The new book B.B. King's Lucille and the Loves Before Her is a painstakingly researched travelogue through the universe of the blues great’s gear, starting with the diddley bow he played in the Mississippi cotton fields as a boy and continuing through the current generation of the Gibson-made Lucille line of guitars he cradles on stage today, with plenty of information about amps, picks, strings and minutia along the way.
But there’s also a fascinating story behind Nashville-based author Eric E. Dahl’s inspiration for writing his authoritative debut book. It starts in 2009 at a Las Vegas pawn shop, where Dahl, a lifelong guitarist in blues and rock bands who’s also a guitar appraiser, broadcaster and journalist, was called in to valuate an 80th Birthday model Lucille made by the Gibson Custom shop in 2005.
“They called me because they knew I bought and traded guitars, and I’d bought guitars from them before,” Dahl explains. “I was living in Las Vegas and playing in the casinos during the weeknights and in church on Sundays, and would then go buy guitars with the money.” He’d already purchased a B.B. King Lucille model from the Easy Pawn a few years earlier, and had no intention of purchasing the one they were about to put on the floor — until the shop’s owner opened the case.
“The whole thing was covered in sweat,” he recalls. “The strings were nasty. I thought, ‘It’ll take hours just to clean this.’ I figured some local bluesman has hocked it. Then I flipped it over and looked at the headstock and it said, ‘Prototype 1’ in a white stamp. I’d never seen that before. I assumed it meant this was one of the original 80th Birthday model Lucilles that B.B. King had approved.
“So I bought it, took it home, polished it and cut off and replaced the strings and set it up. Little did I know I was wiping off B.B. King’s DNA. Then I started researching it for two-and-half months. I started calling Gibson every week to see if somebody would talk to me about this guitar. I also reached out to George Gruhn and Walter Carter and the other usual suspects we know in the guitar business. Nobody could really tell me about this stamp on the back.”
Dahl had no idea it was King’s stolen guitar. The blues patriarch had not reported the theft to police, but had told Gibson. Eventually word of Dahl’s quest reached Pat Foley, Gibson Brands’ worldwide director of artist relations. Foley contacted Dahl and explained the guitar had been made at the Gibson Custom Shop as a gift for King’s 80th birthday and was his main guitar until it was stolen.
Soon King’s office began calling about the guitar. King wanted Dahl to meet with him to swap instruments. “But that took a while, too, because Gibson needed to get a replacement guitar to Mr. King for the one I had, and he insisted on doing the swap himself. Eventually I thought it wasn’t going to happen. In fact, the night before the trade was supposed to happen I told my wife that — new guitar or not — I was going to give Mr. King back his guitar.”
As luck had it, Gibson delivered a Lucille 80th Birthday guitar to King’s office that morning, and the meeting occurred. “Mr. King shook my hand and he offered me a Diet Coke,” Dahl recounts. “ We sat down and spent about 45 minutes talking. He talked to me about playing at Bo Diddley’s funeral. My friend was taking photos, and he said he didn’t think Mr. King really believed it was the guitar until I opened the case and handed it to him. He was thrilled. He gave me a brand new Lucille and told me he hoped I’d enjoy playing mine as much as he enjoys playing his. He really does love these guitars. He signed a book for me and some old albums I’d brought, and gave me some guitar picks. He said he wanted a picture of he and I together for his office. He was always a hero of mine, and my dad’s, who passed away young, at 43, in 1984.
“I came up with the idea for the book because I’d done so much research on B.B. and his guitars, just for my own search and my own knowledge, and I found so many inaccuracies. Anybody can put anything up on the Web. There was all sorts of wrong information about his past Gibsons, about the evolution of the Lucille… These things bothered me.”
So Dahl approached King’s office and asked for their blessing for a book on the history of their boss’ instruments and related gear. “I’m a gear freak,” he says. “I wanted to know about his gear and about how his gear got to where it is now. I think the evolution of his instruments, starting with a diddley bow on the plantation to playing a $10,000 guitar on stage today, is a fascinating story.” And King’s amps hold their own fascination. Dahl explains that prominent fans like Eric Johnson keep their antennae up for the long discontinued Lab Series amps King plays, buy them, and ship the amps to him. King then replaces their O.E.M. speakers with Peavey Black Widows.
As Dahl’s book relates, the current Lucilles are just part of a long line of Gibson guitars that King has played over the past seven decades. He briefly played a Les Paul Gold Top, but favored the L-30 for many years, after he graduated up from the Stella acoustics he played on the plantation in Mississippi. “That was the ‘Lucille’ he want back into the house fire in Twist, Arkansas, to save,” Dahl notes, alluding to the famous story of how King began calling his guitars “Lucille.”
Next came an infatuation with the ES-5 Switchmaster,ES-335,ES-345 and ES-355 models. King stuck with the latter until he asked Gibson to solve the feedback problems his loud volume created by making a guitar with similar characteristics and a solid top. Thus the first Gibson Lucille model, which retained the ES-345 and ES-355’s distinctive Vari-Tone switch, was born in 1980.
For the record, King tours with just one guitar today — the Lucille 80th Birthday instrument that Dahl returned to his hands.