B. King, who died aged 89 on 14th May, was one of the first
guitarists to evolve a style of playing that instantly identified
him. His sweet, plaintive sound was so closely associated with
the Gibson guitars he used to call Lucille that the Gibson Corporation
launched a ‘Lucille’ model in 1980. But it was the
way he played them that mattered: bending notes that strayed
far from the standard diatonic scale of Western music, especially
on the fifth of the scale and the famous ‘blue’
notes of blues and jazz: the third and the flattened seventh,
which in the key of C correspond to E and B flat. The lues third
lies in an ambiguous space between the minor third (E flat in
C) and the major third (E natural), so that in the convention
that makes major keys happy and minor keys sad, the blues –
and especially B. B.’s blues – take on a bittersweet
character, the sound of loves recalled and lost.
this from simply playing out of tune? Well yes, because it’s
precisely this quality that animates folk music in many traditions,
giving it a soul that dies whenever classically trained musicians
attempt to go popular and bring their perfect intonation to
a musical form that demands rough edges. When musicologists
and anthropologists first started to study folk music seriously
in the early twentieth century, at first they often took the
imperfect tunings to reflect poor technique – until they
realized that the performers (usually singers) would replicate
these off-key notes precisely from one rendition to the next.
They knew what they were doing.
what they were doing was what all music so often does when it
pulls the emotions: it introduces uncertainty and ambiguity,
creating a tension in the listener that turns into passion.
is an easy principle to grasp, but fiendishly hard to get right.
When other guitarists sought to emulate B. B., or singers to
copy Billie Holliday doing the same thing with her vocal blue
notes, they risked cliché or straining for effect. It
takes exquisite judgment to keep the detuning emotive rather
than kitsch. You’ve got to know how far to push it, perhaps
quite literally. Will B. B. bend that note from a minor right
up to a major third, resolving the discord and telling us that
the story came good in the end? No, not quite – his hopes,
like his intonation, are thwarted: joy withheld at the last
moment. The thrill is gone.