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[2020-02-26] Style Profile: B

Style Profile: B.B. King

02/26/2020 12:00 PM

By Greg Barr

Blues legend Buddy Guy once said, "Before B.B. King, everyone played the guitar like it was an acoustic." B.B. King's delicate touch, his signature vibrato, and his innovative use of bends have influenced generations of guitarists. Directly or indirectly, every guitarist alive today has learned something from B.B. King.

B.B. was an extremely sensitive player, always listening to the band and deciding when and how his sound should fit into the mix, and often times the conclusion was that it was not needed at all. In the blues, where the tonal center remains constant, it’s tempting and relatively easy to spout off a constant stream of notes. He understood phrasing and space—when to play and, more importantly, when not to play.

When he did decide to play, he wasn’t just filling space or playing to hear himself play. B.B. King was a master of dynamics, sometimes expressing himself with a whisper that drew the listener in, hanging on each note; other times he’d play a punchy yawp that spurred the crowd and the band into high gear. Either way, when he played the guitar, he was saying something.

B.B. King’s vibrato is instantly recognizable. He usually executed it with his index finger in a quick, sharp, horizontal shake that gives the note stinging clarity. Often he’d apply this treatment to a tonic—the first scale degree of whatever key he happens to be in, way up on the neck on the high E string.

One of the most distinctive elements of King’s playing was his extensive use of bends. It’s easy to overlook today when blues guitar is synonymous with hyperextended strings, but B.B. King was one of the first players to make this technique an integral part of his lead style. In "The Thrill is Gone" alone, which B.B. recorded in 1969, he employs multiple consecutive bends, microtonal bends, and prebends, all with the intent of emulating the subtle melodic contours of an expert vocalist, which he himself, of course, was.

On a personal note, “The Thrill is Gone” was one of my very first notetracking assignments when I started at Rocksmith. I remember sifting through the song over and over, discovering more nuance each time. A couple of years before he passed away, I got to see B.B. King perform live. He exuded warmth and kindness throughout the performance. He stayed for at least an hour after the last song was played to shake hands and chat with nearly every member of the audience, giving out picks and whatever other knickknacks he found lying around him. He was one of the greats, but his inspiration remains.

Greg Barr joined the Rocksmith team as a notetracker and composer in 2012. Greg received a BA in music from UC Santa Cruz, studying jazz and classical guitar, as well as composition. He is currently an independent guitar teacher and singer-songwriter, and the owner of Pinebox Studios in California.

B.B.King by Pete Souza is in the public domain.

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