The Gibson Guitars of B.B. King
Gibson.com has posted a history of B.B. King's
guitars with pictures, stories and videos. It's a nice insight into
"Lucille" and her many guises...
I Love Lucille: The Gibson Guitars of B.B. King
Everyone knows B.B. King calls his Gibson guitars "Lucille." The
fact is, B.B. has had numerous Lucilles since he fell in love with
his first one way back in 1949. And he's played many other Gibsons
that haven't been blessed with "her" name.
Here are the stories…
Gibson L-30 - the first Lucille
B.B.'s first "Lucille" was a Gibson L-30. He rescued it from a
nightclub fire in Twist, Arkansas, and named it after a woman in
the club. King told Jazzweekly.com, "One night, two guys
started to fighting and one knocked down one of them containers
[kerosene barrels, for heating the club] and it was already burning
with kerosene and so when it spilled onto the floor, it looked like
a river of fire and everybody started to run for the front door -
including B.B. King.
"But when I got on the outside, I realized then that I had left
my guitar on the inside. So I went back for it. The building was a
wooden building and burning rapidly. It started to collapse around
me and I almost lost my life trying to save my guitar. So the next
morning, we found out that these two guys that were fighting were
fighting about a lady that worked in the little dance hall. We
learned that her name was Lucille. So I named the guitar Lucille to
remind me to never do a thing like that again."
And so the Lucille legend was born. King's first Lucille was a
Gibson L-30, a budget model. The L-30 was small-bodied, non-cutaway
and with a flat back. The L-30 featured a simple trapeze tailpiece
and pickguard, an adjustable bridge, single-binding (front and
back) and dot fingerboard markers. Early examples were finished in
black, but later L-30s had dark mahogany sides, back and neck, with
a dark sunburst top. The model was discontinued in 1943.
As King's career flourished, he got a fancier guitar. Launched
in 1949, the ES-5 was then one of Gibson's flashiest and sonically
most versatile models - it had three P-90 pickups. King's was the
early version, without the complex switching of the 1955-60
updates. The ES-5 came in blonde and sunburst, but B.B.'s was a
blonde, with a trio of volume pots and a black pickguard. The ES-5
was discontinued in 1960.
In 1951, King had his major hit with a cover of Lowell Fulson's
"Three O'Clock Blues." By this time B.B. was playing a Gibson
ES-125. With a single P-90 pickup and no cutaway it featured a
bound top and back, tortoiseshell pickguard, single-bound top and
back and dot neck inlays. "Three O'Clock Blues" was a slow-burning
12-bar that set the template for B.B.'s inimitable style. No video
in 1951, of course, so here King is playing the hit song on a later
Electric blues pioneer T-Bone Walker was a big influence on B.B.
T-Bone favored Gibson's ES-250, a mid-range hollowbody with two
P-90s. In 1955, Gibson released the similar ES-350T and Byrdland,
with slimmer bodies, better specs and a shorter scale length. The
Byrdland was endorsed by jazz players Billy Byrd and Hank Garland -
hence the name - and B.B. liked it. Its ebony fingerboard with
block pearl inlays were smart, and its shorter scale made it
perfect for complex jazz chording. Although B.B. toted a Byrdland
for a while in the late '50s/early '60s, its most famous user
remains "Motor City Madman" Ted Nugent. Who'da thunk B.B. and "The
Nuge" had anything in common?
King has also used an ES-175. The guitar was a favorite of jazz
legends Joe Pass and Herb Ellis, and King used his for his jazzier
excursions. King is pictured with one on the 1959 album BB
King Wails. The ES-175, unlike the top-line L-5 and Super 400, had
a laminated maple (not solid carved spruce) top. This kept prices
down and helped combat feedback.
The Gibson ES-355 is the "Lucille" everyone now associates with
B.B. King. He'd played many budget-to-flagship Gibsons for many
years, but the flash ES-355 was B.B.'s ultimate. A variation of the
ES-335, the ES-355 had looks, volume, sweetness and stinging tone.
It also boasted the 6-way Varitone selector, which offers a spread
of sounds over and above the Gibson ES-335 norm. You can hear the
"honk" of the Varitone's capabilities on King's 1969 classic "The
Thrill is Gone." King has played ES-335s and ES-345s too, but the
ES-355 was the one fit for a King… and the guitar became the queen
Here's B.B. at his funkiest best in the 1960s, on a tobacco
It was 1980 when Gibson and King first collaborated to create
his own, exclusive
Lucille model. As well as personalized pearl inlays, B.B.
requested that Gibson remove the f-holes, to reduce feedback. In
earlier years, King would often stuff his regular ES-355's f-holes
with cloth to inhibit feedback, so this was a much-needed mod for
the bluesman. As a Gibson Custom model, it is premium-priced.
Gibson Lucille Limited offered different colors.
Epiphone Lucille also offers a more affordable option.
Featuring a laminated maple body with glued-in maple neck, it
boasts a bound rosewood fingerboard and multi- bound body and
headstock. With stereo and mono outputs plus the 6-way Varitone
switch, it's classic B.B. on a budget.
Neither guitar comes with B.B's left hand - his vibrato
technique is legend in the history of electric guitar - but the
guitars may help you get that King tone. Soak up that B.B King tone
in this tour de force.
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