BB King was great because he played ‘out of tune’

How blue can you get? Yui Mok/PA Archive

There are those who believed that BB 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 BB 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 the way he never played perfectly in tune.

BB King apologising to Bono.

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 BB 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.

BB King live in Montreux 1993.

King’s thirds could be wayward, mischievous, reflective, reckless, argumentative, morose, pensive or accusatory. Take a listen to his performance from Montreux in 1993. At [0:29] the third is sharp, brazenly drawing attention to itself as an almost-wrong E-natural against the brass section’s A flat chord. At [1:21] it’s right in the middle of the cracks, starting angrily on the full minor third and quickly bending upward as the titular “thrill” ride disappears down the road, speeding away from the lyric’s lonely protagonist. At [1:49] there’s a seven-note lick where every note is slightly out of tune, and the thirds drift between major and minor intervals in a way that, to me, resembles the fluctuations of a human voice – followed by an almost silent final minor third, the upward string bend resembling nothing less than an intake of breath.

This is what BB King fans mean when they say he’s speaking through the guitar. The irregularities in his tuning are more than just a stylistic feature – they are the way he communicates musically. The blues genre’s simple chords and predictable note choices are not the point of the performance; they’re just the shape of the picture frame through which King’s artistry can be seen.

The blues face. Juan Herrero/EPA

And while that agonised “blues face” he pulls when he up-bends a string may be partly showmanship, it is also representative of the incredibly subtle and difficult judgement a great blues player has to make as the string bend approaches the perfectly expressive out-of-tune note.

Still not convinced? Think my analysis represents the over-constructed ramblings of a grieving electric blues fan? Have a listen to these three different King performances.

In 3 o'clock blues (1952), the licks are brash and loud but the microtones are unsubtle, as the 26-year-old King ambitiously shows off his newly-minted technique to the world. In Sweet Little Angel (1964) we hear King the live showman at the height of his powers; the guitar licks respond dynamically to the crowd, as the pitching of the thirds reacts to the auditorium’s screams in real time. The 2006 recording of The Thrill is Gone shows King in his sunset years, with the occasional fluffed note but the microtones and dynamics more varied than ever – the confident maturity of an old man who knows his audience is hanging on his every note.

BB King’s subtle string bends are the sound of a musician completely immersed in his communication medium, speaking a special and unique musical language that he has been inventing for a lifetime. The great man is gone, but his blue notes will live forever.