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It’s a smoky, wet paved night in the windy city of Chicago. November 21st 1964 could’ve been any other night in the impoverished area, but down at the Regal Theatre something special was taking place. BB King was playing to an energetic, vibrant crowd made up of enthusiastic youngsters who were revelling in the new blues boom. As the curtains lift, the audience screams as he walks onto the stage and the sound crew starts recording what will be remembered as one of the best live albums ever made and one which will influence every blues player to follow it.  

The King of Blues failed to hit a bad note, his playing was the definition of touch and class with a buttery tone which is instantly recognisable. BB’s ability to phrase and use vibrato was like no other, and his influence can be found in all genres, in players of all instruments. So let’s look at what we can learn from such a towering guitar titan and how his playing can shape our own.  

How Riley became BB 

On September 16th 1925, near the tiny village of Itta Bena, the greatest bluesman to pick up a guitar, Riley B King, was born. Nestled deep in the swamps and mangroves, scored by the sounds of crickets and birds, Itta Bena was isolated and devoid of work or opportunity. For more stable income, when he was around 5, Riley’s mother moved the pair to be nearer her family on a farm still in the Mississippi, where he picked cotton, corn and milked cows. It was here that King would have his first encounter with the blues. 

The owner of the farm was, according to King, fair by farm owner standards - allowing lively church services and gatherings with music to take place. One of King’s family friends was the preacher, Reverend Fair, who taught Riley his first chords and got him singing at services. This along with his aunt’s gramophone, which played Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lonnie Johnson, was Riley’s introduction to music, especially early blues, and would lay the foundations for his life’s work. 

Riley had a tumultuous early life, losing his mother and grandmother at a young age, he lived for a while alone in a cabin amongst the trees whilst still working the cotton fields. Later he became a tractor driver, partook in military enrolment (but never served) and even got married. At around twenty-three he moved to Memphis and got his first gigs down the famous Beale St. This led to working on the radio and attaining his legendary nickname, ‘The Beale St Blues boy’ which later became ‘Blues boy’ and finally ‘BB’.  

The Thrill is Gone  

One of the songs which took this author and probably countless other players from learning the odd Peter Green or John Lee Hooker line deeper into the blues and opening the door to more sophisticated turn arounds was ‘The Thrill is Gone’. The track could possibly be the definition of the blues. Originally written in 1951 by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell, BB King’s cover was released in 1969 where it charted number 3 and number 15 on the Billboard RnB and pop charts respectively. The lyrics tell a story of a person wronged by a partner and taking the consequence of being lonely to escape the relationship.  

The song is built around a 12 bar blues in B minor, using the root chord of Bm7, the 4th chord Em7 and the 5th chord, which although normally is a F#m, in this context is an F#7. This is a common substitution, as the dominant 5th contains the major 7th of the root (in this context a F#7 contains F#, A#, C# and E, the A# being the major 7th of B), creating more tension to pull back to the 1 chord. Another deviation to the 12 bar format which makes it sound more melancholic comes in the turn around, where a GMajor7 is played for a bar before descending through a bar of F#7sus4 to F#7, to then pull back to the Bm7. The GM7 doesn’t muddle things for soloists, sharing the notes B, D and F# with the B minor pentatonic scale, it allows for the same lines used over Bm7 and Em7 to work perfectly over it. Another way to simplify viewing this is to play a standard Bm chord and then just play a G in the bass, it’s a GM7! By adding the GM7 it adds a natural minor (Aeolian) flavour to the progression, just with a substituted dominant fifth.   

We can steal interesting ideas from just the chord progression, including dominant substitutions and the way chords can give a song a modal theme. The flat 6th down to 5th to root chord movement is very common and a great way of adding emotion and the feeling of a descending ‘happy, tension, sad’ resolution. Playing around with modal flavours can also open up a lot of song writing doors, from obvious examples like Metallica’s ‘Wherever I May Toam’ which is very Phrygian to the more subtle Brain Adams ‘Run to You’ which uses Dorian.  

In 1988 when BB played and toured with U2, he is infamously quoted as saying, during the recording of a feature track, that he didn’t play chords and someone else would need to play them. Although as proven in lessons BB gave later in life and just the content of his phrases played in ‘The Thrill Is Gone’, it was obviously a matter of choice as he definitely knows his chords. Over the track, BB gives a masterclass in blues phrasing and how the guitar can sing. Over a minor blues like ‘Thrill is Gone’, BB King is at home in his normal fretboard position, the bottom half of the second position of minor pentatonic.

This position contains the D minor shape from the CAGED pattern with the root on the B string, having the triad itself laid out on the thinner strings really works for BB who is famous for his big bends and unique vibrato. The song itself starts with a rake into the root note on the B and then a descending line from the third on the E string to the root on the D string, a perfect demonstration of the box shape in use. BB King’s soloing style is all about articulation; he could make 4 notes sing and tell more stories than most could make a whole scale. His vibrato is fast and energetic, achieved from pivoting between the neck and just after the knuckle of his first finger, in almost a circular motion. His bending technique is similar, where the strength in his first finger shows, often utilising the ‘blues curl’ lifting the minor 3rd up to the major 3rd, a move commonly found over a minor blues.  

BB King’s soloing goes up a notch during ‘The Thrill is Gone’ when the turnaround approaches where his clever note choices let the chords do the work, perfectly demonstrated during his Montreux performance. When the GM7 and F# come around you can often hear him articulately pick out notes from the related major 7 and dominant 7 arpeggios and he sometimes uses chromatics to fill in the gaps. This technique is great when tackling a backing track which perhaps uses non-diatonic chords, just remember or listen for when the chords arrive and treat them as their own entity until you can follow it back into key, a very similar idea underpins the basics of bebop soloing and so gives a slightly jazz sound to your phrases.  

Sweet Little Angel 

‘Sweet Little Angel’ is a great track off of BB King’s second album ‘The Blues’ which was released in 1958 and, like the rest of the album, is more of a straight-ahead typical blues. The album, being obviously one of his earlier recordings and on a lower budget, is a lot rawer production wise, especially when compared to his ’69 album ‘Completely Well’ which featured the track discussed above. ‘Sweet Little Angel’ is built around a very standard 12 bar blues in C#. Using only dominant chords, it’s a quintessential 1-4-5 blues making it a perfect track to practice and learn dominant blues soloing.

There is an exceptional live version on YouTube with an extended intro where BB really shows what he can do and how the ‘BB Box’ can be fully utilised. The BB box can be used over any major or dominant blues and is considered to be the area on the B and E strings around the root note. Just imagine a D shape major triad with the major pentatonic laid out a few frets ahead. I personally think of the area as the bottom half of an Ionian shape, so in this case to get it in C# mixolydian, I would just picture F# major from the G to E strings, resolving lines on chord tones. In the intro of the live version, you can also hear BB outlining chord changes and using some chromaticism, definitely a product of Django Reinhardt’s influence who apparently, he discovered when he moved to Memphis. We can borrow the BB box to help us create simple yet emotive phrases for tackling soloing over a dominant chord progression, mixed in with skilful, nuanced bends and occasional ‘join the dot’ chromatics and we have some solid tools to put to use.  

Tones and Takeaways 

An important takeaway from the King’s playing style is to think more like a saxophonist or a vocalist, not being afraid of space and getting every last emotive drop from a sustained note or buttery bend. BB King’s playing epitomises simple done well, his playing doesn’t contain sweep picked passages or long extensive bebop lines and it doesn’t need to. Even in the first few bars of ‘Thrill is Gone’ BB uses a vast dynamic range, he played his phrases like spoken ones, knowing which notes to emphasize and dig in on and which to leave softly spoken.

BB also reminds us to practice vibrato, it’s something we use all the time and adds character and nuance to notes. One of the best ways to practice it is by simply listening to players who you wish to emulate and then listening to recordings of yourself - what can you change to get that sound that is in your head? BB once famously said that he knows what he sounds like and he knows what he wants to sound like, but the two have never aligned and if they did he’d have nothing left to chase.  

BB King has pretty much a spotless discography in terms of recommended further listening. Live at the Regal is an amazing live album and a masterclass in how to play a crowd, a skill which BB mastered with his confidence, talent and charisma. As noted by Joe Bonamassa, BB could get a standing ovation by just walking on the stage. The King appeared countless times on stages with other blues legends like Buddy Guy and Robert Cray and are all easily found on YouTube, each showing how guitarists can converse on stage without it being a competition. There is a very special concert where he joins Gary Moore on stage for a version of 'Thrill is Gone' which is simply a masterclass in trading tasteful and melodic lines, and one could spend a whole afternoon stealing ideas from it. 

In terms of tone, he had one of the most recognisable sounds out there and by using minimal equipment, here is a list of the gear he used with alternatives. 

Guitars: 

Talking about that classic BB sound in general, most warm tones, out-of-phase or not, will get you close. The varitone was the inspiration behind Peter Green and Gary Moore rewiring their Les Paul pickups with one placed back to front, but in his later life BB King admitted he didn’t bother much with it anymore. When working out his lines and style for this article, I used a Gibson Firebird with two 60s style pickups set in the middle or neck positions, with the tone rolled off a little and I was surprised by how close I could get. 

Amps: 

Pedals: 

To find out more, check out our courses here.

Hank Marvin is marvellous. I remember in my early days of guitar wonderment being obsessed with Buddy Holly. My parents got me a tape of ‘Hank Plays Holly’ which featured instrumental, guitar lead versions of Buddy Holly’s most favoured tracks. My parents didn’t dig it, but for me it provided a spark that started a flame which is still burning now in my playing.

Hank is a famous British guitarist who became incredibly popular in the early 60s with his group ‘The Shadows’; they would play guitar centric instrumental music and back up Cliff Richard. It was around this time that Fender produced the Stratocaster, a guitar with 3 single coil pickups, a ‘tremolo bar’ (a whammy bar in today’s language) with awesome paint jobs. The guitar was often described as a futuristic spaceship compared to other electric instruments of the time.

The Gear

Hank loved using Strats, he loved using the whammy bar. His phrasing is so crisp and articulate, and a lot of it is down to his musicianship and fingers, but it’s safe to say the Strat enabled him to create a sound that had never before been explored and still remains instantly recognisable today.

The tone Mr Marvin uses is clean, very clean. He’s known for using Vox AC15 and AC30 amps – a British clean(ish!) amp with a unique mid-range compared to the American amps Fender made which were more scooped and a little more clinical. Often this clean tone was embellished with a lush reverb and various echo effects. Hank liked tape echo style delays; this gave him a classic slap back sound. Often the reverb, or another longer delay, would be used on top of this core tone to create more space and sustain for the clean melodic single note lines he was playing. Reverb is like ‘gain’ for a clean sound, it gives the note a ‘memory’.

So, the setup is quite simple… get a Strat style guitar with a nice whammy bar/trem. Single coils will get you the right character. Nice clean amp and a simple reverb (spring will work nicely) and tape echo. There are tonnes of both cheap and expensive options available for these bits of gear, you can’t go to wrong. The most important thing to work on is the delivery. Let’s look at the key elements of Hank’s style.

The Technique

Hank knows the fretboard. Often his melodies are based around triads fitting around each chord. Good knowledge of the CAGED system and how the Pentatonic & Major scale lay out within it will help. He very rarely bends more than a half step, but when he does, it’s very in tune and accurate. Vibrato is almost always articulated with the whammy bar or very subtlety with the fretting hand. He’s a master of the bar. Adding subtle and extreme effects to the pitch, often mimicking a pedal steel player or slide guitar, gives his melodies a much more vocal like phrasing. His attention to detail in phrasing is immense, every note gets attention. Check out his cover of the Beatles ‘Michelle’ on his 2017 album ‘Without a Word’. Not too much, not too little. It’s a beautiful and haunting sound.

His pick attack is also very dynamic and subtle. It sounds like he’s picking with the pick tip at a fairly parallel angle to the string, this gives a thicker and more blunt attack. It’s also possible he uses classic picks and fairly heavy strings. Mixing this with a sensitive touch gives the notes a nice bloom. It also often sounds like he’s using the bridge pickup on the Strat for his single note leads, he may also be playing with the tone control on the guitar to get rid of some of the ‘shrill’ top end that the bridge pickup can add. But it’s equally possible he’s EQing from the amp end and most likely mic placement is a big part of the mix, creating warmth and clarity in his more modern tones.

One more thing…

One more thing to add, it’s noticeable at points that Hank is also really handy with the volume control, subtlety controlling the attack of each note with the volume. This may be done with a volume pedal or with the volume control on the guitar itself. It’s likely that he originally did it with the volume on the guitar. This became one of the many selling points of the Fender Strat when it first came out, the volume control is quite close to where the picking hand little finger might be hanging out. Making it easy to reach for volume swells and picking switching.

So there we have it, in a nutshell. A quick how to guide on the amazing Hank Marvin and how to get his sound with gear, technique, and theory.  Hank certainly put the Strat on the map and is a master musician. I’m off to buy a jacket, some wayfarer glasses and a fiesta red Strat, see ya later!

To find out more, check out our courses here.

We all want to be better, right? But what exactly does ‘better’ mean for you as a guitar player? The answer depends on your priorities. This blog will help you narrow your focus so you can effectively work towards being the best possible version of yourself.

Where players often go wrong

Younger players are very often preoccupied with technique, speed and flash and there’s definitely a place for that in my heart. I love to hear someone take a room apart with some fierce chops. However, our bodies and nervous systems are all different. In the same way that no matter how hard I trained I could never beat Usain Bolt in a sprint, I could also never have the accuracy and speed on guitar that say Guthrie Govan has. My body isn’t made that way and my nervous system won’t transmit messages or process musical information at the speed Guthrie can, no matter how many hours of practice I put in.

But that’s okay, because this isn’t a competition and, as guitar players, we are all selling our personality as much as anything else. We all have the same notes at our disposal and largely the same harmonic choices, what makes a lick or a song or a part, is the way we make it our own. There’s an awful lot of guitar players out there, but there’s always room for players with a sense of themselves and something to say on the instrument.

I’m going to divide these tips in to two sections: tips 1 and 2 are about improving your craft and honing your skill and 3-5 are centred around refining your own personal style. I’m talking about ‘musical branding’ if you like. Finding your direction on guitar is a very personal journey, everyone has their own path to tread, and by doing so you’ll learn many wider lessons along the way. Understanding guitar is a way to understand life.

So here we go...

Tip 1 - Timing

Ever wondered why an experienced pro player can play something super simple and yet the performance has gravitas and transmits unshakable confidence? I liken this to a comedian telling a joke. It’s all in the timing. And specifically, the level of control the performer has over that.

If you spend 3 months sorting out your timing, then you won’t believe how many compliments you’ll get from people. An average person in a crowd might not be able to describe how you’ve just pulled a lick back behind the beat, or sat right on a groove, but rest assured they will absolutely understand that ‘here is a serious musician’.

So how do we develop great timing?

Play with musicians who are better than you

Don’t edit so much when recording - try for complete usable takes

Spend the majority of your practice time with a click, or drum loops, and devise routines that really test your skills such as dropping the click out for 1, 2 or even 4 bars and see if you can stay in time.

Pay attention to rhythm guitar (all guitar is rhythm guitar!) Nothing downgrades a shredder and makes them sound like a bedroom player more than them getting excited and getting ahead of the beat in an uncontrolled way. Listen to the control top players have even when ripping it up. Listen to the groove masters like Rob Harris or Steve Cropper to understand what ‘simple done well’ sounds like.

Test yourself: Play a slow shuffle at 60 bpm and see if you can sit on the click without rushing - not easy!

Tip 2 - Sort your tone out

There’s basically two sort of guitar sounds, and I’m not talking class A/B or analogue/digital. I am talking about a) real tones with sonic integrity - the sort you hear on great recordings and the sort of sound that will still work next to a live kit and through a big PA - and b) poor approximations of the real thing. Whichever direction you go in devising your own signature tone, try and tune up your ears so you don’t get a nasty shock first time you go into the studio with an experienced producer and engineer.

So how do you develop great tone?

Collect reference tones from great recordings and performances, and really listen hard to what is going on. Try to separate what is coming out of the cab and what elements of the final tone are post speaker eg. room ambience. Research what the ‘raw’ recorded tone was, if you can, as this trips up so many players who think that the sound they hear through the PA or hi-fi speaker is the guitar sound from the cab. The original source tone is often much dryer, has more midrange, has a harmonic richness and has the sonic integrity to hang in there right through it being mix and mastered (and being compressed to bits on some radio station!).

Practice with a bare tone, no reverb or delay and minimal compression and gain. This will do wonders for your tone and you’ll figure out how to get the most tonal response from your guitar. No pedal can save a weak right or left hand, and you can’t boost frequencies that aren’t there. That’s why great amps and pickups often sound awful in the hands of someone inexperienced. They just give you a more detailed sonic picture of what you are putting into it.

Test yourself: Try playing bone dry with a simple lead, no pedals, into something unforgiving like a Hiwatt Custom 50m, a plexi, an AC30, fender twin or a digital version of those amps. This will feel terrible at first as every detail is so ‘in your face’ but stick with this and you’ll discover a whole world of tone in your fingers which will build your confidence. When you revert back to your normal setup, you’ll be amazed at the difference. And so will everyone else.

Tip 3 - Copy great singers to firm up your phrasing

Guitar, as we know it, came from the blues tradition and often in early blues recordings the lead guitar would take over from the vocal, in a similar register. This worked initially on slide and later on standard electric bends and vibrato could mimic vocal delivery. This is a big plus for the instrument. We can make it sing.

But on top of that, it’s noticeable how many stand out players are also singers. There are the obvious examples with Jimi Hendrix, Peter Green and B.B. King, but also check out the more primitive but effective guitar work of Marc Bolan, Jeff Lynne (ELO etc.) and Neil Young or the lo-fi garage-style work of Kurt Cobain. One thing they all have in common is they have a singer’s approach to note choice and an effective use of space and rhythmic patterns.

How do we develop a more vocal style of phasing?

Copy people speaking and replicate their conversations on guitar using bends, whammy bar etc. Also concentrate on the rhythmic aspects of speech and the nuances of pitch and dynamic in the questions, answers and statements of everyday conversations.

Apply that learning into a solo but limit your note choice. Try entire solos on the root note for example. Notice how singers often bounce around on two or three notes, whereas a guitarist might feel the need to move round the neck more.

Look at your picking hand and copy the dynamics of a few great singers. Amy Winehouse could go from a roar to a whisper and maybe you can too. Go back to a single note and see how many tones you can get from one note by adjusting your pick attack, angle and placement.

Test yourself: Try tremolo picking and change the volume from very quiet to very loud without stopping the flow of the picking. See how consistent and controlled you can be.

Tip 4 - Play less

When I tour and I’m on a bill with load of other guitar bands, I get to listen to a lot of sets. That’s a lot of guitar. After every festival I make a mental note: Play fewer notes. There’s an awful lot of guitar notes already floating around, before we add to that let’s be clear what the purpose and point is. Play less but make sure what you do play counts.

Try the Jimmy Hendrix/Eddie Kramer/Chapman trick of playing lead around your breathing. Stop playing when you inhale. It’s a simple trick that forces you to leave space and make use of silence. If you have a super grainy tone you might want to use a noise gate to nip the feedback in the bud or, better still, learn to control the vol pot like Eddie Van Halen whose little finger was forever on the vol pot - dialling it back and forth like a set of gears as he played.

Tip 5 - Develop your own style

Okay, so this is the big one. In a world full of guitar players, what hope do we have of planting our own flag creatively and doing more than just playing good guitar? Here are some ways you might approach this (but remember, it can take a few years to know what you want so take your time and enjoy the journey):

Listen back to recordings of your own playing and look for small motifs, signatures and techniques that you like. Pick a few of your favourites and try and develop them further. For example, if you have a heavy right hand and favour down strokes, then ask yourself if you could make more of that - could that right hand be even heavier? If you have a big vibrato, could it be even bigger? That sort of line of thought might help you find some exciting lines of stylistic development. The goal is to be ‘more you’.

Identify your three or four main influences and think about why you are drawn to their music. You can take inspiration from aspects of their approach without directly lifting licks. For me, I’ve tried to take a little bit of composition and hot plexi tone from Randy Rhoads, the blues base from Hendrix, a smidge of early Van Halen’s spontaneity and elements of the economy and detail from Peter Green. To that I add in my own personality, my drive for simplicity, and I try to turn limitations into positives. What you don’t do defines you as much as what you do do.

So that’s the Bruce guitar recipe. But more importantly, what’s the ingredients in your guitar… cake? Guitar pie? I think I’ve taken this analogy as far as I can so I think I’ll stop there and go play some guitar!

Take it easy.

Bruce, 2021

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WaterBear | The College of Music presents a selection of backing tracks to improvise over a range of tonalities and keys.

There are a lot of guitar players that struggle with the application of modes. These downloads will make the learning process easier.

Check out the accompanying Rob Chapman guitar lesson below!

Backing track download - click here

Backing Track composed and produced by Jamie Humphries. Jamie is one of the world’s leading guitar players and educators – you can check out his awesome work here

 

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