Want to play blues licks like B.B. King?
In this post, I'll be sharing 3 B.B. King licks that capture specific elements of his guitar style. I'll break down each lick and examine the chords they go over, as well as the scales that are used behind the notes.
These licks will sound great when played over blues progressions, but they are not strictly limited to the blues. As you become more comfortable with these phrases, you'll find many other places to use them.
King is often regarded as one of the most iconic blues guitarists of all time, known for his soulful playing and signature vibrato. King was able to create so much music with so few notes, establishing an instantly identifiable style. He was a true master of blues phrasing and had exquisite taste in his choice of licks.
Lick #1 can be used for a blues in the key of G. Here we are playing over a G7 chord, but the shape I associate with this lick looks like this:
This chord looks like a barred-up open position C chord. The root is on the 5th string 10th fret. You can play this note with your pinkie finger, plus there is also another root note on the 8th fret of the 2nd string as well.
This is one of the most common shapes that B.B. King would play out of and is most associated with his “B.B. Box” approach.
Here we’ll start off sliding into the 9th fret of the 3rd string. Then go back and forth from the 8th fret of the 2nd string to the 10th fret.
In the second measure, we’ll bend up the note D to E and then bring it back down.
Finally, we’ll finish off the lick with a bend on the 10th fret of the 2nd string, and then right underneath that play the 10th fret of the 1st string with your pinkie finger, and then resolve back to the root note G on the 8th fret of the 2nd string like this:
Altogether the lick can be played like this:
The main scale pattern that this lick comes out of is the G major pentatonic scale and that can be played in the 7th position like this:
Those same strings and frets could also be thought of like this:
6th string = 7, 10
5th string = 7, 10
4th string = 7, 9
3rd string = 7, 9
2nd string = 8, 10
1st string = 7, 10
Take note of the bolded frets, those are the root notes that can serve as anchors for the key. Also, notice the emphasis on the note E in Lick #1. This was a typical sound King used in his solos. This traces back to earlier players like T-Bone Walker who was a huge influence on King.
Lick #2 demonstrates a classic move King used in so many of his solos, and that is to go way high up the neck and hit the root note of the song on the downbeat. This example is also in the key of G and going over a G chord. Here we’ll go way up to the 15th fret on the first string, this is the note G. We’ll hit that on the downbeat and then fall off with a downward slide like this:
Often after King would play this type of big high note, next he would follow up with a lower phrase in a type of “call and response” style.
Here again, King would slide into the note E on the 9th fret of the 3rd string and then top it all off with two root note plucks on the 8th fret of the 2nd string like this:
Then you can go back up again and play the 15th fret on the 1st string and slide down.
The second time we’ll play a different response to follow up as a variation. Here we’ll do a ¼ tone blues bend on the 10th fret of the 2nd string and then a pull-off to the 8th fret like this:
King was a master at bending, and sometimes the bends would be big bends and sometimes just tiny ¼ tone blues bends. He often would barely even move his hand from a fretting position but through bending he would be able to get all the right blues notes in a solo.
Finally, this lick ends with the 9th fret on the 3rd string back to the root note on the 8th fret of the 2nd string. Notice again the emphasis of the note E in the licks, this is the 6th of the scale and a secret to getting a King-style sound.
Altogether Lick #2 goes like this:
Lick #3 now goes over a C chord and demonstrates more of King’s patterns and how he used string bending in his solos. This lick comes in on the “and” of 4 with a big bend on the 15th fret of the 1st string. Here you want to bend a step-and-a-half. This takes the note G all the way up to Bb, and then comes back down to a G natural.
I’ll typically use my ring finger to play this in the fretting hand and then follow it up with a tiny bend on the 13th fret of the 1st string with my index finger. Bending with the index finger can be tough because you don’t have the support of the other fingers however King did this all the time and had a VERY strong index finger.
After this descend down notes of the C minor blues scale. So 16th fret on the 2nd string to the 13th fret. Finally wrapping it up with a hammer-on to the 15th fret and then a bend. This is a common ending King would use on a lot of his licks, the basic idea being a hammer to bend all without re-plucking the string.
Altogether Lick #3 goes like this:
The scale pattern for reference for this lick would be the C minor blues scale and can be played in the 12th position like this:
Those same strings and frets could also be thought of like this:
6th string = 13, 14, 15
5th string = 13, 15
4th string = 13, 15, 16
3rd string = 12, 15
2nd string = 13, 16
1st string = 13, 14, 15
Not only was King a masterful guitarist, but his influence on the blues genre cannot be overstated. His unique sound and style have inspired countless musicians throughout the decades, making him one of the most important figures in the history of the blues.
King's guitar playing was instantly identifiable, whether it was his vibrato or his uncanny ability to play with emotion and feeling. He paved the way for countless guitarists to follow in his footsteps.
Artists like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan all cited him as a major influence on their playing, and his legacy can be heard in the music of countless other guitarists as well.
But King's influence extended far beyond just the realm of guitar playing. His expressive and soulful singing also set a standard for blues vocalists, and his ability to connect with his audience through his music was something that many other blues musicians aspired to emulate. In fact, King's influence on the blues as a whole was so profound that he became known as the "King of the Blues", a title that he held until his passing in 2015.
In conclusion, King's impact on the blues genre is immeasurable. As you continue to study and learn from his guitar playing, remember the larger context of his legacy and the incredible impact that he had on the world of music. And for another great blues lesson, check out "The Thrill is Gone" next!