BB King’s 20 greatest guitar moments, ranked

Five years on from the King Of The Blues’ death in 2015, aged 89, a new movie featuring Wendell Pierce as BB is in the works. Time to remind ourselves of just 20 of his countless great guitar moments.

BB King

Image: Paul Natkin / Getty Images

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From his beginnings on a cotton plantation in Mississippi in 1925 to duetting at the White House with President Obama in 2012, BB King certainly witnessed some changes in his lifetime. But one thing that remained largely unaltered during the course of his 70-plus years as a performer – a career that saw him release 59 albums, 138 singles and pick up countless awards (among them 18 Grammys) – was the essence of his music. If the ultimate goal of anyone who picks up a guitar is self-expression, then BB King is among a very select group of elite musicians who, through countless hours of work, not only perfected the art, but dug ever deeper without feeling the need for reinvention.

Eric Clapton said of him: “The character of any great musician is usually identifiable by the individuality of their vibrato. Most players are recognisable by that particular facet of their playing… I can tell BB from one note – most of us can, I think.” Carlos Santana echoed the sentiment: “I can hear BB King with the sound off on the TV, just by looking at his face.” Buddy Guy summed it up: “The way BB did it is the way we all do it now.”

Dynamics, phrasing, timing, improvisation, targetting chord notes, vibrato… BB King’s unique playing has influenced countless players and in its finer details, still holds innumerable lessons for guitarists. But the most important one is sadly the least-often heeded: “Notes are expensive,” King once said. “Spend them wisely.”

Our rundown of a mere 20 of BB King’s greatest guitar moments only scratches the surface of an exhaustive catalogue of playing; each entry aims to show a different facet of why the playing of the King Of The Blues will always have the power to excite and delight guitarists, regardless of genre and musical style.

20. Lucille

The title track from this 1968 album shows BB finally putting on musical record what his beloved guitar – or actually a succession of ES-family guitars, all with the same nickname – means to him. Every BB King song foregrounds an aspect of his musicality, and over this laid-back spoken-word blues, it’s how intertwined his voice and guitar playing are. Mixed with King’s crystal-clear tone way out front, rather than the forced showcase of fancy licks that 99 per cent of other players would have indulged in – although there are a few choice jazzy nods here and there and a masterclass in BB’s approach to bends – Lucille’s contribution here is that of the ever-faithful sidekick, purring like a kitten throughout.

Did you know?

The song’s off-the-cuff feel was captured when producer Bob Thiele ran tape as BB was telling him the story of his guitar: “He was idling through some runs and started to tell me the story of Lucille. I grabbed the switch, signalled the engineer, and flipped him on live”

19. The Blues Ain’t Nothing But A Woman Crying For Her Man (Live In Japan)

Two musical titans for the price of one on this 1990 guest appearance in Japan, which features Ray Charles, BB King and a ‘Super Band’ laying down a finale to an evening of perfectly crafted big-band schmaltz. Spectacular enough is Charles dusting off his keyboard’s pitch-bend wheel to skilfully imitate the character of King’s guitar, but when Gene Harris’ big band is eventually unleashed, King takes the spotlight, rolling off the tone control and letting rip over When I Get The Blues I Sit In My Rockin’ Chair with a series of cascading jazz-tinged improvisations that not only show his ability to morph his style to the occasion, but also offer an extended glimpse of the sophistication in his note choices that he would allude to throughout his career.

Did you know?

Charles and King often shared a stage during their careers; to hear them together in the studio, listen to the emotive jamming on Sinner’s Prayer on Charles’ final studio album before his death in 2004, Genius Loves Company

18. Instrumental (Live In Stockholm Konserthus)

With a minute of charming but starchy retrospective interview before the action, this clip from Swedish concert in 1974 is an absolute must for an appreciation of what made BB King’s playing so timeless. Over an extended three-minute solo, he creates mood by varying the dynamics of his solo from tender to strident, perfectly controlling the band’s accompaniment through the nuances of his playing and through subtle gestures: at one point, he unexpectedly silences them, embarks on a stunning jazzy exploration, then smoothly changes key, seemingly at random, before they come back in without missing a trick. Dynamic playing and musical telepathy with his fellow musicians are two qualities BB understood better than perhaps any other blues player before or since – and it’s all here.

Did you know?

At 7:00 in this Guitar Clinic, King explains how horn playing defined his approach to sustain in his phrasing

17. Japanese Boogie

A tireless tourer, King found time in his hectic schedule to record three albums in 1971 while also capitalising on the peak in his popularity – the unimpeachable Live At Cook County Jail, B.B. King In London, unfortunately lacklustre despite its stellar cast of musicians, and Live In Japan, recorded in Tokyo’s Sankei Hall – where this fiery up-tempo boogie is from. It’s a sprawling nine-minute instrumental that begins with a single-string take on the Chuck Berry lick before spending the majority of the rest of the song in the so-called BB box: having an area of the guitar neck named after you proves how much time BB spent in this territory, and this stomping instrumental, with its interlacing horns and piano, shows the endless variation King could summon out of the position on the fretboard he’d claimed as his own.

Did you know?

It’s not all down to BB – there’s even a rasping distorted bass solo, courtesy of King’s erstwhile low-end merchant Wilbert Freeman

16. Goin’ South (Calypso Blues)

1991 instrumental compilation Spotlight On Lucille is oft-lauded for illuminating King’s material from the Kent label vaults, from 1958-62, particularly the outstanding version of Louis Jordan’s Ain’t That Just Like A Woman which is an early tour-de-force of his jazz-inflected, horn-influenced and fluid lead style, and Jumpin’ With B.B., where he rides roughshod across an alternate time signature from the rhythm section in his phrasing. Yet its this shapeshifting Calypso instrumental that shows an undercelebrated side of King’s wide-ranging musical sensibilities. Listen out for the diminished runs and the outro, where he really loses himself in the tune, adding rare rhythmic doublestop stabs and controlling the song’s dynamics with a twist of his volume control.

Did you know?

King was an ever-present in the studio in his early days; a boxset of the complete RPM-Kent recordings features over 400 tracks, including alternate takes

15. Days Of Old

2000’s Riding With The King saw 75-year-old BB rolling back the years on a collaboration with Eric Clapton that had finally come to fruition after years of mutual appreciation. The record featured five vintage BB King songs, and on the uptempo Days Of Old from 1958, an elite band with Andy Fairweather-Low, Joe Sample et al offer a perfect substitute for the horn stabs of the original. Clapton pulls out all the stops throughout the record, mimics the intro line and staccato Q&A licks that leapt out of the original, and when it’s Lucille’s turn in the spotlight, King soars above the mix with a push-and-pull solo soaked in expressiveness that draws on all of his years of experience with the song – a highlight from a record brimming with mutual admiration from two guitar greats.

Did you know?

Fans of Texas blues should give Riding With The King a spin for the guest spots from Jimmie Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall II; the latter’s songs Marry You and I Wanna Be are covered

14. Guess Who

The cover image from King’s 1972 album Guess Who shows him laid out on the beach hovering in a state somewhere between relaxation and exhaustion, Lucille by his side – it was his 21st album, after all. But the title track shows there was still plenty more to come, and King transforms the smouldering sentimentality of this piano-blues into a consummate lesson in how his vocal and guitar were two sides of the same coin when it came to dynamics and phrasing. BB uses his full vocabulary of first-finger bends, string slides, passing notes, his magical vibrato and more to subtly transform the song’s basic melody into something only he could play.

Did you know?

King’s oft-imitated rapid vibrato technique relies on lateral movement of the wrist; unusually, the tip of his finger is the only part of his hand touching the fretboard, which contributes to its uniquely vocal quality

13. Don’t Answer The Door

This 1966 single, a cover of a Jimmy Johnson composition, was King’s highest-charting song for six years on release, but its success was modest compared to the smash that his signature song, Thrill Has Gone, became three years later. Undoubtedly, though, guitarists around the world were listening – just as important to the song’s success as the brooding electric organ and King’s impassioned vocal are the bursts of ghostly lead guitar, drenched in pools of sumptuous amp reverb, an effect also put to spine-chilling use by King’s favourite UK bluesman, Peter Green.

Did you know?

Listen also to the brooding live version on the outstanding half-live, half-studio Live & Well album from 1969, part of a set which King proclaimed was the best he’d ever played

12. Chains And Things

“I know the critics always name Live & Well or Live At The Regal as my best albums,” King once reflected, “but I think Indianola Mississippi Seeds was the best album I have ever made artistically.” The record came on the heels of his breakthrough hit Thrill Is Gone, from the Completely Well record, and young Bill Szymcyzk (who produced that album and would later go on to produce Hotel California) gently nudged King away from his well-trodden formula into fresh territory, with exceptional results. Chains And Things, also featuring Carole King on Fender Rhodes, is a case in point: simmering with world-weary minor-key indignation, BB delivers a haunting vocal and his guitar solo, embellished with interwoven string lines, seems to emanate from deep inside him.

Did you know?

The solo’s opening note was a mistake, according to BB: “I played the wrong note and followed it as best I could… then we got the arranger to make the strings follow it”

11. Gambler’s Blues

When you summon BB King’s playing to mind, chances are you’ll hear it floating serenely above a bed of horns of the kind that characterised Live At The Regal. But on the 1966 live album Blues Is King, BB took to the stage in Chicago with a stripped-down band featuring only organ, alto sax and a trumpet in their place, and the results were grittier and far more visceral as a result. There are many six-string highlights, including the stark, spiky lines of opener Waiting On You and the spills of feedback threatening the reverb-coated licks on Night Life (there’s also an unfortunate string break on Blind Love). But Gambler’s Blues is the guitar highpoint – a prowling beast of a performance, so real it feels as though he’s in the room with you.

Did you know?

BB King was in debt at this time due to a bus crash incident that left him personally liable and claims for back taxes from the IRS, hence the stripped-down line-up

10. How Blue Can You Get (aka Downhearted)

A crowdpleasing staple in King’s live sets on account of its clever wordplay, BB recorded the 1949 Jane and Leonard Feather composition twice; once in 1963 as Downhearted, and then in a revamped version the following year, which made the Billboard 100. This version – from a 1979 tour of Russia, filmed in what looks like an aircraft hangar, in Tblisi of all places – is a great watch, firstly for the extreme-close-up camerawork offering us an almost uncomfortably intimate view of his guitar technique, secondly for the noodling in the intro, and finally, for an appreciation of BB King as an out-and-out showman, acting out the lyrics as he goes.

Did you know?

There are many to choose from: definitive live versions are a toss-up between those on Live At The Regal, Sing Sing, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! and Cook County Jail

9. Blues At Midnight

A towering track included on King’s ABC-Paramount debut album Mr Blues, from 1963 – a record that combines the output of three separate sessions with a variety of groups into a stylistically varied but not entirely satisfying whole – Blues At Midnight enjoys the distinction of having an uncommonly great guitar tone that’s different from much of the rest of his output. Articulate, nasal and sounding almost-out-of-phase, how exactly he came across it remains a mystery. King had a famous preference for Gibson’s Lab series L-5 amps and used Fender models, but beyond that, was seemingly far from a gearhound.

Did you know?

It’s speculated that the tone on this record may be the product of one of the settings on King’s custom-ordered stereo ES-335 with Varitone switch, pictured on the cover

8. Hummingbird

The BB King/Bill Szymcyzk partnership bore further fruit with Indianola Mississippi Seeds’ closing epic, a most uncharacteristic, shapeshifting musical exploration written by singer-pianist Leon Russell, who contributes gutsy piano to the record. Beginning with a loping Albert King-esque  strut and morphing into an ambitious rock-ballad arrangement, Hummingbird would’ve been a standout in King’s discography even without its closing section, where, over a chorus of angelic backing vocals from Sherlie Matthews, Merry Clayton, Clydie King and Venetta Fields, King offers his own unique take on the epic Layla-esque 70s rock outro, wringing almost Stones-y licks from Lucille’s neck for a satisfyingly bitter and earthy contrast to the song’s emotive crescendo.

Did you know?

The surreal cover image, featuring a watermelon guitar complete with pickups, neck and bridge, won a Grammy for photographer, Ivan Nagy and cover designer, Robert Lockart

7. Rock Me Baby

This early BB King song, recorded sometime between 1958 and 1962, was his first to hit the Top 40 in the US, and both it and Muddy Waters’ Rock Me share a common ancestor in Lil’ Son Jackson’s Rockin’ And Rollin’. King’s take is a prowling monster of a recording, bleeding into the red, that pairs a deep, barrelling piano bassline with a manky stray cat of a main lick; but what elevates it is the perfectly formed guitar solo, with its sophisticated manipulation of space, its visceral string rakes, mix of major and minor and its microtonal bends. It’s a rare glimpse of BB King in unadulterated macho-swagger mode and it’s since entered the blues canon.

Did you know?

Hendrix revamped the song somewhat for his mindblowing 1967 Monterey Pop Festival performance and BB King re-recorded the song in 2000 with Clapton for Riding With The King

6. Every Day I Have The Blues

A 1935 song by the Sparks brothers, updated by Memphis Slim, Count Basie And His Orchestra and others, King’s version of Every Day I Have The Blues recorded 20 years later became his “theme” on account of its novel DI’d guitar sound (resulting in extra cuthrough and twang) and “crisp and relaxed” horn arrangements from Maxwell Davis. It was a regular concert opener, opening both Live At The Regal and Live At Cook County Jail, and for all the charm of the original, it’s in performance that it comes to life. Here’s a great hyperactive version from circa 1969-70 where BB slickly sorts out his guitar issues before peeling out a stinging solo that dances around the horn lines and takes advantage of the sustain from his cranked amp.

Did you know?

Though King’s first version was recorded in 1955, it had to wait until 2004 for a Grammy Hall of Fame Award and until 2019 to be inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame as a Classic Of Blues Recording

5. Why I Sing The Blues

The closing song on BB’s classic 1969 album Completely Well catalogues the historical and contemporary racial injustices of US society head on, and with simmering dignity. Though the original is a cool slab of funk, driven by a propulsive bassline from Gerald ‘Jerry’ Jemmott, it’s best heard in the sweltering heat of the Zaire 74 concert: 80,000 people watch on as his band up the tempo and the bandleader closes his eyes and coaxes Lucille to sing. When describing his guitar phrasing, BB would often explain his approach in terms of a conversation, constructing complete sentences by repeating themes while varying the dynamics, bends and sustain in his licks; and this is a prime example of how he did it, with a bonus funky outro thrown in just for the hell of it.

Did you know?

King’s right-hand technique is an essential aspect of his sound: he played with a heavy pick and used mostly downstrokes to strike the notes, sacrificing the speed of alternate picking for more control and consistency of emphasis. He also exclusively damped the strings with his right hand

4. Three O’Clock Blues

BB had his first chart appearance in 1951 with a brooding take on Lowell Fulson’s Three O’Clock Blues, restlessly alternating soulful crooning with restless, barbed guitar licks over a bed of soporific horns. The influence of T-Bone Walker on King’s early style shines through here, in the emphatic use of bends and the abrupt, unexpected pauses for thought interrupting the flow of his lead lines to convey emotion through the power of silence. King’s raw and authoritative playing when he revisited the song for 2000’s Riding With The King makes for an interesting comparison: half a century of blues playing is a lot of water under the bridge, but his expressive power is completely undiminished.

Did you know?

Beginning life as a Gibson L-30, Lucille took many forms before King settled on his iconic choice of centreblock-equipped ES-355 and its less bling sister models, the 335 and 345. At this point in his career, Lucille was an ES-125; a hollowbody model with a single P-90 pickup

3. Worry Worry Worry (Live In Cook County Jail)

Johnny Cash’s prison concerts (1968’s At Folsom Prison and 1969’s At San Quentin) set the precedent for BB King to accept an invitation to perform at Cook County Jail in Chicago in 1971, and the experience had a lasting effect on him: BB would go on to co-found the Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Recreation and Rehabilitation (FAIRR) in 1972. The Cook County performance has many fine moments, but Worry Worry Worry, its 10-minute centrepiece, finds him using everything in his power – from spoken-word soliloquys and hummingbird falsetto to band dynamics and verse after verse of spectacularly emotive blues lead – to make a connection with the lost souls staring back at him.

Did you know?

BB King was a passionate advocate for prison reform, and played around 70 prison gigs over the course of his career, including the subject of the 1972 documentary At Sing Sing Prison

2. Sweet Little Angel

Live At The Regal is forever praised as one of the greatest live albums of all time and even though its timelessness ultimately lies in the connection with the crowd and the ensemble performance, it’s also littered with exceptional, enormously varied guitar playing. An undoubted high point for many is King’s playing on Sweet Little Angel, a reworking of Lucille Bogan’s 1930 song Black Angel Blues. While King had refined his guitar style on singles towards a more minimalist approach out of necessity, onstage, it could be a different story, and so it proves here: from its authoritative, melodic opening phrase onwards, his brief off-the-cuff solo covers so much ground, it’s virtually a song in itself.

Did you know?

At one point in his 60s career, Eric Clapton listened to this album every night before going onstage

1. The Thrill Is Gone

King’s signature song was a hit for Roy Hawkins, its co-writer, in 1951, but BB’s ground-up reworking of it reached No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970 and took his popularity to a new audience, and a new level. Its dramatic arrangment – immersing King’s angst-ridden vocals and laconic, reverb-shrouded stabs of guitar in a sea of heartbreak made up of pensive strings and atmospheric Wurlitzer, provided the established bluesman with an entirely fresh sonic setting.

The song was masterminded by Bill Szymczyk, an up-and-coming staff producer at ABC Records who had lobbied hard to allow executives to pair him up with King in the studio. The result of their first collaboration was 1969’s Live & Well album: a half-live, half-studio test exercise. For its follow-up, Completely Well, Szymczyk recruited session players Herbie Lovell on drums, bassist Gerry Jemmott, keys player Paul Harris and guitarist Hugh McCracken and set up in New York’s Hit Factory studio in September 1969. The producer asked string arranger Bert de Coteaux to come up with the song’s distinctive arrangement.

Szymczyk told Mix Online: “The thing I remember most vividly about that session was how BB smiled during it. This had never happened to him before – strings on a blues record. I’m not sure it had ever happened to anyone before.”

The atmospheric backdrop stirred up an emotional response from King, whose terse, pent-up lines bristle with dynamic energy, swooping gracefully above and below the other elements in the mix before embarking on an outro that Szymcyk recalls went on a full eight minutes.

Did you know?

BB King recorded the song live with no guitar or vocal overdubs, using a Gibson ES-355 with Varitone through a Fender Twin Reverb

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