There are only a small handful of instrumentalists that can be identified on hearing them play a single note. BB King, like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Carlos Santana, and a few others was one of those, a guitarist who could convey more feeling and musicality in one note than most manage in the entirety of their lengthy shredding excursions.
Musicians spend their lives trying to find and develop ‘a sound’ through a combination of the notes they choose to play and the instrument, strings, reeds, mouthpieces, amps, fx etc., they use to play them. Of course music and musicality go beyond this. Different musicians can play the same piece on the same instrument and still produce a completely different performance that comes from those so slight differences in phrasing, the emphasis of one note over another, the extent to which one pushes and pulls the beat and of course the manner in which you execute vibrato.
While the Gibson 335 was central to BB King’s playing style he could have plugged any make of guitar through any amp and been identifiable from his vibrato alone. For me he his playing has the same exuberance as that of Jacqueline du Pre, he manages to convey his absolute joy in music through his fingers and provokes anyone listening to be as emerged in the sound as he himself is. I find myself continuing to use the present tense in writing about BB King because despite his death today his recordings live on and while he may sadly no longer be with us we can thankfully still hear him and his band take to the stage at The Regal in 1964 or listen to his playing on any of those other albums that have supported me at times throughout most of my life.
Of course BB King’s style went far beyond the 335 and his use of vibrato. Harmonically and melodically his blues is different to the slide guitar tunings of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. His earliest recordings like ‘She’s Dynamite’ and ‘Miss Martha King’ obviously owe something to T-Bone Walker but BB King is already creating a blues style that goes beyond his own playing through the use of brass, shuffling walking bass lines and an overall approach that owes more to gospel and pre bop pianists like Jimmy Yancy, Albert Ammons and Duke Ellington than blues guitarists such as Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Blind Willie Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy. Over time the electric guitar tone he developed also continued to set him apart sharing more with jazz guitarists like Kenny Burrell and Grant Green than blues players like Elmore James.
One word other than Blues that immediately springs to mind when you mention BB King is soul. It is not just that one of his most famous tracks ‘The Thrill is Gone’ (which unfortunately fails to capture that thick BB King guitar sound) is a soul track, or that his playing is soulful, but it’s the quality of his voice that just oozes soul.
Without his guitar playing BB King would likely still have been a star as a vocalist, if you doubt me listen to the vocal performance on his 1960 recording of Duke Ellington’s ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ back to back with Nat King Cole’s and then tell me which you prefer, but it is the combination of voice and guitar that is so devastating. I remember hearing BB King say, in a self deprecating manner, that he couldn’t play and sing at the same time which was how both his phrasing and the interplay between his guitar and voice came about. Not wishing to disrespect a man whose music and work ethic one can only ever admire I have to disagree with him over this. To my mind, with the exception of some dodgy lyrics whose sensibilities time have overtaken, virtually everything about BB King had that thing missing from so many musicians, including many who have achieved far more fame than BB King – taste. It’s taste which sets his playing apart from others and it’s that taste which will continue to capture people’s hearts in the future.
BB King’s music may have had its roots in the cotton fields of Itta Binna, Mississippi, into which he was born in 1925, but the music he created during his life time posses a rare emotional quality that can speak universally to all regardless of age, ethnicity, creed or socio-economic background. You don’t need to know about his Honorary Doctorates from Yale, Berklee and others or his 18 Grammys and Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award. Just put on some of his music and celebrate the life of a rare musician who could invoke emotions in his performances like no other.