for speed, but I think its 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 itís
not so economical. Very few people can afford both. I play similar to
the way I talk. Iíve never been able to talk fast. Iíve had a speech
impediment all my life so to get a point over I sort of have to take
time. Itís the same thing with the guitar, whatever Iím trying to say, I
canít say it real fast, so I just do what I can do. So itís 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, ďThrow down some grapes, fellows!Ē Thereís always gonna
be some smart aleck someplace, and one of them said, ďWell, if you want
some grapes, then climb up here and get them!Ē So the fox thought to
himself, ďI canít climb trees.Ē Then he said, ďOh well, the grapes will
probably sour anyway.Ē So thatís the way I think about it; I canít play
fast like this guy or like that one, and it probably wouldnít work out
anyway, so I just do what I can do.
Are you a tough critic of your playing?
Yeah. In the early years, youíd go into a little juke joint and
youíd play. Somebody else would come in who would play better than you,
and you donít come back. Theyíre finished with you. I really think Iím
kind of like that today; Iím never any better than my last concert. And
I make mistakes nightly. But the only part thatís pretty good is when
you make a mistake and cover it up without anybody else catching you.
Thatís the smooth part of it. Iíve got a band, some guys have been with
me up to 26 years and when I make mistakes I feel so ashamed, I donít
want them to catch me. The hard part of practicing; is trying to do the
same thing you did when you donít know you were doing it Ďtil you hear
it and try to cover it up where they donít know. Someone might say, ďOh,
B.B, you got your new lick, huh? Howíd you do that?Ē ďOh I donít know.Ē
Cause I donít know what I was doing in the first place.
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 Iíd been doing all the time. I never did try to change. There
was times, of course, during my 57 years Iíve recorded many styles of
music. But itís sort of like fishing. You donít 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 Iím playing. Like tonight, I donít
know what the people are going to be like. Iíve never asked anybody what
itís like playing where Iím going to be playing that night. I donít know
them, they donít know me. Some of them have probably heard about me; so
itís like meeting your in-laws for the first time. Every night you go
onstage, you donít know who the audience are Ė but they know you. So
itís your job then as a guitarist, musician, to try and go out there to
introduce yourself in such a way that youíre like a salesman; ďHi, my
name is B.B. King, this is my guitar, Lucille.Ē Through my playing,
thatís what Iím trying to do.
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.
Iíve heard people play classical music on a harp but then Iíve
heard guys play blues on them too. So itís usually the person and the
instrument. Iíll 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, Ďcause I know I can take your guitar here or
anybodyís, 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, youíre gonna sound like you.
people love the electric guitar?
I donít 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 wasnít 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 Ė his way. And maybe thatís it.
collaborations with Eric Clapton have reaped critical accolades and
enjoyed commercial success.
I think Eric is number one. Heís the number one rock and roll
guitarist in the world. And he plays blues better than most of us.
Thatís what I think of him.