How to Play Guitar Like BB King

BB King is a blues legend, that’s a fact that is hard to argue. If you’ve been directly influenced by his playing then you know exactly what I’m talking about. However, if you haven’t been directly influenced by BB, or perhaps you haven’t discovered him, don’t worry. You’ve probably felt his influence via your favourite players. Everyone from Eric Clapton to Joe Bonamassa have quoted BB King as being one of their major influences in the blues.

In this lesson we’re going to break down some of the key elements of BB Kings guitar style and look at some ways for you to take that knowledge and add it to your own playing.

Chords and Backing Track

Here is a BB King style backing track. It’s the same track that I have used in the main Youtube video linked at the end of this lesson, where I demonstrate all of the principles discussed.

This track can be used for you to lay down your own BB King style licks and tricks over. It’s in the key of B and it is a BB style 12 bar made up exclusively of Dominant 7 chords. BB King jumps back and forth between Major and Minor licks regularly, and Dominant 7 chords make for the perfect backdrop for this style of playing. While on the surface they are major chords as they contain a maj3rd, they also function great as a minor substitution as they have a b7 note.

The chords used are the typical I, IV and V (B7, E7 and F#&) approach of a blues progression with an added bVI chord (The added G7). The bVI chord gives the progression a bit more of a jazzy feel, which is something that was often seen is BB’s style.

Scales Used

BB King would often lean heavily into Pentatonic scales, but his approach was often to combine major and minor in the same lick or the same solo. Here are the scales you’ll need for this lesson. It’s very important to learn both these shapes and learn where they cross over each other so that you can easily go between major and minor.

B Minor Pentatonic

B Major Pentatonic

BB Blues Box

BB would also use a smaller variation on the pentatonic which became known as the BB King Box, or the BB King Blues Box. This is a small fragment of the major and minor pentatonic scales in their third and fourth positions. If you jam in this box you’ll easily capture a bunch of cool BB style licks.

Vibrato

BB King made his guitar sound incredibly vocal as he played. His Vibrato was a bit part of this. BB’s vibrato style is somewhat unique and it is a big characteristic in his unique sound as player. His vibrato style is fast and narrow. He removes his thumb from the neck and flutters his hand back and forth quickly, but not moving the string pitch too far. It’s often referred to as the butterfly vibrato as his open palmed hand resembles a butterfly in flight. Check out the video linked below for a demonstration of this.

BB King Style Lick 1

This first lick showcases the BB King approach to moving between major and minor pentatonic scales in the same lick. The first three bars are major and the final bar is minor.

BB King Style Lick 2

This lick is predominantly a minor lick using the second shape of the B minor pentatonic but in the second bar it walks back and forth between the major and minor 3rd.

BB King Style Lick 3

This lick uses the BB King Box to great effect and sticks within the realms of that box. It’s very melodic and sweet sounding.

BB King Style Lick 4

This final lick is a Jazz influenced descending run that BB would often throw in. On paper, it’s mostly using the minor pentatonic but it has a few major notes thrown in for good measure. The major notes are treated almost as passing notes in this case to give a jazzy flavour.

Check Out the Full Video

If you want to hear these examples in full and in context check out the video on my Youtube channel where I walk through each of these techniques and licks in full detail.

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Leigh Fuge is a guitar player, content creator and educator. He is also the owner of Right Notes Music Tuition. He has over 15 years experience in the music industry and has also worked with many major guitar brands such as Blackstar Amps, Boss, MXR, Gretsch, Jackson Guitars, Hughes & Kettner and many more. Leigh has helped hundreds of students realise their potential with their guitar playing. Start your journey today and learn guitar online with Leigh!