What You Don't Know About the "BB King Scale"

There's something that BB King did to the Minor Pentatonic Scale that very few guitar players fully understand. And, what you don't know about this little trick could save your life on-stage when you need that authentic Blues sound...

B.B. King is considered by many to be the most influential guitarist ever. From Eric Clapton to Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan to Gary Clark Jr., every blues-rock player of the last 50 years owes a debt of gratitude to the King every time they lean into a single-note solo.

In fact, the legendary Buddy Guy believes B.B.’s influence is so vast that his name should be engraved on every electric guitar!

Of the many signature elements that comprise B.B.’s sound, the one most often cited is his penchant for zeroing in on a specific pattern of notes and strings when playing in a given key. The pattern, which is played primarily on the top three strings and forms a visual “box” shape on the fretboard, has become affectionately known as the “B.B. box.”

In this blog post, I’d like to outline the pattern in a few positions and demonstrate some licks that navigate through his unique scale pattern to create some cool B.B.-style solo licks and phrases.

BB uses the "Minor Pentatonic a little differently than most. Essentially he takes the standard "Minor Pentatonic" and replaces the "b7" tone with a "Major 6" tone.

- Example using the tonic note of "A"

Most often, BB King’s use of this restructured Minor Pentatonic shape places the tonic note on the second B string, (generally fretted with the index finger).

 Scale TAB - Figure One:

 Outline of shape - Figure One:

FIGURE 1: Shows how the six notes that make up the “B.B. box,” can be played in the key of A in the 9th and 10th position. But, in FIGURE TWO we expand the lower register range.

By staying in position, the "BB King" Scale can be played into lower register string sets. In Figure Two we take this pattern into a lower 5th string tonic at the 5th string's 12th-fret.

 Scale TAB - Figure Two:

 Outline of shape - Figure Two:

Now let's get to the fun stuff, guitar licks. I've created a couple of shuffle feel licks that tie in some of BB's classic phrasing to demonstrate how he likes to get the sound of this scale into action.

The first lick uses the entire in position shape from figure 2, played across a 12/8 shuffle. Watch the bends and how they use both the Full and Half step style moves to take advantage of the major and minor thirds. The sound of the 5th pedal at the end of measure one is another great example of BB's favoritism of the 5th against the tonic note.

(click the above image to enlarge to full-screen)

The second "BB King" scale lick applies the scale tones into a new position on the neck. We are still in the key of "A" but now, our scale layout uses tones found in the 5th position area. Many of the same "BB King" bend and phrasing techniques are being applied across the lick as we'd used in example lick one. Timing and duration are however slightly different in example two.

(click the above image to enlarge to full-screen)

Many of BB King's solos are played in the same note registers, but since he is so detailed with how his performances used varied lick phrasing and rhythmic duration, his lines were distinctly different. His feel and timbre is produced in each and every case because of how BB applied different rhythms and note selections across so many positions and strings on the guitar fingerboard.


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