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From The Archive: B.B. King

The blues legend talks about bending notes and magical solos

Brian Hiatt May 15, 2015
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B.B. King, 1970 Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

B.B. King, 1970 Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“Once, on TV, I saw John Lennon say he wished he could play like me. I almost fell out of my chair.”

 

The first time you heard electric guitar, it was played by the reverend in your church. What do you remember?

It was heaven! Heaven! It was unusual to even have electric light in the area, and there he was plugging up an electric guitar. It was new, different – something I can’t explain. It was like he was hitting notes that no one had hit before. I was about seven years old, and it was so exciting. My mother used to talk about spanking me to make me go to church, but when we went to Reverend Archie’s church I’d be leading her by the hand because he always played the guitar.

You popularized the style of single-note guitar solos. Where did you first hear that kind of playing?

T-Bone Walker was the first that I heard do it on electric guitar. But if you pick up some of the early Lonnie Johnson, you’ll hear all of that there too. Just not amplified, but you’ll hear it all. And it’s just as clear as a crystal. Whatever he hit at, he didn’t miss it, ever.

Neither of those guys bent notes with vibrato the way you do. 

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I wanted to be able to do like my cousin Bukka White and some of the other great slide guitarists. But I have stupid fingers. They just wouldn’t do it with the slide. So I fell in love with the guitar player for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. His name is Leon [McAuliffe]. On the records, you’d -always hear Bob say, “Oh, Leon!” And the guitar talked!

So I always equated the bottleneck with that sound, as well as records from the islands, like Hawaii. So what I would do is take the neck of the guitar, twirl my hand to get vibrato – and my stupid ears started saying, “That sounds similar to what they were doing.” And every time I pick up a guitar, that’s still the first thing I try to do.

When did you realize that your style was having a wide influence?

Well, I was watching TV one night, and the lead singer of the Beatles – John Lennon – said he wished he could play like B.B. King. I almost fell out of my chair. And that started me to thinking, “God, what am I doing? The greatest group on Earth, and the guy is saying that to me?” I tried not to let it go to my head. But I sure thought about it. That was like Jesus Christ coming down and saying, “Yeah, B., you’re pretty good.”

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Unlike a lot of blues players who followed you, you’ve never been known for speed or flashiness.

Well, guitar players are kind of like the days of the Wild West. The one that was the fastest was the one that practiced the most. But I don’t even talk that fast, so why would I play so fast? So, what I do mostly is try to play the note to make it make sense, not only to me, but to you, too. If
I went on a stage and just started playing everything I like, you’d probably look at me like, “What the hell is he doing?”

When you’re deep into a solo, what’s going on in your head? 

I’m not sure anyone’s ever asked me that before. I wish I knew how to tell you. Sometimes I forget who I am. When I’m on the stage, I won’t be thinking about, hey, boy, I’m something else. I’m thinking about trying to tell this story that I want you to understand. It’s like now, just talking with you, it makes me feel good if I can make you understand what I’m trying to tell you. Even if I don’t have all the words, I’m doing my best. That’s the same way I think about the music.

The article originally appeared in Rolling Stone’s Guitar Heroes issue in 2008

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