When it comes to blues guitar playing, nearly everyone can do it, but only a handful of folks can do it exceptionally well. And since the style is fairly simplistic, it's usually even hard to tell the great players apart -- not B.B. King. For nearly a half century, he's been plucking unique tears of, sorrow and celebration from the strings of his trusted Gibson, Lucille. And whether he's jamming with a host of other guitar greats or paying tribute to his heroes -- as on his new album Let the Good Times Roll, where he tips his hat to R&B progenitor, Louis Jordan -- he does so with a style and flair that's utterly inimitable. The occasionally impatient King of blues recently took some time to talk with Guitar.com about emotional expression, playing tips, tone and gear.
Guitar.com: Is there a secret to playing the blues?
B.B. King: You have to practice, just like you have to do any other kind of music. If you want to do well, you do have to practice it.
Guitar.com: There's a sadness to the music, obviously.
King: There's a sadness to all kinds of music if you want to hear it. There's also happiness to it if you want to hear it. Blues was started by the slaves and I think everybody thinks that it all should be sad ... even some of the slaves had fun with it.
Guitar.com: So it's not necessarily sad music.
King: Obviously, you haven't heard me play.
Guitar.com: I'm just asking questions.
King: [laughs] Well, that one you wouldn't have to if you'd heard me play.
Guitar.com: I've heard you.
King: Then you know everything I play is not sad.
Guitar.com: What do you do when you're not playing the blues?
King: Talk to people like you. [laughs]
Guitar.com: And that's it?
King: No, I'm a pilot. I used to fly a lot, but my manager and the insurance company don't want me to fly alone anymore, so I don't do much of that. They don't mind me flying too much if I have a qualified pilot with me, so that takes a lot of the fun out of it. I'm a movie buff. I like watching TV and going to the movies. I like things of that sort. Listening to good music.
Guitar.com: Is there any music out right now that you're really into?
King: Every week it seems like to me there's a new group out that's good, selling a lot of records and very popular. So there's always something new to listen to. I'm kind of partial to a lot of the oldies but goodies. I see my old friend Santana has a No. 1 album out. I'm glad for him. He's one of the nicest people in the business. I'm just glad that he's lucky enough to have one. So many great musicians and good people out there, sometimes they don't get the breaks.
Guitar.com: Do you ever play in radically different styles? Do you sit down and crank out heavy metal riffs?
King: I'd rather be B.B. King. That's the way I started. Let the heavy metal guys play heavy metal, let the others play the other. No, I do not, to answer your question. I try to do what I do better, not get away from it.
Guitar.com: What about playing other guitars. You're a fan of the Gibson, obviously.
King: Yes I am, so why should I? We have an old saying in my vocab, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." So why should I try to play something else? I don't play the one I play well enough.
Guitar.com: When did you start playing the ES?
King: When it first came out. I think it was about '50, somewhere like that.
Guitar.com: Do you remember why you picked out that one? Did someone recommend it to you?
King: No, I liked it. I went to a music store and I saw it, tried it, liked it and been trying 'em ever since.
Guitar.com: What about amplifiers?
King: I use an amp called a Lab System, and I've been using that ever since they first came out. The thing nearest to it is the Fender Twin. When I'm overseas -- and if something happens to mine, and I can't get another one -- I'll use a Fender Twin. But otherwise I keep the Lab all the time.
Guitar.com: Is it two twelve inch speakers like a Twin?
King: Two twelve inch, yes.
Guitar.com: Is it a real clean tone if you want it, like the Twin?
King: Well, I don't know about the different sounds like a lot of guys do. I've been playing over a hundred years it seems like, but I've only used a wah-wah once. I used something called a Crybaby years ago on a thing called "Lucille Talks Back," and I've never used another one 'cause it makes me lazy. The thing sounds so good I can't be B.B. King as much as I'd like to be, so I don't use anything other than just an amplifier and me. It isn't that I don't like them, it just makes me lazy.
Guitar.com: Do you run two amps out of your stereo guitar?
King: I could, but I don't. I use one amp, but both speakers. From time to time I get both speakers at once and then sometimes one.
Guitar.com: Is that switched with a foot-switch?
King: I do not have a foot-switch.
Guitar.com: Is it a knob on the guitar?
King: It's just a regular knob on the guitar, but like I told you at first, each pickup will work independent of the other.
Guitar.com: So you plug the guitar direct into the amp and that's it?
King: I'm gonna say it again. Maybe my English is not so good. I do not use anything other than the amp and the guitar.
Guitar.com: And that works.
King: I guess it does. That's all I do.
Guitar.com: Do you prefer singing to playing guitar?
King: I think it takes both to make one pretty good guy.
Be sure to check in with B.B. at his website - BB King.com