B.B. King: One note says it all

When I read the news last week that blues guitar legend B.B. King had died, two things immediately came to my mind.

First, I remembered the one time I heard him live, at the 1987 JVC Jazz Festival in Nice, France. Even though there were lots of musicians playing on the outdoor event’s 3 stages, I didn’t want to miss King’s performance. He was a real connection with the blues tradition and I stood there, absorbing every note. Even today, I’ll sometimes start a blues piano solo with him in mind, wringing every possible emotion out of just a few notes. He sang through his instrument!

The second thing I recalled was what I just mentioned. He often began his solos with a single note or two, often on either the root of 5th of the chord. I think this was his way of keeping things “honest” and grounded. Try it for yourself. Instead of starting out by playing a million notes, play a single note with as much emotion as you can. See where it takes you. You may or may not have the impulse to play fast right after it. Just listen to the groove and play your one well-placed note. (Don’t worry, you’ll still have plenty of time to play your million notes!) By doing this, your solo will start out in a very direct way, and give both you and your listeners a firm footing with which to begin. And anything you play after that will have more meaning than it otherwise might have had.

Check out this video of B.B. King in action. See how he lands firmly on a few notes right near the beginning of his solo? He plays a little vibrato on them. We pianists can get a similar effect by using tremolos or “crushed” notes, but even simple quarter, half or whole note will do same thing. You’ll hear him do it again at the start of his mid-song solo, at 2:26. Once you’re tuned into listening for them, those notes will start jumping out at you, sprinkled through out his improvisations.

So as we celebrate the life and music of this blues pioneer, let’s take a little of what he had to offer and bring it into our own piano playing!

Here’s a video I made to show you 17 styles of blues piano: Evolution of Blues Piano

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