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(Credit: Heinrich Klaffs)

Music

B.B. King on the difference between his and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar playing

B.B. King is a rare sort of numen in the history of music. He is one of the few artists who you can point to as a pivotal road sign and confidently opine that the history of music would not have been the same without this sonic signpost. Pairing brilliance and personality in equal measure, this star maintained the central tenets of the blues in the blur of rock ‘n’ roll and inspired the likes of Keith Richards, John Lennon and Stevie Ray Vaughan. 

With the latter, he had a unique “father-son” relationship. However, King might have been the elder statesman and a lauded figure of the blues long before Vaughan came along, but he was always humble in honouring his younger hero. As he exclaims in A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan: “Stevie had many ways of showing you that he had not only talent but he had the feel for playing Blues. His hands seemed to be flawless the way he moved with it.”

This mutual admiration and kinship when it came to humility, resulted in a unique bond between the two. As King fondly recalled: “When I first met Stevie I met him with his brother and after meeting him our communication started to be more like a father-son relationship. So we were very close, very, very close. He used to come to me when he had problems, he used to call me and we talked. I loved the guy.”

With so much in common, you might think their playing had a similar feel too, however, King was quick to note that they were wildly different musicians. “When I play,” B.B. King once said, “It’s sort of like talking. You say your sentence here, a sentence there. And then I’ve got stop and think for something else to keep my conversation going. But his didn’t seem to be that at all.”

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He continued to eulogise his fluid style by adding: “He flowed when he played. He could get something going and it was like a song, and it would just go on and on. The ideas continuously flowed. I don’t have that—I there’s not a lot of people that I hear who do have that.” Indeed, Vaughan could make the 12-bars seem like an infinite strip. 

Below you can watch them musically converse on an all-star jam. And the friendship is evident by just how tight the pair are on stage even in this early impromptu jam. When King wants to wander, Vaughan keeps the rhythm and vice versa, all culminating in one of the finest performances of ‘Why I Sing the Blues’ around, and certainly the busiest. Also featuring the likes of Eric Clapton, Etta James, Chaka Khan, Phil Collins and Albert King, it’s a force to behold. 

While rendition might not get close to answering the question it asks in the style of Lightnin’ Hopkins of old, the level of fun and musicianship in the mix certainly makes up for it. These folks sure knew how to make a guitar gently weep or rattle out in a wailing cry—that is the subtle beauty of the encompassing blues. 

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