In Memoriam: B.B. King

B.B. King

Billy Gibbons first inspired me to begin playing the guitar, but it was B.B. King from whom I first began learning how. I was thirteen years old, and very much into early ZZ Top. My mother remarked that their music was blues-based, so I thought I’d begin listening to blues artists. Before Wikipedia and YouTube, there weren’t many places to discover new music, but I somehow remembered B.B. King’s name as a leading blues artist, and found a greatest hits cassette at my local Musicland. As I mentioned not too long ago, my first moments with a guitar were spent transcribing one of his solos.

From my experience, I have learned that a solid grounding in the blues style is vital to any electric guitarist’s early development. I encourage students to regard music as a language; and in our native tongues we did not first begin expressing ourselves through eloquent turns of phrase, but with simple, urgent messages. So I teach what I can about the blues. But it can be difficult, because how do you teach nuance and expressiveness? I can barely define it, let alone codify it. But we can spot it when it is present in one’s playing. The reason non-blues artists like Prince and Joe Satriani sound more engaging than so many YouTube shredders is that the spirit of the blues lives in their playing.

This is the essence of the blues: To communicate a musical thought directly and without obfuscation. This doesn’t require a lot of musical material, just a few notes and an intimate connection with one’s instrument. No one embodies this ideal better than B.B. King. I have often cited him as an example of how to “sing through the instrument”; in fact, his powerful vocals were a perfect complement to his guitar’s voice.

I grew up reluctant to approach musical performance as a means of conveying extramusical meaning. A guitar solo doesn’t have to be “about” anything. Yet, when I listen to this man play, it reminds me that you’ve got to find something to say. We might not all experience lives full of the blues, but if we dig deeply enough, we can find the blues inside of ourselves somewhere.

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