The History of B.B. King’s Famous Guitar, Lucille

B.B. King live at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1980, playing Lucille. Photo: Associated Press

While most famous named guitars refer to a singular guitar named by its owner, such as George Harrison’s Rocky or Jerry Garcia’s Wolf. B.B. King, though, was a bit different. Every single guitar he played after the winter of 1949 was named Lucille. This naming ended up shaping his career, as King developed a strong bond with his guitars over the years, and like many great guitarists, B.B. King’s guitar Lucille became an extension of B.B. King himself.

The name originated when B.B. King was playing a gig in Twist, Arkansas. At the time, dance halls were commonly heated by a burning barrel of kerosene placed in the middle of the room. On this fateful night, two drunken hooligans found themselves in a brawl near the barrel, and in the midst of the struggle the barrel was knocked over, spilling the kerosene and thus setting the wooden venue ablaze. The dance hall was evacuated and just before B.B. King was about to leave, he realized that he had left his guitar inside. He sprinted back inside the building to retrieve his guitar before high-tailing it out of there.

A few days later, it was revealed that the two drunken hooligans who had spilled the barrel of kerosene had been fighting over a woman named Lucille, and that the fire killed two people. Upon learning that, B.B. King decided to name his guitar Lucille to serve as a reminder to never to run back into a burning building or get into a fight over a woman again. From then on, B.B. King called his guitar Lucille, no matter which specific guitar it was.

Most of these guitars were some variation of the Gibson ES-335 thru ES-355, however the one that he retrieved from the burning building was actually a cheap acoustic Gibson L-30. The ES-335 was the first commercially available semi-hollow electric guitar, and many notable musicians used one including Chuck Berry, Bob Weir, Eric Clapton, and of course, B.B. King.

Lucille was immortalized in song on B.B. King’s famous song and album of the same name, 1968’s Lucille. “Lucille” is a ten minute slow-burning blues song that is completely dedicated to his guitar. Right from the jump, King introduces the guitar: “The sound that you’re listening to / Is from my guitar that’s named Lucille”.

The song that follows is a love song about his guitar, where King explains that he finds it easier to speak to the world through the strings of Lucille, and so he lets the guitar speak for him. He also says that no matter what problems he’s got in his life, he can always count on Lucille to be there, steady and reliable, as long as he plays nothing but the blues with her.

Listen to “Lucille” by BB King below.

King favored different variations of the semi-hollow Gibson LS-335 throughout his career, and in 1980 he teamed up with Gibson to create the B.B. King Lucille Model. The Gibson model featured a few variations on the original design at King’s request, including the removal of soundholes to reduce feedback.

In a 2006 interview, King explained this modification: “I don’t want feedback – unless I want it. And a lot of times with the S-holes if you really crank it up and the amplifier is close to you, you will get feedback. I’m no technical person, but I do know that. I know how to get feedback from Lucille when I want it. But only when I want it.”

B.B. King live in 2006 at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in NYC, his 10,000th concert. Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

In 2005, Gibson created a limited edition run of Lucille guitars in celebration of B.B. King’s 80th birthday. They gifted one of them to King, after which he started using it as his main instrument. In the summer of 2009, that guitar was stolen, and for a few months nobody knew where it was. Eventually it turned up in the hands of guitar trader and appraiser Eric Dahl, who found it at a pawn shop in Las Vegas. Dahl recognized it as a significant guitar, stamped Prototype 1 on the back side of the headstock, but was unaware that it belonged to B.B. King.

Dahl called Gibson to figure out the significance of the guitar, and after awhile was informed that he was holding the real-deal B.B. King Lucille. This resulted in Dahl meeting up with B.B. King, who traded him a brand new Gibson Lucille for the return of his beloved guitar. B.B. King played that particular Lucille right up through his farewell tour in 2014, and subsequent death at the age of 89 in May of 2015.

With Lucille in hand, B.B. King shaped the face of American blues music. His smooth, deep voice and Lucille’s crying strings have influenced generations of artists, and has thus made Lucille one of the most important guitars in music history. Rest in peace to B.B. King, and may the sounds of Lucille live on forever.

Watch B.B. King tell the story of Lucille in the 2006-ish video interview below.

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