Friday, 15 May 2015

The first time I heard blues music was on a BBC TV show about the American South. I was about eight years old and the guitar phrases embedded themselves into my head and sat there dormant for a few years. Later on, when I was really listening to blues music, I realised that it had been BB King I had heard on that TV programme and that his guitar playing was informing all of my learning and enjoyment of the music. At the time I wouldn't have been able to explain why it was that musicians like BB pleased me so much more than the guitarists that many of my friends and contemporaries enjoyed. I understand now that his unfussy, classy and lyrical style touches me much more than a highly technical, million note a minute approach.


As I dug further into the guitar playing of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Peter Green, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Hendrix, John Mayer and scores of others, I would constantly see the influence of BB King. The mix of major and minor pentatonic, the "BB Box" finger pattern with the root note on the B string that allows beautiful tone and half tone bends around the chord tones and of course that superb finger vibrato make BB a much imitated guitarist.
It is a cliche that sounds a bit naff but it does genuinely apply to BB; the notes he left out were as important as the notes he played. There would be so much space in his playing and singing, each phrase he played perfectly executed and not a note wasted. It feels like his style came from endless playing and recording, a unique sound and approach that appeared effortlessly natural to him. There's a fabulous collection of videos on YouTube with BB discussing his playing that will illustrate the point to musicians and non musicians alike.

BB was the real deal as a singer, bringing a gospel heritage to his performances. Like his guitar playing his singing was always exciting and moving whilst economic and classy. His showmanship was second to none, built from a constant touring schedule that had him performing hundreds of shows a year for many decades.
He was a humble but vital ambassador of the blues and played with a startling array of musicians during his career. Again YouTube is a wonderful resource for examples of him jamming with the greatest players and performers.

Along with the great Buddy Guy BB King was one of the last remaining links to the Muddy Waters/Howlin' Wolf generation of blues musicians and the music is a little poorer without him, although his legacy remains a vital presence.

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