Deep Blues: Riding with B.B. King
Take a closer look at some of the signature techniques of the late blues master.
• Learn how to use the “B.B. King” box to improvise over chord changes.
• Create rhythmic motifs that work in blues progressions.
• Understand how to target chord tones.
In light of the recent passing of the great B.B. King, we thought it only right to pay tribute to such a monumental figure in the blues scene—a King by name, but even more by legacy.
We’ve got two things to look at here: the track we’re playing over and the solo itself. It’s no secret that B.B. (whose given name was Riley B. King) wasn’t one for rhythm guitar. One of the funniest B.B. moments I’ve seen was some footage of him rehearsing with U2. While showing them the chords to “When Love Comes to Town,” B.B. stopped them and simply said, “I’m no good with chords, so what we do is get somebody else to play chords. I’m horrible with chords.”
This lesson draws influence from “Riding with the King,” the classic John Hiatt tune that B.B. and Eric Clapton recorded on their duo album of the same name. It’s a wonderful study of a non-traditional blues progression that strays away from the typical I–IV–V. Ex. 1 shows how to play the rhythm track we’ll use as the basis for our solo.
After a simple open-string riff in A, the whole thing moves up to B7 (which is the I chord) before moving down to E (the IV). Things really take a twist when it goes to G (the bVI), then the E again, back to G, and finally to A7 (the bVII). From a theoretical perspective, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the reality is that it sounds good ... and the golden rule is that if it sounds good, it is good!
Obviously, learning about B.B. is going to be all about learning how he made his fills and solos sound so sweet, yet full of soul. B.B. oozed genuine blues from his very core. Possibly the best proponent of the “less is more” approach, B.B. would milk as much music as humanly possible from just a few patterns on the guitar. And he did it with impeccable timing, inventive use of space, sublime bends, and that instantly recognizable vibrato.
Much of our solo will be played in what many have called the “B.B. Box.” If you aren’t familiar with it, check out “Deep Blues: The ‘B.B. King’ Box.” I describe it to my students as the shape that hits the root note on the 2nd string. This is a fantastic shape that expertly blends the best bits of the major and minor pentatonic scales. With careful bending, it lets you pretty easily cover each chord in a blues progression.
Our solo (Ex. 2) starts with some chord tones that outline the changes. People might think that B.B. was a man of little theoretical knowledge, but I remember watching a video of B.B. referring to the I and V chords while playing over a blues in G. He definitely knows what he likes to hear and why it works.
When the solo kicks in on the B7 chord, we’re milking the B.B. box with some nice vibrato and a bend up to the 3 of the chord. We then move up the neck for a nice bending lick—almost like a call-and-response phrase. This idea continues with another lick that moves between the B.B. box and the next form of the B minor pentatonic (B-D-E-F#-A) scale. Next is the classic B.B. idea of hitting the root an octave higher and sliding down.
We take a minimalist approach over the G and E chords and squeeze everything we can with some simple bends and well-timed phrasing. The beauty here is that it’s not a carbon-copy repetition each time, but rather the rhythm is offset a little bit. It’s not similar enough to feel boring, but not so different that you feel that you’re being overloaded with ideas. The “fastest” phrase in the whole solo is next and it’s nothing more than four descending notes. B.B. wasn’t about speed. Every phrase said something; every phrase was honest and not about showing you how much he knew or how good he was.
To move back to the B7 chord, we have a simple “B.B.-ism” that uses the minor 3 and major 3 before hitting a sweet little triad arpeggio idea to outline the chord, and, of course, that classic high note to wrap things up. All very simple, but difficult to master.
Finally, we have a backing track that lasts for two choruses to allow you to try some of your own ideas over the progression. This one is really a lot of fun. Just don’t over-think it—try the B minor pentatonic and the B.B. box and see what you can come up with. Close your eyes and let the music flow. Now go ride with the King.
The world will miss him.