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This article was originally published in issue #34
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You may ask why the key of Bb? B.B.King was very much influenced by Jazz as he was by Blues and many Jazz/Blues pieces from the 1930s onwards employed keys favoured by horn players as big band Jazz was the pop music of the day.
May 2015 saw the sad death of B.B. King - probably the most famous Blues guitarist the world has ever known and an inspiration to generations of players the world over. You can read about B.B. King's life story in a thousand other places, so Guitar Interactive is leaving the history lessons to them - instead we're doing what we do best: we've asked Stuart Bull to bring you an exclusive two-part tribute to a guitar genius.
I would normally start a piece such as this with an attempt at humour or possibly one of my colourful observations on guitar life BUT the subject matter is somewhat sad because unless you have been living in a cave on the borders of Pakistan, you probably already know about the passing of the one and only Mr B.B. King. For me there was no period in time where B.B. King was popular, he was simply popular from the day he came to light until the day he passed. I believe the reason for this is he always stuck to the music he loved thus bypassing trends and fashions.
The track I have put together for this is based on a live version of "The Thrill Is Gone" I took the chord progression and added my own vocal line. I did this for two reasons, the first being that I wanted to pay my own tribute and secondly because one of Mr King's great musical skills was his ability to play beautiful licks and phrases around a vocal. I have left plenty of space after the vocal is done for soloing. You might notice that the song speeds up and the intensity rises throughout the piece, this is of course totally intentional as the emotional response to this rise in intensity is very satisfying.
The lead guitar playing is very much about how the notes are played as the harmonic information is pretty basic. The C minor pentatonic is employed throughout with the occasional use of the 9th and the 6th. First up is the mighty B.B. vibrato. There is no point in me telling you I can do this but I have attempted to share the physical technique required to get somewhere in the ballpark, if you wish to emulate the emotional content please feel free to grow up poor and go on the road for the next 65 years. Of course, I will be dead by the time you're done but please write me a note to let me know how you got along.
The next point of discussion is the picking dynamics. B.B.'s picking dynamics have a very wide range from super soft and gentle right through to loud and aggressive. He uses a guitar sound which can be very clean when played gently or can break up nicely when attacked with vigour. There are no pedals that I know of, just sublime touch and feel. The rake technique used within Mr King's playing sets up his vibrato wonderfully as he rakes, utilising chord forms or sometimes just palm muting - it's almost like a gas pedal going from low to high revs creating a dramatic point of expression.
The string bending is somewhat elusive as you never quite know what he will do or how he will do it. The combinations are endless as sometimes there are string bends with no vibrato sometimes a great deal, sometimes a clean bend then the vib is added. I'm not sure if B.B. himself is making conscious decisions rather just responding emotionally to the music and letting years of playing and experience to their job.
There is as much listening here as there is playing as everyone in the band feels each other out to when and how much to build. It's a step by step process which really is something to behold, these guys have done so many shows it has just become instinctive, natural and devastatingly good. There are a myriad approaches to guitar playing here and just when you think you have cracked the code another level presents itself, as if the Super Mario bros have turned great guitar playing into a multi level user experience for the PlayStation.
So as Harry Shredder climbs aboard the Hogwart's Widdle express bound for Speedsville, I implore you to remember the Bananarama pop song title: 'It Ain't What You Do.....It's The Way That You Do It'. And with that I bid you farewell for this Part One of my B.B. King tribute, with the wish that your next FX Processor has 2,000,000 more patches than the last one you owned and that one those patches will sound passable.