“I like to turn the volume down and really get that thin clean tone,” says Clark about Strats. “And then for solos I’ll crank it up and let the bridge pickup wail a little bit.” Photo by Debi Del Grande

Eddie Van Halen has talked about learning Cream’s version of “Spoonful” note for note. Did you ever do stuff like that?
I did, sure. I went straight for Hendrix and “Purple Haze,” and Stevie Ray’s version of “Little Wing.” Those are the ones that I tried to get note for note. All I would think about at school was, “Man, I can’t wait to get home and figure out that second verse.”

Is that how you learned to build a solo?
A lot of it was watching and listening. I have to give it up to guitarists like Alan Haynes, Derek O’Brien, Johnny Moeller, and Mike Keller. Those are the guys in Austin I would see here and there. Just their improvisation and how dynamic they would be—you give them 24 bars or a 36-bar solo and just listen to them build. You go from “Oh, that was really cool” to “Wow, my mind was just blown by this.” Those are the guys I listened to and tried to figure out what they were doing.

In Austin you got to jam with guitarists like Jimmie Vaughan and Hubert Sumlin. Were you watching their fingers as they played?
Oh, I was definitely watching their fingers. They have their own identity when they pick up a guitar. You close your eyes and listen, and you go, “That’s Jimmie Vaughan. That’s Hubert Sumlin. That’s Buddy Guy right there.” It made me think. Instead of trying to play Freddie King note for note or whatever, I could make it my own and figure out what works for me. What’s the best way to play the instrument to my ability? I really got that just from being with them, because that’s what they were doing.

“After hearing Stevie Ray, I was like, ‘Oh, shit. What is this?’”

How did that affect your picking style? Are you a hard or soft picker?
Well, they weren’t using picks at the time. I would see Jimmie Vaughan, and he was all fingers. Hubert Sumlin was all fingers. So I was playing with these guys who didn’t use picks. I liked the way they would get this nasally tone with their fingers. I was really into that for a while, but then I also realized I was better off with a pick. I would say I’m now somewhat of an obnoxiously hard picker. [Laughs.] No finesse about it. I’m pretty ruthless when it comes to playing with a pick.

You mentioned Hendrix and Stevie Ray—both were big Strat players. I know you use a Strat sometimes, mostly for songs that are more soul and R&B.
Yeah, definitely. For that kind of stuff I really like the Strat. I like to turn the volume down and really get that thin clean tone, and then for solos I’ll crank it up and let the bridge pickup wail a little bit. I play near the bridge and get that twangy, nasal sound.

The Casino has been your main guitar. What was it about the Casino that first appealed to you?
I could finally get that B.B. King tone I was looking for. I love his sound and T-Bone Walker’s sound. I was really into those guys at the time I picked up the Casino. It was just a different sound that I couldn’t really get out of a Strat. I also liked that I could play it acoustically and still get a lot of sound out of it without plugging in. You can play a Casino anywhere, and it gives you something back.

Gary Clark Jr.'s Gear

Guitars
Epiphone Casino (red with Bigsby)
Epiphone Gary Clark Jr. Blak & Blu Casino (prototype)
Epiphone Casino (burled red, bought in the U.K.)
1961 Gibson Les Paul/SG Standard (gift from the Foo Fighters’ Pat Smear)
Gibson ES-330
Gibson ES-125
2000 Fender Stratocaster
1970s Fender Telecaster
Fano JM6

Amps
Fender Vibro-King 20th Anniversary Edition combo
Fender Vibro-King head with matching 2x12 cabinet
Fender Princeton

Effects
Fulltone Octafuzz
Hermida Audio Zendrive
TC Electronic PolyTune
Strymon Flint Tremolo & Reverb
Dunlop GCB95 Cry Baby Wah
Fulltone A/B box (runs two amps)

Strings and Picks
D’Addario Custom Nickel .011–.049 (lower-tuned guitars use .011–.052)
Dunlop Poly Medium picks

Did single-cut guitars like Les Pauls ever appeal to you?
No, honestly. Visually, they just didn’t look right to me. They look great on some guys, but not on me. Aesthetically, I like things to be even. I have this weird thing where if it’s a little bit off, it makes me uncomfortable. That’s just me—the way my mind works.

As a teenager, how did you start to educate yourself about different combinations of amps and effects?
That really comes from hanging out with [Eric “King”] Zapata [rhythm guitarist in Clark’s band]. I have to give it up to him on tone and putting the combos together. He sold me my first tube amp, my Fender Vibro-King. I’d show up to play with guys like Alan Haynes, and I’d have my solid-state Crate amp. No disrespect to Crate, but I’d always look back to my amp and think, “How come mine doesn’t sound like his Vibro-King or his Super?” I just didn’t know. Zapata was the one who really helped me with the amps and combos. I tried Marshalls, but that wasn’t the tone I was going for. I liked the Fenders.

You play an Epiphone Riviera at home but not live. For you, what are the sonic and playability differences between a Riviera and a Casino?
To me, the Riviera, for lack of a better word, has more of a shimmery tone to it. It sounds more like water and raindrops to me. The Casino is a little bit rounder, bolder, and then it gets all gnarly and screaming when you push it back to the bridge pickup. I like both of them for different reasons. I would play the Riviera a lot more, but it’s heavy, man. It’s not a light guitar.

What about your ’61 Gibson Les Paul/SG Standard? Are you using that on the new album?
Oh, yeah. That’s got the humbuckers. I use that guitar when I want lots of attitude. It’s an aggressive guitar. It’s on “The Healing” and “Grinder.”

Walk me through that piercing, stinging solo sound on “The Healing.” It’s sort of a classic SRV sound with a little added Gary bite.
I used the SG on that, and I put it through a Vibro-King head, out to the cabinets. Everything—bass, mid, treble—everything right at the middle on 5. There’s a little bit of reverb, a Strymon on the ’60s reverb setting, and a little bit of delay. There’s some Octafuzz, too, but I don’t know if I needed it because the amp was breaking up really nice.