B.B. King – The Life and Guitars of the Blues Legend

B.B. King, born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925, in Itta Bena, Mississippi, was an American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist who became one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. Known as the “King of the Blues,” he brought a distinctive sound and style to the world of music, defining the blues for generations to come.

This post delves into the life and legacy of B.B. King, his iconic guitars, and the equipment that shaped his signature sound.

Early Life and Career

Growing up in a sharecropping family in the Mississippi Delta, B.B. King was introduced to music at a young age, singing in a gospel choir and learning the guitar from his mother’s cousin, Bukka White. After serving in World War II, he moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he began his professional music career in the late 1940s.

B.B. King’s unique style, characterized by his fluid string-bending and shimmering vibrato, quickly caught the attention of audiences and fellow musicians. As a prolific performer, he played over 200 shows a year at the peak of his career, earning the moniker “Beale Street Blues Boy” (later shortened to B.B.). He released his first single, “Miss Martha King,” in 1949 and continued to produce a steady stream of hits, including “Three O’Clock Blues,” “Sweet Little Angel,” and “Every Day I Have the Blues.”

Lucille: B.B. King’s Beloved Guitars

One of the most enduring aspects of B.B. King’s legacy is his relationship with his guitars, all of which he affectionately named “Lucille.” The story behind the name goes back to 1949 when King was performing at a dance hall in Twist, Arkansas. During a fight between two men, a kerosene stove was knocked over, setting the building ablaze. King risked his life to run back inside and save his guitar, later learning that the fight had been over a woman named Lucille. He named his guitars after her as a reminder never to do something so foolish again.

B.B. King’s main guitar throughout his career was a Gibson ES-335 or ES-355, a semi-hollow body electric guitar with a distinctive look and sound. These guitars were characterized by their smooth, warm tones and exceptional sustain, perfect for King’s expressive playing style. Over time, Gibson created several custom models for King, including the “Lucille” model, which featured a closed F-hole design to reduce feedback and a fine-tuner tailpiece for easier string-bending. If you are the proud owner of a “Lucille”, check the year of your guitar.

Guitar Equipment: Amplifiers, Pedals, and More

B.B. King’s signature sound was not only a result of his guitar but also the amplifiers and effects he used. Early in his career, King played through Fender Tweed amplifiers, known for their rich, warm tones. As his career progressed, he switched to solid-state amplifiers like the Lab Series L5, known for its clean headroom and clear, bell-like tones.

While King’s sound relied heavily on the natural tone of his guitar and amplifier, he occasionally used effects to enhance his playing. Some of the key effects included the Maestro Echoplex, an analog tape delay that added a warm, vintage echo to his sound, and the Ibanez Tube Screamer, an overdrive pedal that boosted his signal for a subtle drive.

Legacy and Influence

B.B. King’s impact on the world of music is immeasurable. His emotive playing and soulful voice influenced countless musicians, including Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and John Mayer, to name a few. He became a symbol of the blues, helping to bring the genre to a wider audience and ensure its survival as a vital force in contemporary music.

In addition to his musical contributions, B.B. King was also a dedicated advocate for social causes, using his fame to promote racial equality and support education initiatives. He founded the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in his hometown of Indianola, Mississippi, as a way to preserve the history of the blues and provide educational opportunities for young people in the Delta region.

Throughout his career, B.B. King received numerous awards and honors, including 15 Grammy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and inductions into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His enduring legacy is a testament to the power of music to touch hearts and minds and bridge cultural divides.

B.B. King passed away on May 14, 2015, at the age of 89, but his influence lives on through the musicians he inspired and the countless fans who continue to cherish his music. Aspiring guitarists still study his technique, hoping to capture a fraction of the magic that made King a legend.

B.B. King’s life story is one of passion, perseverance, and a love for the blues that transcended boundaries. His iconic guitars, such as the Gibson ES-355 “Lucille,” and the equipment he used, like the Lab Series L5 amplifier, all played a role in shaping his unmistakable sound. Today, B.B. King’s influence can be heard in the playing of guitarists across genres, and his music continues to inspire new generations. As the “King of the Blues,” his legacy remains a vital part of the fabric of American music history.