Who was the biggest influence on your own blues playing?
I’d say Robert Johnson, then Blind Lemon Jefferson. I liked jazz too, y’know. I was crazy about Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. T-Bone Walker was a part of it as well. But what about Barney Kessel and Les Paul? There are so many of them.
On the Blues
“The Blues are a simple music and I’m a simple man. But the Blues aren’t a science, the Blues can’t be broken down like mathematics. The Blues are a mystery, and mysteries are never as simple as they look!
B.B. King works audiences the same way he works the guitar he calls Lucille. He teases them, tickles them, and then jolts them with the lyrics he sings and the notes he plays. “Usually when I’m up there onstage,” King explains, “I try and do like an electric eel and throw my little shock through the whole audience. And usually the reaction comes back double-force and pulls me out of it, because the people can help you entertain. They become part of it. It’s something like radar: You send out a beam, and it hits and comes back with more energy.”
“Well, I am somewhat jazz-influenced. When I was young it didn’t really get to me. There, in Mississippi, where I grew up there weren’t many radios — only the boss had a radio at that time, and not all of them. So you didn’t have a chance to listen unless you were a house boy or something.
“But later on I went into town, to Indianola, Mississippi, and listened to juke boxes, and I started to dig jazz when I came to hear it.
“Django was the one, though. He was my favourite. How I got to know about him was this. One of my friends was in the services, stationed in Paris. He happened to bring a couple of Django’s records back and let me hear them. As far as I’m concerned, he is still one of the leaders on guitar.
On his sound
Well, one thing I’ve always been concerned with is a good sound I want people to really understand me and try to understand what I’m doing on stage, because what I’m doing on the stage most of the time isn’t just trying to show off my artistry in a way of speaking, but to let the people know how I feel. But my playing now, this is the funny thing. I’m not so concerned about the proper rules or rudiments in music now. I’m interested more in playing what I feel at that particular time. Now whether that is right, as far as the rules of music are concerned, beautiful, but if it’s not right, still beautiful because it’s what I feel.
On changing style
“As soon as I try something different, you always get people saying, ‘oh, he should stick with the blues’ or ‘look at him, he’s abandoning the music that’s got him where he is’ – but it is necessary to create and change constantly. Whatever I do, though, I will never leave the blues,”
On the roots
Adults have taken a great deal for granted, so it comes as no surprise that kids do too. One of the things they’ve definitely taken for granted is the roots. And blues are the roots.
The significant difference between B.B. King and his disciples is that he had long ago mastered the concept that less can be more when it comes to the number of notes in a solo. “If it’s done well with less, then use that,” he says. “If you need more, you try to put it in there. When I first started school, I stuttered and stammered so bad, my teacher would slow me down and say, ‘We got time – take your time.’ I think the same thing started with my guitar.”
Over the years, he has become a master of dynamics, tension and tone, using relatively few judiciously placed notes for the maximum emotional impact, like his heroes Lester Young and Johnny Hodges.