Check out any guitarist at a nightclub, arena or recording studio, and chances are the sound you hear is being colored by an array of effects pedals that add distortion, echo, phase-shifting, wah-wah cries and more.
B.B. King? He just jacked an electric guitar into an amp. His trademark tone came courtesy of his fingers and his feel, not fuzz boxes.
His technique was also one of spareness and simplicity, much like Hemingway’s prose. He generally built his solos using relatively few notes confined to a limited area of the fretboard.
His technique was so effective that it influenced generations of guitarists who learned to hack out guitar solos by copying King’s basic approach, playing notes clustered in a “box” position on the fretboard.
It’s called the “B.B. King Box,” (or just the "B.B. Box.")
With virtually no knowledge of musical theory, guitarists can use the B.B. Box position to pluck out a solo that will work over most blues and rock chord progressions. To change keys, you simply move the position up or down the neck.
The B.B. Box has been immortalized in guitar instruction manuals and videos, and it’s one of the first things many guitar instructors teach their students.
“It’s a great place to start where you don’t need a ton of technical facility,” said Jon MacLennan, a Los Angeles session guitarist and instructor. “The blues is just that simple approach with the feel and the phrasing.”
Today’s virtuoso guitarists are conversant with a dizzying assortment of techniques and musical theory. They can move easily between jazz chords, classical arpeggios and country licks, they can shred, tap and whammy-bar to their heart’s content, and they can play scales in Ionian, Dorian, Lydian and Mixolydian modes.
B.B. King and other blues guitarists who came out of the Mississippi Delta approached things a different way. They learned their craft by watching other players, and their aim was simple: make the guitar sound as sad and forlorn as the blues they were singing.
They didn't need a lot of notes, fancy techniques or expensive gear to do that. They just needed to play with passion and soul.
“B.B. and all these great players didn’t think of scales,” MacLennan said. “They thought of the sound and the language.”
The invention of the electric guitar in the 20th century spawned a long list of great guitarists – B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Eddie Van Halen and many more. Everyone has their favorites.
But while particular playing styles and techniques are associated with many of these guitarists, only two have a well-known musical technique or expression specifically linked to them by name.
There’s the “Hendrix chord,” shorthand for the dominant seven sharp nine chord heard in songs like “Purple Haze.”
And there’s the B.B. Box.
That’s one more reason they call him King.