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It’s hard to imagine a guitarist more influential than B.B. King, who used his iconic guitar, Lucille, to spread the love of the blues into the mainstream of music.
Everyone knows B.B. King played Lucille, but what guitar strings did B.B. King use?
B.B. King’s famous blues style came in part from the lighter gauge strings he used. While he almost certainly played with various different string sets, later in his career Gibson issued a signature string set in his name that ran .010″ .013″ .017″ .032″ .045″ .054″ from high E string to low E string.
The light gauge strings, which let him bend strings farther, were a key part to both B.B. King’s playing style and his tone. Let’s take a look at why he chose the strings he did.
What Gauge Guitar Strings Did B.B. King Use?
One thing we know for sure about the gauge of strings B.B. King used: he liked one set enough to put his name to it.
Though they now seem to be discontinued, Gibson sold the B.B. King Signature Electric Guitar String set, and the marketing material claimed the gauges of strings were chosen by the man himself.
The fact that King played using light gauge string is backed up — obviously enough — by his playing. The deep bends he achieves just aren’t possible with thicker strings.
It isn’t a matter of strength — thicker gauge strings are under more tension to reach the same pitch as thinner gauge strings, so they just won’t bend as far.
Did B.B. King Ever Talk About What Strings He Used?
We don’t just have to take the word of Gibson’s marketing department about what kind of strings King liked to use.
We don’t have to do any complicated on-screen measurements of string gauge from videos of his performances, either. (Which probably wouldn’t be possible anyway!)
King actually told at least one person about his string preference.
Billy Gibbons, guitarist for ZZ Top, related how he met King when Gibbons was just starting out with the band.
Gibbons said King strummed Gibbons’ guitar and asked why he was working so hard.
Gibbons was using heavy gauge strings at the time and said he thought you needed heavy strings to get a big sound.
But, he said, King told him he used much lighter strings.
In other versions of the story, Gibbons said King told him about a trick that might also sound familiar to any blues-influenced folkie who was around in the 1960s (and it’s still in use by guys like Ed Sheeran today)
King told Gibbons that he and other players would discard the low E string from a standard string set (as did George Harrison and others after him) and shift the strings over one position. For the high E string they would use a banjo string.
That tracks well with the string gauges in the signature set that Gibson once sold.
In the 1950 and 1960s — and in some places later than that — there were limited choices for guitar strings, and a medium to heavy gauge string set was common.
That would give a high E string of .012” or .013”, and if that were moved over to the B string position, it would fit the Gibson’s numbers.
How Did B.B. King’s Strings Influence His Tone?
Strings are an important part of any guitarist’s kit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the key to a player’s tone.
Some legends, like Willie Nelson, whose strings we’ve already looked at, are inextricably linked with a single guitar.
While Nelson’s Trigger also uses distinctive nylon strings, King’s Lucille is not just one guitar.
He played a variety of models, most of them Gibson semi hollow body guitars, including the ES-355. That was the basis for the Gibson B.B. King Lucille model that launched in the 1980s.
All of them are fairly standard electric guitars, apart from some of the distinctive tones King is noted for come from the fact he often played the top of the line ES-355TD-SV model, which had two humbucker pickups, a Varitone tone-shaping circuit and stereo output.
That isn’t to say his strings have nothing to do with his tone. In fact, his strings might have much more to do with his tone than you might realize.
String Bending And Tone
Part of what makes King’s guitar sound so amazing isn’t the guitar he’s playing — it’s how he plays it.
The bends he effortlessly works into runs of notes give his playing an expressive, almost vocal quality. It’s become essentially synonymous with the blues itself.
And that has to do with the string gauge, at least in part.
That’s because not only are thinner gauge strings easier to bend, they can actually bend further and faster than thicker gauge strings.
There’s a whole lot more to string bending than you might realize.
So much that scientists have written whole papers about the physics behind how string bending works.
In that paper, they point out that everything from the tiny bends that create vibrato to more substantial, bluesy bends that stretch a full step or more above the original note all help to create a distinctive tone that makes a guitarist’s work recognizable.
While the strings B.B. King used definitely contributed to his signature sound, they weren’t the only thing that made him sound like he did.
If you have any doubt that King would always sound like himself, you can check out this video, which shows him changing a string when it breaks mid-song. What you see there is pretty clearly a master of the instrument.
Not many guitarists of any caliber can change a string while still singing so the song doesn’t stop. It shows how important playing the blues was for King and shows that it’s possible to still give a legendary performance with a string missing.
If you had given the late, great blues man an acoustic guitar with heavy gauge strings, you’d easily recognize the way he plays, even if he wasn’t playing in exactly the same way.
That’s because while string gauge and string type might have an impact on things like playing speed and string bending, they don’t have as much of an effect on phrasing, and that has as much as anything else to do with how recognizable a musician’s style will be.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.