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BB KING - Real Guitar Hero - Guide to The World's Best Guitarists

Updated on July 12, 2012

B. B. King and his guitars

If you consider the development of rock and roll as a giant mansion, with lots of rooms for each of the different styles and artists over the years, the cornerstone would have to be Riley B. King. Better known as B. B. King, he was old school before it was cool, and like the cornerstone of a building, he is barely visible now. Yet nearly everything stands upon the foundation he (and a few others) laid. Guitar hero of Guitar heroes, you won't find BB King in many your guitarists' record collections which is truly sad. Like Jimi Hendrix, he singlehandedly showed the world what the guitar COULD sound like, and made it sound like no other. One of the best guitarists in the world, BB King is still touring today.

BB King

Photo by Kasra Ganjavi
Photo by Kasra Ganjavi

A Guitar Great

For fifty years, he has influenced every guitarist that picks up the instrument, whether they knew it or not. Some of the more well-known players that have cited King's influence include Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Duane Allman, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keith Richards—6 of the top 10 guitarists Rolling Stone named in their top 100 guitarists of all time—and King himself was number three on that list. I saw BB King 2 years ago in London and he was truly amazing, although there is no doubt, when he puts down that guitar, he is certainly showing his age, as is his right. And I do wonder how many of the other world's best guitarists will be strutting their stuff or playing live to packed stadiums every night in their eighties.

B.B. KING - Every Day I Have The Blues

A Mississippi Boy In Memphis

It's been said that before B.B., everyone played the electric guitar like it was an acoustic hooked up to a speaker, but he took the instrument and gave it a life of its one.  String bends that make you want to cry and solos that sound just the way a blues solo should—like it was a woman wailing her long-lost lover—have earned him another nickname, too:  King of the Blues.  But it wasn't always that way.  King grew up on a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta and tried to make it big for the first time in Memphis in 1946, but returned home after a few months.  Undaunted, he allegedly saved up his money for two years before returning to Memphis again, this time with a gig as a DJ at a local radio station.

During his time at the radio station, King met T-Bone Walker and heard him play "Stormy Monday"—and in his own words, "knew I had to have one [an electric guitar, that is] myself!" Other early influences on King included Lonnie Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson and Bukka White, King's cousin, as well as jazz guitarists Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt.

Why BB King's Guitar is Named Lucille

The Origins Of "Lucille" the guitar(s)

For anyone who's just getting into B. B. King, the story of how King's guitars obtained their nickname of Lucille goes like this. Playing one night at a dance hall in Arkansas, the kerosene barrel that was used for light was knocked over and set the place on fire. King made it out safely, only to realize that he had left his beloved Gibson acoustic inside. He ran back into the burning building to get it, and almost joined the two other people that did perish in the fire that night. The next day, King heard that the fight that knocked over the kerosene barrel had been over a woman named "Lucille," and christened his guitar after her, "to remind himself never to do a thing like that."

Of course, every guitar he's played since has been named Lucille.

It's kind of romantic that my own guitarist partner has followed suit called every one of his guitars Julie1, Julie2 etc, whether they be Fenders, Gibson Les Pauls or acoustics. 

So what was the original Lucille? It seems it was stolen in New York City some time after, so it may be impossible to know for sure. His first guitar was a Stella acoustic, but the first "Lucille," was a Gibson acoustic of some sort. Once he made the switch to electric, King played a Gibson ES-335, and then an ES-355. The biggest difference between the two guitars is that the 335 is a hollow-body guitar, while the 355 is a solid-body. He has referred to the 355 as a "big-brother" to the wildly popular Gibson Les Paul, and has been playing it for at least the last 25 years.

BB King - How Blue Can You Get

BB King / Gary Moore - The Thrill is Gone

Live At The Regal

Trying to pick out just a few hits from the hodgepodge of popular B. B. King songs from the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, and even '90s is a bit like trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack. However, if there's a definitive B. B. King album it would have to be 1964's Live At The Regal.

From the rockin' opening to Memphis Slim's "Everyday I Have the Blues," to the moving rendition of "Help the Poor," the audience was B. B.'s best friend that night.

Other classic B. B. King tracks on the album include "Sweet Little Angel," and "How Blue Can You Get," and "Woke Up This Morning." And no King collection would be complete without "The Thrill Is Gone," his most famous track to date.

Through it all, he's been using "Lucille," which was usually a modified black Gibson ES-335 semi-hollow electric guitar with two humbucker pickups or the ES-355 solid body with the same setup.  Amplifiers usually included either a Lab Series L5 2 x 12 combo or Fender Twin Reverbs with Altec Lansing speakers.

A BB King Signature Lucille

B.B. King - Blues Boys Tune

Signature Equipment

In 1982, Gibson finally honored King's years of faithfully playing their instrument with the introduction of the B. B. King Signature model "Lucille." Basically an ES-355, the guitar's modifications include a fine tuner tailpiece, a semi-hollow body with no soundholes, a 6-way tone control knob, and (what else?) "Lucille" engraved in the headstock. King also has his own set of strings, listed as Signature Gauge .010, .013, .017, .032, .045, and .054.

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    • MichaelUS profile image

      Michael U. Santiago 4 years ago from Philippines

      Great review!: )

      I like his signature guitar! I am certain it really sounds good.

    • Julie-Ann Amos profile image

      Julie-Ann Amos 7 years ago from Gloucestershire, UK

      I saw hi on his last Uk performance... but he's still going!

      My partner's guitars are all called jULIE1, jULIE2 ETC...

    • Pink Mingos profile image

      Pink Mingos 7 years ago from Mars

      Thank you for a wonderful hub! I love BB King and his amazing passion for both the blues and guitar. This particular version of the Gibson "Lucille" that is pictured above is actually a commemorative of his 80th Birthday in 2006. There were only 80 produced and is identifiable by the "BB" on both pickups as well as the 80th on the headstock.. also the crown on the pickguard with "Lucille" just above it. The first one was given to BB and it was stolen. When a fan later recognized it as one he had purchased in a pawn shop, he contacted the King and proudly returned it to it's rightful place. LOVED this hub! Thank you again! (Incidentally, he's now 85 years old, and on a world tour with approx 30 more shows between now and the middle of July) :)

    • shimla profile image

      shimla 7 years ago

      Thanks for this - BB is in a class all of his own as a bluesman and a beautiful man as well. Shimla

    • Deltachord profile image

      Deltachord 8 years ago from United States

      I was about 15 or 16 the first time I saw B.B. King with my mother and friends...I've seen him four times. He is a fantastic guitarist and a showman, which isn't found much today. Also he is a gentleman...rare.

      He knows how-to talk to an audience.

    • Julie-Ann Amos profile image

      Julie-Ann Amos 9 years ago from Gloucestershire, UK

      Like I say we went to see him 2 years ago live in London and he blew me away!

    • marleymauve profile image

      marleymauve 9 years ago from near Toronto

      He was awesome on the Grammy Awards the other night! Great HUB :D