Learn the “B.B. King” Box Pattern...

Courtesy of Premier Guitar

Riley B. King (aka B.B. King) is known the world over as one of the greatest blues musicians in blues history. Learn his famous "BB box" pattern to push your blues lines into a whole new direction...

His tone, attack, vibrato, phrasing, stage presence, and human spirit offer plenty to emulate and learn from, but there’s an ace of a scale hiding up Mr. King’s sleeve, and this lesson will reveal this barely discussed, yet very useful scale concept vital to his sound.

This scale is especially valuable if you’re a blues, rock, jazz, funk, or country guitarist looking to discover a new world of licks.

The first thing you should know about the “B.B. box” shown in Ex. (1a) is that it fits uniquely over dominant 7 chords and progressions, but use it with caution over chords in minor blues tunes. This scale produces an interesting flavor you’ll hear not only in King’s music but also in the licks and riffs of Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Billy Gibbons, and Eric Clapton, among others.

In modal terms and typical blues-rock situations, a dominant 7 chord progression begs for a Mixolydian-based scale treatment. As you will see, things are a bit different when using King’s scale.

Example #1a). Fingering Pattern - Key of "A" (basic layout)

Example #1b). Performing the "BB Box" Pattern

As you can see and hear, this scale is very user-friendly. Once you’ve become acquainted with this scale shape, you’ll eventually find your fingers reaching for licks, patterns, and phrases that you’ve never played before—and you may wonder what you ever did without it.

Use the first note on the 2nd string as a guide to help you move this scale into other keys. Wherever you place this root note (shown in red in Ex. 1) dictates the key you’ll be playing in.

As you play through this BB box example (and get a feel for the fingering and sound), be aware that we’re technically flirting with an A Dorian tonality over an A7 chord. For those of you playing along at home, that’s technically a big no-no in traditional music theory terms, but in the rebellious world of blues and rock music, a skilled soloist can make those “wrong” notes sound legendary. It is interesting that this scale really sings against dominant 7 chords and progressions, but it sounds a little sour against a standard minor blues.

This is technically a minor-sounding scale (with an obvious minor 3rd) and it features a distinctively Dorian sound. So why does this scale not really work over a minor blues?

One reason this scale works better over dominant chords is the appearance of the natural 6 (in this case, F#). It works fine over an Am7 chord but when the IVm chord (Dm) rolls around, the rub between the F# and F is a bit jarring. In a dominant-sounding situation the IV chord contains an F#—much better.

Whenever you’re playing over dominant-flavored blues changes, you’ll find that this scale is very handy to have in your bag of tricks, and it’s a great “cut-and-paste” option. The scale is especially useful when improvising an extended guitar solo and you suddenly run out of ideas.

To expand this scale even further, you can add the B.B. King-approved chromatic note b5 (the diminished 5th) on the 1st string. This creates a jazzy flavor and really adds a touch of class when used tastefully and targeted wisely (see Ex. 2).

Example #2). "BB Box" with lowered 5th tone

Now that you have a grip on playing this scale, try learning a couple of licks to really get an idea of where this scale can take you. To get the ball rolling, play around with these three licks in the examples shown below...

Lick Example 1).

Lick Example 2).

As you continue to play and practice using this scale, incorporate more pentatonic ideas. Pretty soon you’ll be connecting licks all over the neck. There are hundreds of licks available, (if B.B. has been using these ideas since 1937, it should take you a good long while to wear them out). If it’s good enough for Mr. King, it’s good enough for all of us.



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