Gibson BB King Lucille

In a new series, examines the work of some Gibson guitar greats. We'll start with the legend that will always be B.B. King.

If you don't adore this man's music you a) probably don't have a pulse b) you don't like guitar. Hands down, one of guitar's true stars...

Who was he?

The King of the blues. He was also known as “The Chairman of the Blues Board.” Alongside fellow Gibson players Albert King and Freddie King, B.B. was part of the so-called “three Kings” of blues who emerged in the 1950s, but B.B. reigned supreme. He was born Riley King in 1925 and passed in 2015, aged 89.

King bought his first guitar for $15, with money saved from working driving a tractor on a plantation. As a Memphis native, B.B. was well-placed to become a Gibson legend. Riley first gained the nickname "Beale Street Blues Boy", which was later shortened to "Blues Boy" and finally to “B.B.”

It was in Memphis that he first met T-Bone Walker, another pioneer of electric guitar. King recalled, "Once I'd heard him for the first time, I knew I'd have to have [an electric guitar] myself. 'Had' to have one, short of stealing!"

Signature Sounds

King was a great singer and songwriter, but quickly became revered for his guitar playing. King's technique/style was unique. Trilling notes, flourishes and a vibrato that was instantly recognizable. B.B. didn't talk too much about his sound – he was self-taught and didn't seem happy talking “theory”.

But that was just fine. B.B. is not about theory or learning. He's about feel and emotion. B.B. King could make a guitar “talk.” As John Lennon once said, “I just wish I could play guitar like B.B. King.”

But you can learn from King. His command of knowing when to play – and when not to play – remains exemplary.

King and Gibson

B.B soon fell for Gibson guitars around 1950. He particularly loved Gibson ES-335 guitars when they were launched in 1958. They became his “sound” and he was honored with his own “Lucille” model in 1980. (The story of why it's “Lucille”... well, that's another story!)

The Gibson Lucille model is still made today. At heart, it's an ES-355. It has the 6-way Varitone switch for various tonal options but no f-holes. B.B. used to stuff towels into his earlier ES-335 f-holes to eliminate chances of feedback. But Lucille is still semi-hollow. When I have got to play one, it's been one of the greatest guitars. Brilliant build-quality and superb tone. Shame I can't play like B.B. King, just like John Lennon couldn't...

Gibson BB King Lucille

King once told of his Gibsons, “We have an old saying in my vocab, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' So why should I try to play something else? I don't play the one I play well enough.” B.B. was modest to the end.

Essential Listening

His Live At The Regal album (1965) remains one of the most-acclaimed blues albums in history. Eric Clapton, John Mayer, and Mark Knopfler, have acknowledged using the album as a primer before their own live performances. They knew they had to try and match it.

His duet album with Clapton, Riding With The King, (2000) is superb, but quite polished. Of course, there are numerous compilations available for a man with such many blues hits. He released over 60 albums! If he had just one signature song it is, of course, “The Thrill Is Gone.”

Learn more at the B.B. King Museum. Learn about the Gibson Lucille.

Photo Credit: Gary Miller Photography