Gary Clark Jr. credits his rhythm guitarist Eric Zapata (left) for introducing him to his amp of choice, the Fender Vibro-King. Photo by Joe Russo
The SG sound on "Grinder” is even bigger and more unhinged, especially in the solo—it’s barely controlled feedback.
Definitely, man. For that, I just thumped on the wah and left it all the way open, which is quite rude. It’s not nice at all, very unapologetic. It’s the same combo as “The Healing,” but I’m all the way up.
Did you work the “Grinder” solo out, or was it all one spontaneous pass?
I originally did a solo that was a little bit nicer. [Laughs.] We were just sitting on it and I was like, “Let me get one more. Let me just go in here and see what happens.” We just turned it up and I went through it again. I didn’t think I could get it any wilder, any ruder, so that was the one we stuck on the record.
I love your clean rhythm playing on songs like “Cold Blooded” and “Star”—so Curtis Mayfield. What’s your recipe for that approach? Is it all in the hand, or is it the guitar and the settings?
It’s a combination of everything. I played the rhythm stuff for those songs on the Strat—very clean, no crazy effects, just reverb and a little bit of wah. I really just wanted to explore that clean thing. I mean I grew up on soul and Motown and stuff like that. That Strat thin tone really resonated with me. I just went in there and worked it out. When I listen to some of these songs and sounds, I think that maybe I wasn’t born in the right decade.
When I listen to them, I picture Marvin [Gaye] in the ’70s. He’s as much of my roots as Jimmy Reed. Curtis Mayfield, too. I think that’s more apparent on this record. I feel like my musical style is a little bit throwback, but I’m trying to move it forward and bridge some sort of a gap. You know, I love Dr. Dre and RZA, too.
Do you record more of the soulful songs at a particular time of day? Like, “Okay, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon I’m in a rude mood for soloing. At 10 o’clock I’m more relaxed and it’s time to do some mellow rhythm work.”
It’s actually the reverse. I’d say before midnight is when the rhythm stuff happens. I try to have some discipline, get into a different mindset. I’ll think, “How would Jimmie Vaughan play this?” It’s like, “How chill can I possibly be?” You just vibe out. After midnight, that’s when you’re prone to try out new things. That’s when you get a “Grinder” solo.
Recently, you came out with your signature Epiphone guitar, the Blak & Blu Casino. Where are we hearing that on the record?
That’s on “The Healing,” along with the SG. The little bit of vibrato is the Casino. You hear it on “Star” a little bit, too. You can barely hear it, but that fuzzed-out, sitar-y little thing— that’s the Casino.
Gary Clark Jr. gets into an especially nasty soloing mood during this extended version of “Grinder” at the 2015 Toronto Jazz Festival.
Do you have a different attitude when you play a guitar that bears your name versus another guitar you’ve had for years?
That’s a good question. I definitely look at it more. [Laughs.] I’m like, “Wow, I can’t believe this actually happened.” While I’m playing it, I’ll be sitting and I’ll have it on my lap, and then I’ll just put it on my knees and look at it. “Man, that’s pretty cool.” It’s a different feeling, for sure. I’m proud of it.
I’d like to have a better understanding of how chords and notes really work together because, quite honestly, I don’t have much of a music education other than, “Put your finger here. This makes this chord,” or whatever. I’ve pretty much just figured out different scales and tunings. I feel like I’ve only really tapped into a small bank of what guitar is really capable of.