B.B. King, R.I.P.

It’s no overstatement to say that B.B. King influenced countless guitar players, changed the way the instrument was played in important ways. He certainly wasn’t the only one of his generation; in addition to the other two “Three Kings” (Albert and Freddie) of blues, you had (and still have) Buddy Guy, and the late Albert Collins was another contemporary who had a strong voice on the instrument.

But B.B. was probably the most prolific of the bluesmen, and certainly had the longevity, playing well into his ’80s, at a pace that players half his age frequently won’t run.

There’s a pretty decent rundown of King’s approach and solo style here. You may recognize the box as pentatonic box #2 (the major pentatonic), with a passing (blue) note thrown in. This is yet another feature that set B.B. King apart from most blues and rock players — the use of the major pentatonic rather than the usual minor (box #1) pentatonic that everyone uses.

Once your ear figures out the key, it should be relatively simple to pick up the melodic and solo notes. Of course, that’s the easy part with the blues — the real challenge lies in learning to make every note count, to make your phrasing spare, to make the notes sing and swing. That’s the magic, to plug directly into an amp, no effects, no lightning-fast licks, just you and your hands making the guitar sound like another voice, like a woman crying, whether in sorrow or joy. It’s very much a duet, between King’s voice singing a verse or chorus, and then playing a melody or solo on the guitar, as a response from the other vocalist.

Again, the note choices are critical, but not in the sense of having to memorize a pattern or box or scale. If you hit a note your ear perceives as “wrong,” just remember that the “right” note is next to it, one fret up or down. Then your wrong note becomes a passing tone. Even a “wrong” note played with conviction is better than a “right” note played half-assed. Keep it simple. Think of your tone — the amp, the guitar, the amount of pressure you use in your picking and fretting hands — as your speaking voice. Think about what you’re trying to say on your end of the conversation.

Watch the way B.B.’s left hand shakes as he squeezes every last drop out of a note, that’s vibrato. Hendrix had it, Stevie Ray Vaughan had it, Jeff Beck and Billy Gibbons and Joe Bonamassa have it. Great vocal bending control and powerful vibrato are among the strongest tools a lead guitarist can have. B.B. King helped forge that path for the rest of us, a true musical pioneer.

Bending and Vibrato

As we mentioned in the Still Got the Blues lesson, one of the really cool things about the guitar is that there are techniques you can use to mimic human vocal sounds and styles. Two of the most powerful of these “vocalisms” are bending and vibrato. They are related, but not quite the same thing.

The thing about bending and vibrato is that they require your ears as much as your hands to accomplish successfully. For beginning players, this can be difficult, because you’re still in the process of training your ears to what sounds “right” or “in tune.” Rest assured that persistence will pay off when it comes to ear training, it just takes time and practice.

These techniques are difficult to teach as well, because they are more about feel than precision. That doesn’t mean that there’s not some precision involved, just that it’s not easy to convey with a simple tabbed lick to practice.

Vibrato

A good vibrato is characterized by being able to sustain the note long past it being initially picked. Keep pressure applied with the fretting finger for as long as you can, letting the note ring out. A minimal amount of motion with the finger, either back and forth, up and down, or “circular” (sort of a cross between the first two), will help sustain the note even longer. Bring your wrist into the motion a little bit as well, for stability and support. Some players will even use their forearms as well. Keep it simple until you get a better feel for it.

As the vibrato motion continues, the pitch of the note will alter microtonally (less than a quarter-tone). It’s important to not use so much vibrato that you end up off the note you were aiming for. Again, knowing how much is too much is mostly a matter of trial and error. Really listen to how much the note “shakes” when you apply even minimal vibrato motion.

You’ll find that it’s more difficult to apply vibrato (and bending) on the wound (lower-pitched) strings. Still not too bad, again it’s just something that takes practice and ear training.

Usually when we run through a scale or a melodic sequence the idea is to use a metronome to track and improve your precision and time. For this exercise, you don’t need a metronome at all. You really don’t need any tab, either. Simply work a basic chromatic position pattern from the low E string to the high E string. Start at the 7th position or higher, use each finger once per string, 1-2-3-4, low to high and then back down.

Do not worry about keeping a rhythm or playing in time for now. Just get a feel for sustaining the note, and giving it a little vibrato. Sustain each note for as long as you can, before moving on to the next note. You will probably find that the pinky finger is not very good at this by itself, so use your ring finger for added support. (You’ll need that for bending also.)

Work through the position pattern a few times, by then you should have a feel for what you’re striving for, and your ears and fingers are prepared. Then try it out all over the fretboard, any combinations you can think of. Play a three-note-per-string scale going from the low E string to the high E string, putting vibrato just on the last note before you go to the next string. See the tab below:

VibScale01

The above example doesn’t have to be played perfectly in time, but start trying to keep it at least to a rhythm. Slow to medium tempos work best for now, but even in faster songs, a well-placed bend or vibrato is a nice change of pace from a rapid-picked flurry of scale fragments.

As you get more comfortable with vibrato, start experimenting with widening the note as you’re sustaining it. It’s still not quite a half-step bend or more, but it’s more than the subtle microtonal changes we started with. Make that final note of the phrase sustain as long as possible without having to pick it again. It will take some trial and error but it will be well worth the effort.

There are great players of all genres, not just blues, that use vibrato very well. Rock players such as David Gilmour, Gary Moore, Frank Marino, and Zakk Wylde all have tremendous vibrato, as do countless other players of all styles. As you start hearing in your own playing the sound you’re trying for, you’ll start hearing it in the music you listen to as well. Obviously, that’s true for just about any technique, but it’s especially so for highly personalized techniques such as vibrato and bending. Like with anything else, imitate the greats, and then make it your own.

Bending

Bending is just like vibrato, only more so. (See, that was easy!) Successful string bending requires being able to push or pull the string considerably farther than vibrato, but the real difficulty is in maintaining pitch accuracy. You’re bending to another specific note, whether a half step, a full step, or even more. But you want to land accurately on that note at the right time, which requires even more feel and ear training.

For the higher-pitched strings (high E and B), you will be pushing the string straight up toward the ceiling. For the lower-pitched strings (low E and A), you’ll pull the string straight down toward the floor. For the two middle strings (D and G), it’s pretty much your call; there’s generally enough room on the neck to bend quite a bit without pushing or pulling the string off the neck (which chokes the note).

Again, learning how to bend with taste and feel requires training your ears just as much as your fingers. So let’s try a simple and effective exercise to train ears and fingers simultaneously in the nuances of bending strings. The idea here is to create a unison; you’ll play a regular picked note, and then bend up to that note from the string below it. Check the tab:

Bend03

Bend slowly at first, working up to the target pitch without going past it. You will probably need to use your ring finger to support and reinforce the pinky. Listen closely to the two notes, pick back and forth between them if you need to in order to remember your target. When the two notes ring together, you’re there.

The tuning between the G and B strings makes it easy to practice bends of a half step and a full step. Try both examples below:

Bend01

Bend02

Use your vibrato to work on holding the bent note as long as possible, at least into the next note. Listen closely to make sure that the bent note matches the note on the next string accurately. Just like with tuning, the two tones should match perfectly. Practice bending the note at different rates, quickly and slowly, the variations will give your ears and fingers a workout.

Bending down the neck on the lower strings is also cool for riffs. Here’s a simple but effective one used by countless bands over the years:

Bend06

For the last exercise, visualize the first two boxes of the E minor pentatonic scale, starting at the 12th fret. We’re just going to use the first three strings (E’-B-G) for this exercise:

Bend04

Again, don’t worry too much about perfect metronomic rhythm just yet, just try to keep it more or less in time. Now let’s try creating the highest notes on each string by bending the next note up to it, then releasing it back down to the original pitch:

Bend05

This one will definitely take some practice, so be patient, take it slow, and listen closely for the pitches of the bent notes to be accurate.

As always, make sure to try these out all over the fretboard, especially when you practice transposing the pentatonic boxes in various keys. Vibrato and bending are probably the two most important techniques that make up great phrasing, and let you find and create your own voice on the guitar.

Usually we’ll sign off with “stay tuned,” but when it comes to ear training, it’s extremely important to be accurately tuned. Unless you’re comfortable and experienced at tuning by ear, use a tuner to be certain. Have fun!