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Why B.B. King Was Great: He Played Out Of Tune

... The Conversation/Science20:

here are those who believed that B.B. King wasn’t the world’s greatest guitar player, including the man himself. In a recent interview he said:

I call myself a blues singer, but you ain’t never heard me call myself a blues guitar man. Well, that’s because there’s been so many can do it better'n I can, play the blues better'n me.

And his musical vocabulary was limited. King once told Bono: “I’m no good with chords, so what we do is, uh, get somebody else to play chords… I’m horrible with chords”. He even claimed that he couldn’t play and sing at the same time.

Speaking as someone who used to teach guitar, I would agree that B.B. King wasn’t a particularly technical player. Although he was one of the first guitarists to have hits with single-note electric blues solos, he was followed by a wave of more proficient and versatile practitioners, prominent among them Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Despite this, he continued to play to packed houses well into his 80s and remains one of the most loved and respected guitarists in music history. So what was it about King’s playing that has captivated me and so many others? I think the answer lies in the way he never played perfectly in tune.

Blue notes

Like most blues players, King based many of his phrases and licks on the minor pentatonic scale, which is a simple “box shape” on the fingerboard that most electric guitarists learn very early in their careers. Indeed, box shapes are such a simple musical vocabulary that blues guitarists often don’t even need to know the names of the notes they’re playing (in my experience, this fact often comes as a shock to classical musicians).

The minor pentatonic scale – and its close cousin the blues scale – works by omitting some steps from the full minor scale. This simplifies the melodic choices available to the soloist, effectively limiting the musical vocabulary of the melody. But it’s this melodic constraint that I think gave B.B. King’s playing the opportunity to develop its majestic and expressive style. He was what I like to call a microtonal guitarist – his solos were made more expressive by bending the notes slightly out of tune.

King’s seventh-to-octave licks were sometimes slightly flat, his fifths would sometimes slowly drift toward the note as the string bend was pushed from the note below, and – most importantly – he was a lifelong student of the mysterious “blues third”, the note that can be found somewhere in the cracks between the third step of the minor and major scale.

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