B.B. King's Many Lucilles: A Guide to the Blues' Most Famous Gibson

B.B. King (1974). Photo by David Redfern/Redferns, Getty Images.

How many Lucilles did B.B. King play? Actually that’s a trick question, because only one Beale Street Blues Boy ever knew the exact answer. We can be pretty sure, however, that he bought his first Gibson, a humble f-hole L-30, when he was in his teens, around 1940, and soon he fixed a DeArmond pickup to it. During the ‘50s he moved to a solidbody Fender Esquire and a few more Gibsons, including an ES-5, a 125, a Byrdland, and a 175.

By the early ‘60s he was playing a sunburst ES-335 with a Bigsby, and, unusually, it had a Varitone switch and stereo wiring, marking it as a custom order melding elements of a 335 and 345. It seems to have been his favorite at the time and was almost certainly the guitar he used to record his legendary Live At The Regal album in November 1964. Sometimes he also used a 345.

By 1967, B.B had shifted his affections to Gibson’s top semi-solid, the 355, a luxurious model that seemed the right kind of high-end instrument for a guitarist considered by now to be one of America’s most impressive bluesmen. A series of 355s assisted him through the rest of his long and successful career.

Gibson decided to mark its connection to that career in 1969 by signing an endorsement deal with B.B., who was still a loyal 355 fan. The deal saw him pictured in many adverts and catalogues: for example, a striking early ‘70s ad profiled “the man and the woman"—in other words, B.B. King (the man) and “Lucille, the King’s Gibson guitar" (the woman).

B.B. King plays Lucille in a vintage Gibson ad.

B.B. continued to do well as the '80s ticked around, gathering new fans to add to the blues faithful and maintaining his busy life on the road and in the studio. Gibson, meanwhile, decided a signature model or two might be a good idea. Gradually, through the enthusiasm of Gibson people like salesman Dennis Chandler and R&D boss Bruce Bolen, the idea turned into reality.

The first sign was a one-off guitar that Bolen presented to B.B. in 1978, a fancy 355 with f-holes and floral fingerboard markers (like the Les Paul Artisans). The tailpiece cover had a special message engraved on it: “To B.B. King, An artist’s music represents his sensitivity, growth, and way of life. A legend in your own time, this guitar is a symbol of our growth together. With sincere appreciation, Your friends at Gibson."

B.B. played that one for the next year or two, but by the summer of 1980 he’d switched to another new Gibson, this one a prototype closer to the forthcoming signature models. Bolen told B.B. during one planning meeting that the body would be without f-holes, the idea being that you could play a little louder without worrying about feedback—and also it gave the guitar a sleek and distinctive look.

Production versions finally appeared on pricelists during 1981: the B.B. King Standard (list price $1,389) and the B.B. King Custom ($1,789). Both had that sealed body without f-holes, like Gibson’s earlier ES Artist, but otherwise they were built with the company’s classic semi-solid innards—laminated maple top and back with central maple block and spruce kerfings—and they had a three-piece maple neck.

Both models had Crank fold-out tuner winders, a TP-6 fine-tuning tailpiece, a Tune-o-matic mounted into Sustain Sisters brass studs, and two Pat. Appl. For humbuckers. They had stereo circuitry with two output jacks, requiring a couple of mono cables plugged into both for stereo use or a single cable into the rear jack for mono. B.B. had written out “Lucille" a few times and Chuck Burge at Gibson redrew the best one for use as artwork on the headstock.

The B.B. King Custom had gold-plated metalwork, an ebony fingerboard with block markers, and, in addition to the regular controls, it had a Varitone. The Standard had chrome-plated metalwork, a rosewood board with dots, and regular controls. Both models were offered in ebony (black) or cherry. The Standard didn’t last long—it was gone from pricelists after 1983—but the Custom is still in the line today, although since 1986 it’s been known, appropriately, as the B.B. King Lucille.

Article continues after lesson
A Lesson in B.B. King’s Singing Clarity by Jeff Massey

B.B. King is an important eminence who rightfully wore his crown as The King Of The Blues. Born on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, Riley B. King first discovered a love for music in church. In his teenage years, King started out playing in local juke joints and performing for local radio stations, eventually adopting the name Blues Boy King, which of course is usually shortened to B.B.

King's style has been hugely influential to many players who followed in his footsteps. When it comes to electric blues guitar, King may just be the biggest influence ever.

King's effortless vibrato and use of major pentatonic scales mixed with the blues scale created a very unique style often reminiscent of the human voice. Putting your heart and soul into every note is not something you can teach, but listening to a player like King can inspire us all to reach for that level as a player.

I’ve included a few licks in this video that I believe to be the quintessential B.B. licks, as well as a jazzy run reminiscent of the many guitar tricks King kept up his sleeve, to be revealed only at key points within a solo. King used to joke that he didn’t know any chords, but after studying his work, you'll find that both chords and scales were used in service to his masterful sound.

I hope you enjoy incorporating these ideas into your own playing, and I think you’ll find that these licks cross genres and work well with all types of music.

When Gibson dropped the ES-355 in 1981 (it wasn’t reinstated until 2006), the B.B. guitar filled the gap, and when Gibson’s Memphis factory opened in 2000, the Lucille model was among its earliest runs, with Memphis taking over production from the regular Nashville factory. Around 2007, the headstock of the Lucille gained a fancy “B.B. King" logo topped by a crown, with the remarkable result of a Gibson guitar that had no evident Gibson logo, though the logo was back by 2014.

Gibson Lucille King of the Blues ES-355

A few Lucille variations have turned up, including the Blueshawk-like Little Lucille (1999–2004) with a small-ish body, f-hole cavities, and two noise-cancelling P-90s. A couple more takes appeared around 2002, one with a fingerboard inlaid with “B.B. King" and two little guitars, the other a limited-edition Super Lucille, with King’s signature on the pickguard, abalone block markers, and a sparkle finish.

A further pair was issued in 2006: a limited-edition B.B. King 80th Birthday Lucille, with a big “80" on the headstock, and a limited-edition B.B. King “King Of The Blues" model, with a suitable logo on the pickguard.

B.B. called all his favorite personal guitars Lucille, however many there may have been. According to a story he repeated and embellished through the years, he chose the name in memory of a woman who caused a fire that almost killed him when he went back into the burning building to try to save his guitar. Well, we’ve all done that, haven’t we?

In 1968, for the title track of his Lucille album, he recorded a sort of talking blues about the legend. “I pick up Lucille," he said, “and it bring out those funny sounds that sound good to me, you know?" They sounded good to us, too, B.B.

About the Author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Gibson 335 Guitar Book, The Ultimate Guitar Book, and The Telecaster Guitar Book. His latest is Electric Guitars: Design And Invention (Backbeat). Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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