Learn to Play Like B.B. King

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B.B. King Guitar Lesson

Astrid Stawiarz | Getty Images

When people speak of the "world's greatest guitarists", blues legend B.B. King's name is almost always mentioned. Yet, B.B. King doesn't have the technique of "shredders" like Joe Satriani or Eric Clapton. As remarkable as B.B. King's music is, the truth is the fundamentals of King's solo style are easy to learn.

Forgetting for a moment the actual notes that B.B. King plays, there are a few major concepts that define his guitar work - his phrasing, and his very unique vibrato. In this B.B. King guitar lesson, we'll take a look at King's choice of notes, his phrasing, and his vibrato.

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B.B. King's Phrasing

The first concept to tackle when trying to learn to play blues in a B.B. King style is learning how to "phrase" your solos.

Think of the way you talk - you form ideas into sentences, and at the end of each sentence, you pause. B.B. King plays guitar the same way. Listen to this mp3 clip of B.B. King's guitar solo on "Paying the Cost to be the Boss", paying attention to King's phrasing. Notice that King plays an idea, and pauses before continuing with another idea. Musicians who play wind instruments (trumpets, saxophones, etc.) are forced to play this way, as they have to stop and breathe. Guitarists don't have the same limitation, and often end up playing notes endlessly. The use of more "horn-like" phrasing, however, can be very effective - the pauses between riffs allow the listener to digest what they've just heard.

You may find that initially trying to incorporate phrasing into your solos is a difficult concept to master. Using the blues scale, practice playing a "riff" of five or six notes, pausing for a few seconds, then continuing with a new series of notes. Concentrate on making each short riff sound complete - try not to let the series of notes sound unresolved. This may be overwhelming at first, but as you continue to practice, your phrasing will grow stronger and stronger. Listen back to the mp3 clip above, and try to emulate B.B. King's approach.

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B.B. King's Use of Vibrato

Mastering the highly individual sounding vibrato of B.B. King will also take some practice. While some guitarists use only their fingers to create vibrato, B.B. uses his whole hand, rapidly rocking the string back and forth.

Listen to an mp3 clip of B.B. King playing "Worry Worry", and pay attention to the guitarist's vibrato. Notice that although B.B.'s vibrato is very pronounced, he doesn't use it on every note. King reserves vibrato for notes that are held for longer periods of time, or notes he wants to accentuate. Using notes from the blues scale try to mimic King's approach to vibrato.

But, don't take my word for it. Learn about B.B. King's vibrato (and more) from the man himself, in this B.B. King YouTube video guitar lesson.

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The B.B. King Hand Position

b.b. king tab

If you've had some experience playing blues guitar, chances are, when I say "let's play blues in A", your hand automatically slides to the fifth fret of your guitar - the standard A blues scale position. You can certainly play a lot of great guitar licks in that position, but it's not a position that King uses that much. B.B. favors a different area of the guitar fretboard - he places his first finger on the second string root note. So, if you were playing a B.B. style guitar solo in the key of A, you'd find the note A on the second string (tenth fret), and rest your first finger on that note. Note: even though the chords in the song change, usually B.B. will use this position as his "home base", slightly varying what he plays to fit the different chords.

Examine the above diagram. These are frets, centered around the root in red, that B.B. plays extensively. King will bend many of these notes, however, to change their pitch. For example, in the key of A, B.B. likes to play the 2nd string, 12th fret (the note above the root in the diagram) with his third finger, which he immediately bends up to the 14th fret. He'll then often follow that note with the root note, the 10th fret on the second string (with a healthy dollop of vibrato, of course).

B.B. often plays the lowest note in the above diagram with his second finger, which he then slides up two frets to play the other note on the third string. Then, he'll end the mini-riff with the root on the second string. This is a really common B.B. phrase, one you'll hear in almost every solo he plays.

Another favored B.B. lick is playing the highest note in the pattern (in the key of A it would be 12th fret on first string), then bending it up two frets. From there, King will often return the string to it's unbent position, re-play the same fret, and end the lick with (you guessed it) the root.

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Learning Note Names on the Second String

What's that you say? You've never learned the notes on the second string? Well, if that's the case, you're not alone. If you want to start playing like B.B. King, though, you're going to have to learn the notes on the second string, and learn them well.

What you can do to begin learning the notes on the second string is to find the appropriate note on the fifth string, and count over three strings, and down two frets (see image above).

Let's use C as an example for finding the note name on the second string. Knowing that C is on the fifth string, third fret, we can count over three strings, and down two frets to see that C is also on the second string, first fret.

While this is a perfectly legitimate way to start learning the note names on the second string, I find this to be slightly tedious. You should instead opt to just memorize the names of notes on the second string, the same way you've memorized note names on the sixth and fifth strings when you began to play guitar.

Back to B.B.

Find the root note now (let's pretend we're in the key of A - so find A on the second string). Fret the note with your first finger, and play it. Now, play it again. And again... and again. Get used to it - B.B. likes to keep it simple, and you'll hear him coming back to this root note constantly.

Perhaps the most important thing to take away from the basic B.B. King hand position is King's interest in playing the root. Most of his blues riffs end on the root, and yours should too... it gives the riff a feeling of resolution, and feels "final".

In addition to the learning the notes on the second string, you'll want to learn where the root is, one octave up, on the first string. B.B. likes to slide up to this note at the climax of his solos.

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B.B. King Licks in The Key of A

b.b. king tab

The above B.B. King blues guitar tab is in the key of A, so, as stated before, we'll get into B.B. King hand position - with our first finger centered on the root note "A" on the second string (at the tenth fret).

This first exerpt is just a quick little riff by B.B., on the tune "There's Something on your Mind" (with Etta James), from his 1993 album Blues Summit. Listen to mp3 of this B.B. King tab

A simple, but classic B.B. King lick. You'll hear King play variations on this riff in virtually every solo he's ever played. Familiarize yourself with this pattern, and try to match the vibrato and bend exactly.

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B.B. King Licks in The Key of A (pt. 2)

B.B. King Worry Worry

This second solo is an exerpt from the middle of a 12-bar blues called "Worry, Worry", from one of King's most highly regarded albums, 1964's Live at the Regal, a must-own for blues guitar fans. Listen to an mp3 of above tab.

The above is a prime example of the B.B. King hand position. King stays in this same position on the neck for the entire transcribed solo. Notice all the different sounds he gets out of his guitar, by varying how far he bends notes, by sliding and adding vibrato, etc. Take your time with the above, and memorize the entire passage. Try to get your playing as smooth and flowing as B.B.'s.

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B.B. King Licks in The Key of C

b.b. king blues tab in c

The above B.B. King blues guitar transcription is in the key of C, so, we'll need to get into B.B. position - with our first finger centered on the root note "C" on the second string (at the 13th fret). Your other fingers should be poised above the fretboard, ready to be used at any time.

This first clip finds B.B. in a more aggressive mood than we're used to hearing him in. The song is "Stormy Monday", and the form is a traditional 12 bar blues. Listen to an mp3 clip of the above tab.

King starts his solo with the root note "C" high up on the fretboard of the first string (20th fret). It's been mentioned before, but it bears repeating... know where the root of the key is on the first string. B.B. likes to play this note, and slide off of it, in the climax of his solos.

From there, it's back to the standard B.B. King hand position, in which King plays some of his favorite riffs, plus a few other phrases we don't hear him play quite as often. King executes some tough first finger bends, which we'll see more in following transcriptions. You'll need to spend some time on this solo to get everything sounding connected.

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B.B. King Licks in The Key of G

bb king guitar tab

The following B.B. King blues guitar transcription is in the key of G, so, like before, we'll get into B.B. position - with our first finger centered on the root note "G" on the second string (at the eighth fret).

This clip features B.B. playing one chorus of 12 bar blues as an introduction to the song "Good Man Gone Bad", from his 1998 album Blues on the Bayou. Listen to an mp3 of the above tab.

Lots of vintage B.B. King licks here - including some tricky passages which sound deceptively simple. Twice during the above tab, B.B. uses his first finger to bend a note on the first string. The first time, the note is bent up a half step, and the second time, the note is bent up a full step. This can be tough to execute, and will require some practice in order to get your first finger strong enough for these bends.

As always, B.B. uses short phrases, with lots of space between them. When you've mastered the above solo, try playing a solo in a similar style, with different notes, along with the mp3.

That's it for this lesson. If you spend some serious time with the content here, you should quickly learn the basic style and sound of B.B. King's guitar playing. If you're really interested in learning and assimilating King's guitar techniques, it's important that you spend time listening to, and playing along with his albums. Good luck!