B.B. King’s Lucille: A Tribute To A Legend

Only one guitar in the history of modern music is so well known that it could have been double billed at a show with the man who played it: Lucille, the guitar of the King of Blues himself. As some of you may know, “Lucille” was not just one guitar but rather a name passed down through generations of Mr. King’s collection of touring guitars. The name was first bestowed upon his guitar after a wild and life-changing night in the winter of 1949.

In King’s autobiography, Blues All Around Me, he describes a fight that broke out while he was playing a house party in Twist, Arkansas. A lit bucket of kerosene was being used as an impromptu heater to keep party-goers warm, but when the fight erupted, so did the fuel. The upturned bucket unleashed flames that engulfed the entire house, scattering its inhabitants. Everyone in the dwelling rushed outside, including King, until he realized he had left his only source of income inside the house: his guitar. B.B. raced back into the inferno, barely escaping with his own life, but having rescued his beloved Gibson.

The next morning, King discovered that the two men who had started the blaze were fighting over a woman named Lucille. As a reminder to himself to never again risk his own life for a guitar, B.B. named his Gibson after the mysterious, fire-starting Lucille.

When I first met Mr. King at his Las Vegas office in 2009, he spoke of Lucille like you would a living, breathing woman. He spoke of how proud he was of her, and that he hoped I liked her too.

Following the Twist incident, King played a succession of primarily Gibson guitars that he bequeathed with the title of “Lucille.” However, none of these instruments had the name Lucille emblazoned on their headstock until 1980, when Gibson signed a formal partnership with B.B. King to fashion a guitar worthy of its owner, featuring aesthetics and equipment King required for his live performances. Many of the attributes featured on the original and current Lucille models were taken from the Gibson ES-355TD-SV models. The primary exception to this trend was the lack of f-holes on the top of the body, so requested because King often battled feedback with other ES guitars when playing at full stage volume.

Over the years, there have been variations in cosmetics, paint colors, and body styles, the most dramatic of which was seen in the Little Lucille, a model loosely based on the Gibson Nighthawk series. Gibson offered Lucille models in Ebony and Cherry Red, though Mr. King favored the Ebony model for concerts to appease fans’ expectations. Gibson also produced many one-off instruments specially for Mr. King, which are still within his collection and have only been viewed or displayed by a select few people.

Limited edition models include the 70th Birthday Lucille designed by Bruce Kunkel, which featured a pyrography burned image of B.B. King the top of the instrument illustrated by artist Dino Muradian. In 2010, for the very first time, Gibson offered the Lucille in a Limited Edition run of vibrant colors called the Gem Series. The model came in Emerald, Amethyst, Ruby, Diamond, and Sapphire, and were incredibly rare; only 25 of each color were manufactured.

One of the most famous models, and the one he toured with until October of 2014, was Mr. King’s 80th Birthday “Lucille,” presented to him by Gibson in 2005 as an early birthday gift for 2006. This was the guitar I discovered in a Las Vegas pawnshop and subsequently returned to Mr. King. As a thank you, he presented me with a signed “Lucille.” Though this gift was incredibly generous, I found the most valuable thing I received from B.B. was the time I spent with him.

For Mr. King and his fans, Lucille took on a life of her own. She became more than a guitar, and her essence embodies B.B. King, the Blues, a devotion to music and her fans, and the endeavor for excellence. King began his musical journey with a cheap Stella acoustic that eventually carried him to a Memphis radio station, beginning him on the path to meeting and playing for popes, presidents, and kings. His odyssey with Lucille even had him crowned the Ambassador of the Blues.

As musicians, we all personify our guitars, though at their core they are merely wood, metal, plastic, mother-of-pearl and electronics. But when we hold them in our hands and create music with them, they become an extension of us; they become more. Lucille transcended her most basic components and, in the hands of King, she became larger than life.

A defining moment for me was at a B.B. King concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. As we meandered into the Mother Church to find our designated seats, we could see that King’s assistant had placed Lucille right in the center of the stage. Fans flocked forth to take pictures of his revered Gibson as she patiently reclined on her stand, waiting for B.B. to bring her to life again through his hands. Lucille remains an iconic symbol of the blues and of the late, great blues-master who brought her to fame.

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