How to Play Blues Guitar like BB King

Without the shadow of a doubt, BB King is one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time. Yet, how does one go about emulating his genius, especially since King is considered one of the less technical blues guitar icons out there? In other words, how can someone play blues guitar like BB King, without sounding derivative? What are the skills you need to learn for this endeavor, in terms of blues technicalities? Read on, to find out what defines King’s style and what it takes to reframe his style, within the paradigm of contemporary blues styles.

play-blues-guitar-like-bb-kingThe trademark BB King selection of notes

Most of the notes BB King employs to create his signature sound are those on the second string; this, of course, might pose a couple of issues for the beginner acoustic blues guitarist, since most of them have never even learned the names of notes on the second string. However, if you’re serious about learning how to play blues guitar like BB King, you definitely need to know them. You can do this by correlating their names with those of notes on the fifth string, then counting three string over and two frets down. This is not the most exciting aspect of learning how to play acoustic blues guitar, since it’s basically a repeat of those beginner lessons, of memorizing note names on the fifth and sixth strings. However, it’s essential to the point of today’s lesson.

Note that BB King usually focuses on the root note, in his blues guitar riffs and solos. It makes them sound imposing, slightly dramatic, and very effective, so make sure you know where the keys of A and G are located on the second string and practice playing them over and over again. You should keep practicing until you’ve got them down to the very smallest details, because you will be relying heavily on their simple, but essential sound when learning how to play like the King. Aside from the second string, bear in mind the BB King would also often employ the root note on the first string, especially to slide to it at the highest points of his solos.

Play blues guitar like BB King by understanding his phrasing

When it comes to sounding like BB King, most blues guitar experts would cite his very personal and unique style of solo phrasing as a defining element. There’s something very particular about the connection between solo construction and learning how to play guitar like BB King. In King’s seminal recording of “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss”, for instance, his defining style becomes very apparent: it’s all about knowing when to make the most effective pause. It’s as if this blues guitar master weren’t even playing notes and musical phrases, but concepts and ideas. After each new concept introduced in the musical line of the blues song, he stops for a brief respite, then carries on. It’s highly similar to a wind instrument musician’s technique. The way to achieve this technique is by first practicing a 5- or 6-note riff, stopping for a pause, then reprising for a new riff.

BB King’s signature vibrato

Vibrato is one of the more complex aspects of learning how to play blues guitar like BB King, and that’s because, unlike many other musicians, he used his entire hand to achieve it – not just a few of his fingers. This creates an accented vibrato, which the player particularly uses on longer-held notes. The best way to understand how he does it is by listening to the man himself discuss and describe his vibrato technique. Once you’ve digested that, you should also practice the vibrato with notes from the blues scale.

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