Continuing our study of blues guitar players for inspiration and technique for our lead synth playing, we must spend some time with the appointed king of the blues, Riley B./Blues Boy/B.B. King. Hugely influential on blues and rock guitarists alike, B.B. had an economical, singing style of playing that was a compendium of the many artists who came before him, married to his own unique contributions.
[Note: Both of B.B. King’s full solos on "How Blue Can You Get" are available online HERE]
Make It Count
At first glance, so much of B.B. King’s playing may seem simple to you. It is, and it can be hard to tame your urge to fill every beat and bar with lots of notes. The lesson to learn from B.B. is to play with conviction, putting emotion and purpose into each note and phrase that you play. Take Example 1, the opening of his second chorus on his hit "How Blue Can You Get," from his legendary 1972 concert at Sing Sing prison. The note choices are simple enough, all taken from the D major blues scale. But he plays a clear, sing-able phrase that develops from the D7 chord into a nice variation for the G7 chord, emphasizing the change from the F-sharp to the F-natural. Work on getting the upward swoop on the F-sharp in bar 1 clean, as well as the other bends. The bend from the E to F in bar two can be played “in the cracks” or perfectly in tune: try it out various ways. B.B. was known for his sharp and deep vibrato, so listen to recordings and work on emulating it, making it deep and short.
Example 2 is the same tune, this time taken from his “Live At The Regal” recording from 1965. Notice how he is working a simple three-note figure, keeping it interesting with the colorful notes forming a G9 chord in bar 2.
Call And Response
B.B. draws on a classic blues and gospel technique called “call and response” in Example 3, also taken from that Sing Sing performance. Commonly found in African and African-American music (as well as Cuban and folk music), it was often heard in the daily work of slave laborers, perhaps to help pass the time, share oral history, and to keep spirits up. A leader would sing a phrase, which would be answered back by the group. Notice in this example how B.B. plays a louder few notes, and then quietly answers it with a repetitive, bluesy phrase. This use of structure and dynamics can be a great element for your solos, and your band can join in, supporting the arranging device.
Crying Out In Pain
Example 4 also comes from the “Live At The Regal” solo, and it shows how B.B. was so great at emulating the human voice, and his own singing style. This phrase comes at the end of the blues progression, and is the peak of his solo. Notice how he squarely hits the fourth (C) of the G Dominant Seventh chord, which we are taught is to be avoided, as it clashes with the third (B-natural). But this very dissonance comes off as a cry of pain, and conveys a lot of emotion. He finishes the bar with a rapid flurry of notes, and then outlines the end of the progression nicely, almost like a jazz player.
Prototype For Rock and Roll
The birth of rock and roll certainly came out of the rhythm and blues, and blues players in America. And the many British guitar heroes all listened to American blues music for their early inspiration. The song Rock Me Baby, in its many forms is an essential influence for that development. B.B. King had a big hit with the song, released in 1964, but possibly recorded earlier. Play through his solo in Example 5 and you’ll hear elements that later showed up in the playing of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and scores of others. The swoops up off the E-flat, the blues scale note choices, the bend up from the F-sharp into the G, all are essential vocabulary for the rock players. Work on getting the bends clean, and vary the pitch range: mostly “in the cracks” works for me.