Lucille is arguably the only guitar in the history of blues which reached fame with a name. “She” is so well known that it could have been double billed with the man who played it: B.B. King. “Lucille” was not just one guitar but rather a name passed down through generations of B.B. King’s collection of touring guitars. But the name was first bestowed upon his guitar after a wild and life-changing night in the winter of 1949.
In his autobiography («Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of B.B. King», Avon Books, 1996), the king of blues describes a fight that broke out while 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, he named his Gibson after the mysterious, fire-starting Lucille.
Partnership with Gibson
Following the 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. But in 1980, Gibson signed a formal partnership with him 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 B.B. often battled feedback 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 King favored the Ebony model for concerts to appease fans’ expectations.
A life on her own…
Gibson also produced many one-off instruments specially for the king of the blues. 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.
For King and his fans, Lucille took on a life of her own. She became more than a guitar, and her essence embodies B.B., the blues, a devotion to music 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. And most importantly, his odyssey with «Lucille» crowned him “Ambassador of the Blues”…