Licks from the epic gig in Zaire, 1974

Guitar Techniques - - Front Page - NEXT MONTH: John looks at Eric Clap­ton’s play­ing on the Robert John­son al­bum

I pulled out some BB King records and ev­ery time he didn’t play I was play­ing. I had my phras­ing just the op­po­site of the real thing.

Larry Carl­ton



Key: Var­i­ous

Tempo: Var­i­ous CD: TRACKS25-28

Will im prove your

Phras­ing Stylis­tic au­then­tic­ity Ex­pres­sion and de­liv­ery

Orig­i­nally in­tended as the pre­cur­sor to what was then touted as the great­est box­ing event of all time, the leg­endary Rum­ble In The Jun­gle fought between Muham­mad Ali and Ge­orge Fore­man, Zaire ’74 was a three-day cel­e­bra­tion of black mu­sic. Many of the artists con­sid­ered it a spir­i­tual home­com­ing and a re­turn to their African roots. James Brown, Sis­ter Sledge, The Cru­saders and Bill Withers gave in­spired per­for­mances along­side tra­di­tional African singers and mu­si­cians, such as Miriam Makeba and Manu Dibango.

Al­though an in­jury sus­tained by Fore­man in train­ing caused the fight to be de­layed (it took place a month later with Ali com­ing out the vic­tor), the fes­ti­val went ahead re­gard­less. It was a re­sound­ing suc­cess, too, with an at­ten­dance of over 80,000 peo­ple.

For me, one per­for­mance stands out head and shoul­ders above the rest. Having cel­e­brated his 49th birth­day a week ear­lier, BB King was at the height of his cre­ative pow­ers. Lead­ing an or­ches­tra fea­tur­ing a mix­ture of reg­u­lar side­men and hired ses­sion play­ers – in­clud­ing a fresh-faced up­start called Larry Carl­ton on rhythm gui­tar - King de­liv­ered a blis­ter­ing set with scin­til­lat­ing play­ing from start to fin­ish. Video footage shows a man that is clearly on top of his game, com­mand­ing the band with com­plete au­thor­ity, con­trol­ling dy­nam­ics from a whis­per to a roar and dic­tat­ing the feel of each tune ef­fort­lessly. He gives a vo­cal per­for­mance to die for; in fact, his vo­cals and gui­tar are so en­twined that we may as well con­sider them one and the same. While many rate 1965’s Live At The Re­gal as his finest mo­ment, for me, Zaire ’74 is where it’s at.

There are two full so­los this month, based around King’s play­ing from this con­cert. The ob­vi­ous beauty of his style is that it’s or­ganic, and while his pref­er­ence for cer­tain melodic ideas and rhyth­mic pat­terns might change to suit his mood, you’ll hear him re­visit many of th­ese de­vices in his play­ing from then un­til now. The trick is to think less about licks and more about short mu­si­cal mo­tifs and themes.

A mo­tif is sim­i­lar to a lick, but shorter. This brevity al­lows greater free­dom when we come to con­nect ideas. While a lick has a fairly pre­dictable out­come – from the first note you have a good idea of what is about to hap­pen a few bars down the line – a mo­tif can be de­vel­oped in­fin­itely; cer­tain as­pects might re­main con­stant, such as rhythm, choice of notes, the scale you’re us­ing and so on, but the mu­si­cal out­come is much less pre­dictable.

Great im­pro­vis­ers deal more with mo­tifs and less with licks, and BB is no ex­cep­tion. But it’s still worth learn­ing th­ese so­los, as not only are you es­tab­lish­ing the build­ing blocks of a lan­guage (as you might learn set phrases if you were at­tempt­ing to learn to speak Span­ish, say), but you can also study other cru­cial skills, such as the pac­ing of the notes, the devel­op­ment of ideas and the over­all shape of a piece, rather than sim­ply in­de­pen­dent and dis­con­nected mu­si­cal ideas. As is so of­ten the case, a bal­anced out­look and ap­proach to learn­ing is your best strat­egy, so get stuck in and, most im­por­tantly, re­mem­ber to have fun when you play – just as BB most cer­tainly did in Zaire all those years ago!

BB King with a Gib­son ES-355, years be­fore his sig­na­ture ‘Lu­cille’

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