Bye Bye, BB

Don't matter what guitar you play if you play like BB.

Don’t matter what guitar you play if you play like BB.

A lot of folks with a lot more guitar cred than I have already weighed in on the loss of the great BB King. He certainly was the common denominator that links most blues players, would be blues players and wannabe blues players together. We all stole licks from him and we all tried to emulate his wonderful economic style. BB could play one note that said more than any 20, no, any 100 I could play.  But his skill and technique also points out something that vintage aficionados hate to admit. I was just listening to a clip from 1972 wherein BB was playing an early 70’s 355. It could have been custom but I doubt it. It looked like an off the rack walnut finished 355. And, in case that isn’t enough, he was playing through a solid state (non tube if you’re under 25 and never heard the term “solid state” before) amp-it looked like an Acoustic Control. Vintage guys like me don’t like 70’s Gibsons very much. The quality suffered under Norlin and, while there are still good ones, there seem to be more bad. Not for BB.

I think he proves better than almost anyone that the player transcends the instrument. For hack players like me, I can say that there are guitars that make me a better player and they are mostly old. But for a man like BB King, the guitar is merely the link between the player (and his experience) and the audience. His tone comes from within, not from that wooden box with the strings on it and all the little electronic bits inside. Those of us who play the blues because we know the notes aren’t doing the same thing as a bluesman.

What does a guy from suburban upstate NY from a middle class family know about the blues? Yes, we’ve all had some hard times but that doesn’t make me a bluesman. I don’t know what it takes but I know it when I hear it. Those British kids in the 60’s who co-opted American blues did us suburban white kids a favor. They introduced us to a genre that was right in our backyard that we barely knew existed. There was a time not that long ago when mainstream radio (it was AM back then) wouldn’t play black artists playing what was then called “race music”. They would have white guys (like Johnny Rivers) do covers and those were the songs that made the airwaves up here in the North. By the mid 60’s that was changing but I’m willing to bet that I couldn’t have found BB King on the radio in Schenectady, New York in 1963.

I saw BB King a few of times over the years and he was always entertaining and sometimes mesmerizing. I saw him in his 50’s, his 60’s and his 80’s and while he may have lost a note or two near the end, he still had great command of both his guitar and his audience. And he looked like he was having fun. The blues is rooted in misery but playing the blues is a joy. BB knew that and taught us more than just the notes. So, goodbye Mr. Riley B. King and thanks for the lessons.

This is a little more up my alley. BB with a mid 60's ES-355. No whammy bar necessary.

This is a little more up my alley. BB with a mid 60’s ES-355. No whammy bar necessary. He called the oft maligned Varitone the “magic switch”.

6 Responses to “Bye Bye, BB”

  1. Rob says:

    I haven’t been playing my ’62 355 for months but l got it out of the case last night, tuned it up, and played a bit running through all six Varitone positions. In memory of B.B.

  2. Rod Allcock says:

    Not unexpected but truly a sad sad event.

  3. RAB says:

    B.B. was my biggest influence as a guitar player, followed by Eric Clapton, Albert Collins and Robben Ford. B’s phrasing and feeling were magnificent. His playing revealed his big heart and wonderful soul. His music will live forever. I played along with his “Live at the Regal” album in his memory on my ’63 355…

  4. Steve Newman says:

    Rest in peace, Riley B.B. (Beale Street Blues Boy) King. This world had you for 89 years, but music, especially blues, will have you forever. Every guitar player owes you a debt, no matter what style they play, for opening your soul and showing heart, passion and character in your playing. I was looking across Beale Street tonight in your adopted hometown of Memphis at the nightclub that bears your name and marveling at where you started and how far you came from Itta Bena, MS. There will truly never be another like you.

    Charlie, you’re right about the solid state amp, but it was a Norlin era Gibson Lab series with an early basic compressor built in. It ain’t the arrow, it’s the Indian.

  5. Vincent Moser says:

    Dear Mr. Gelber,
    thank you very much for your great article about B.B. King. You found the right words to honour him. B.B. was the reason why I started to to play guitar. He was and still is my biggest inspiration. I was lucky to hear and see him many times live in my hometown Hamburg, Germany. I uploaded a tribute on YouTube:
    A few year earlier I uploaded some other tributes to B.B. Here is one:
    Vincent Moser, Germany
    P.S.: I am a big fan of your 335-site and read it faithfully. Sometimes your articles are funny too ( Dec 2014 : ” Note the very precise high tech mearusing )instrument” )

  6. Danny Marks says:

    Nice tribute to The man here. BB played a Telecaster, actually, an Esquire on many of his landmark RPM recordings from 1951-’57, often direct, through the board! Love your site and attention to detail with humor. Carry On!

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