BB King’s Lucille

BB King, who is named number three on Rolling Stones “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list, started his musical life as young boy begging his grandmother’s pastor for guitar lessons. The preacher at the Holiness Church in Kilmicheal, Mississippi taught BB to play the E A and B chords, and a career was launched.

King spent his early years alternating between his grandmother’s and sharecropping father’s homes and got his only musical training from a gospel singing group he joined at church. When he was 16, he bought his first guitar for $2.50 and began using it to sing the blues. At the age of 21, BB moved to Memphis with the goal of becoming a blues guitarist. He participated in numerous jam sessions and learned all he could from the other musicians in the area.

When he was 23, King was given a job as a spokesman for a product called Pepticon. He was allowed to play whatever he wished on the guitar during a ten-minute radio show and plugged the sponsor between numbers. The show soon became popular and was extended in length. Eventually King was awarded a recording contract with Modern Records and became quite well known in Memphis and throughout the south. His breakout recording was called “Three O’Clock Blues,” which made it onto the Billboard R & B Chart.

The song was a good example of the way King was able to use the vibrato and tremolo of an electric guitar to give his blues a “weeping” quality. He was the first artist to use completely different techniques on an electric instrument than he used with an acoustic, and his style rapidly grew popular.

BB King gave all his guitars the name Lucille during his long career. Many people assume he chose the name in memory of a girlfriend or unrequited love, but that is not the case. He developed the nickname one night when he was playing at a small roadhouse near Twist, Arkansas. As the evening was ending, a fight broke out between two patrons of the establishment. In the ensuing scuffle, a heating stove was tipped over and fire raced through the place. BB ran for safety with the other occupants, but remembered at the last minute that his guitar was still inside. He returned for it, putting himself in grave danger, but he managed to save the instrument. When he heard later on that the fight had been caused by jealousy over a woman named Lucille, BB decided to give his guitar that name.

There have been many Lucilles over the years, but none more precious to BB King than a treasured custom-made Gibson ES-355 that he played for years. In fact, he has used this instrument almost exclusively since 1980 when the first one came off the assembly line. Gibson still sells a Lucille model made from maple with no F-holes to reduce feedback. It has a shiny black finish with white bindings and gold hardware. The neck is made from laminated maple with an ebony fingerboard. Lucille is equipped with a TP-6 tailpipe and stereo and mono jacks. BB King still makes his guitar weep even in his middle eighties, and Lucille is part of the reason that audiences love him so.

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