One of the best ways to develop your playing is to study the masters. Today we’ll look at BB King, one of the original blues legends and a true innovator of the electric guitar. BB really knows how to get the most out of a few notes. His solos may only contain five or six different notes, but the way he expresses them makes those few notes come alive. Take a look at the following solo, a medium tempo shuffle written in the style of BB King. It is in the key of C and most of it is played in the 13th position based around the notes shown in the TAB.
These notes form what is often called a ‘BB King box pattern’. This example is an altered form of the C major pentatonic scale (C D E G A). It begins on the A note and contains an F instead of an E. Notes played with the 3rd finger are often bent to create extra notes; how far you bend depends on the chord being played at the time, e.g. over the C7 (chord I), the D note on the 2nd string is bent up a whole tone (2 frets) to an E. This sounds good because E is one of the notes of the C7 chord. However, when playing over F7 (Chord IV) the D note is bent up a semitone (one fret) to an Eb. This works because Eb is one of the notes of the F7 chord.
As well as the note choices, this solo uses several BB King trademarks including bends, slides, vibrato and pull-offs. In the 1940s BB was one of the pioneers of electric guitar playing, and along with T.Bone Walker, virtually invented (and perfected) string bending. A signature technique is his use of a single high note played by raking the pick across the first three strings and accenting the root note (C in this case) on the first string. The note is then trailed off downwards to an indefinite pitch. You can hear this at the end of the first bar and again in bar 8. Notice also the use of repetition and variation to create a vocal style of phrasing and the use of space (breathing) between the phrases. The guitar almost becomes a singer telling a story.
Listen to the solo below several times while following the notation, then start learning to play it. Try to sing the phrases in your mind as you play. Once you have the solo under your fingers, experiment with the notes to create your own phrases. You’ll soon be well on the way to improvising in the style of BB King. Don’t forget to listen to BB’s original recordings and learn from them. The live albums are a great place to start, particularly Blues is King or Live at the Regal.