Play Like B.B.King – Lesson on String Bending in Blues


I was searching a while for a silly pun to use in the title. At first I thought something like ‘the bends’, y’know – like what happens to scuba divers when they ascend too quickly back to surface. Then I thought no, and I then I got distracted and started reading about Steve-O and Mike Tyson’s cocaine binge. You should read that, it’s pretty gripping stuff.

Anyways, bending is probably the defining characteristic of the guitar as an instrument. By bending a string, what you’re doing is shortening the length between the fretted note and the bridge, resulting in a change in pitch. As bending is so closely associated with lead guitar playing, it follows that most famous guitar players have their own very distinctive ways of bending. Indeed, this can often give away a guitarist from their first note or entry into a solo. We’re going to explore some of the biggest names in guitar and take a lens to their bending techniques.

B.B King

BB-KingFor this article we’ll turn our lights to the late, great BB King. Along with Freddie King and Albert King, B.B was the last of the three ‘Kings’ of blues, and his recent death finally closed the chapter on an entire era of pre-war blues musicians. B.B’s legacy is, frankly speaking, stupendous. He is arguably the most influential guitarist in the world, and a person whose licks and playing style have trickled down through generations of guitar players to this very day.

Although known back in the day for his muscular playing and rambuctious shows, B.B’s mournful bends were to become his signature attribute. As his body and playing inevitably slowed down, his bending began to define his solo style, and in his later years he would often wring entire concerts out of only a handful of notes.

In contrast to other traditional blues guitarists who would make exclusive use of the minor scale, B.B King distinctively incorporated major tones into his melodies. This note choice delivered in his trademark vibrato creates a distinctive ‘sweet’ sound.

I’ve tried to emulate the man the best I could in the following exercises. Obviously he used hollow-bodied Gibson guitars, and I have a strat. I also don’t have portly, blues-adept sausage fingers. Depressingly enough I’m also not an elderly American blues legend. Indeed, with a style as unmechanical and delicate as BB’s, you’ll never be able to sound exactly like him. However, it’s always nice to grab ammo for your arsenal of blues licks, and B.B King is a human treasure trove of licks.

Ideally, we’d want to dedicate a full-post to this in the future, but B.B King is a guitarist who makes extensive use of microtonal bends. This is related but slightly different from the concept of vibrato, which means only to ‘shimmer’ notes. In order to mimic the cadence of the human voice, which isn’t restrained by frets or keys, B.B often and unconsciously tug notes a fraction, not quite reaching a semi-tone bend. This lends his style a very expressive and, well, human quality. The sort of thing which couldn’t be replicated by a computer or software, no matter how smart or hellbent on infiltrating the blues scene.

Exercise 1

This tasty lick comes from the legendary ‘Live at the Regal’, which is critically considered one of the best blues albums of all time, even if the artist himself was blasé about it. It was John Mayer’s choice of dressing room music before every show on his Continuum tour. A major motif, it can be applied to anything, and works particularly well over a fast shuffle.

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Exercise 2

This one comes delivered in a package with B.B King’s face plastered over it. A truly representative lick making use of the third pentatonic box. Excruciating guitar face gets bonus points.

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Exercise 3

A lovely example of over-bending gone right. In more conventional playing, bends are either a clean half or full tone. B.B often ripped out one-and-a-half tone bends, which creates a taut, ‘reaching’ quality. This is a nice and unexpected way to imbue some life into your blues licks.

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God bless Youtube. What would have otherwise remained a dusty VHS in somebody’s basement has now been uploaded for the world. A ‘rare’ masterclass from the man himself.