BB King Taught Me to Talk

B.B. King’s passing hit me pretty hard for a celebrity death, even though his passing came after a long battle with diabetes and its complications, and was perhaps even expected given his age.

Although there’s probably not a lot of evidence of it in my music these days, BB King is one of my biggest guitar influences. And not in a background “the dude influenced everyone” sort of way: he was the first guitarist I ever intentionally tried to emulate in every way possible. Weirdly, he’s also indirectly responsible for my interest in Celtic music and two degrees removed from Mark Knopfler, the only other guitarist I’ve really tried to emulate. (I didn’t discover my third major guitar hero, Richard Thompson, until I’d been playing for 10 years, and I did not directly borrowed much of Thompson’s technique.)

I started learning how to play blues fairly early after picking up the guitar, and BB King was my first exposure to it. My grandfather used to tape things off public television and mail the tapes to his family, and one of his tapes he sent us had a BB King concert from the early 90s (I think). I watched it constantly, and tried playing along with him. I dissected his playing as best I could (which I can’t say I’ve done with any other guitar player besides Mark Knopfler). I wasn’t smart enough at the time to know that the other thing that truly made him great was the economy of his playing, never playing more than he needed to and actually “saying” something with the guitar. So it was pretty easy for me to play more than he was playing, but I never hit nearly as many perfect notes.

I mainly learned the use of vibrato from him. In fact, I thought I was doing it pretty close to the same way as him until very recently when I watched a video where he did it in slow motion, and I realized I wasn’t doing it exactly right at all. But in revisiting his music, I think I also learned my tendancy to use double stops (that’s where you play two notes at once) as accents from his playing. A lot of other artists do this, but King did them in slightly different places. It’s hard to explain, but I know it when I hear it.

In 1997, about the time I was starting to get really seriously into playing guitar, especially blues, he put out the Dueces Wild album, which had him playing guitar with a bunch of people. Including van Morrison:

I was blown away by Van Morrison’s voice (most people are), and promptly started picking up Van Morrison albums … mostly his stuff from the 80s onward, which is ironic considering that if I had picked up his earlier records, I would have found him doing a lot more blues. Van the Man’s Philosopher’s Stone album had some blues on it, but what interested me more was the Celtic stuff he was doing. He did an entire CD with the Chieftains:

The first Chieftains album I picked up had this song on it:

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard Mark Knopfler … it would have been hard to have been alive in the 80s without hearing any Dire Straights. I may have already had a Dire Straights best-of record. But I picked up Knopfler’s Golden Heart after I heard that, which is still one of my desert island albums. It would be a very short hop nowadays to go right back to BB King from Mark Knopfler:

(That’s from 2008.)

In a very short span of time in 1997, I had gone from playing and listening to mostly blues and alternative rock to listening to more and more Celtic folk, which ate up a lot of my attention in the following years, but I can pretty clearly remember listening to a small stack full of BB King records in the car when my dad and I road tripped to my grandparents’ house in Kentucky during spring break of my senior year in high school, including a really lousy tape-to-CD transfer we picked up in a gas station on the way.

For a long time, I thought that the blues was more or less antithetical to Celtic music. (I know better now.) Since I was better at the Celtic stuff, blues technique rarely made its way into the music I recorded, even when I did songs that were closer to bluegrass, which absolutely borrows from the blues. Blues guitar uses bends and vibrato, seventh notes and flatted thirds, almost none of which appears in the folk music I was playing. Celtic music rarely even allows vibrato. I did eventually find some middle ground, and I’m finding more all the time. I still played the blues for fun, and most of the blues songs I played were BB King songs.

Later, when I was a bit wiser, I went back and listened to BB King again, I got a little better at knowing when not to play. I’m still fascinated with the economy of his playing. In between, I learned a lot of sounds to make on the guitar: how to make it sing. How to make it scream. But BB King taught me how to make it talk.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to say as much with as little as he did.

So farewell, Mr. King. Thanks for always giving me something to learn and for the introductions to some of my other favorite musicians.


2 responses

  1. Well said Jon.

  2. Nice tribute to one of my all time favorite men of music, and just a wonderful human being to go with it. IMHO, you do him justice when you do this song in your own unique style, both vocally and instrumentally. I don’t think you could ask for any better teacher for being a true virtuoso than BB though, maybe Sachmo, especially late on, and a couple others like Johnny Cash. This You tube performance though by the man is even better than either of the two studio recordings I have of BB doing that song. That performance is over the top all the way.

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