Here’s Clark “just banging on that thing”—one of his customary Epiphone Casinos—during the 2017 Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival in Franklin, Tennessee. Although he downplays his technique, Clark’s visceral approach brims with audible drama. Photo by Chris Kies
I don’t know if it’s the falsetto, but there’s an obvious nod to Curtis Mayfield on the new album. Have you done a deep dive into his guitar playing or checked out his tuning [called “black keys” tuning: F#–A#–C#–F#–A#–F#]?
Curtis Mayfield’s sound is some of the music that I was the most familiar with. I was first introduced to it when I was a kid, so it’s always been something that was just normal. As I got older, I started to realize him as a guitar player. But it was that amazing voice I remember hearing as a kid. I was like, “Who’s this guy singing all the way up there like a girl?” I remember thinking that and my dad was like, “No son, that’s soul singing. You don’t know nothing about that.” [Laughs.] So, he’s a heavy influence, but I haven’t really tapped into his guitar playing. I’m not even going to lie. I just appreciate it for what it is. It’s like Stevie Wonder playing piano; like I’m just going to let you have that. It’s kind of the same thing with Albert Collins and funky tunings like that. I’m just trying to hang on to what I know in standard tuning, and open stuff from time to time.
So you mainly play in standard?
Standard, open G, open D. Pretty much standard.
How about when you use a capo? Is that just to help with your vocals or do you do it to reimagine the instrument in a new way?
Basically, just to use the open E [open chord] shapes up in a higher register, in the key that my voice fits best in for the song. That’s all.
How about your fingerpicking style: Do you have a schooled approach or is it more intuitive?
I just get a rhythm going and then hang on for dear life. I first got into fingerpicking watching Elizabeth Cotten on TV. I just watched her and figured it out on my own. Obviously, I’m going to do things different, my body’s different, my hands are different, so I just take an idea and figure out how to adapt it: what works best for me in a way that I’m comfortable and can execute the best.
How about songs like 2014’s “Don’t Owe You a Thang?” What are you doing there?
Just stomping the hell out of the E string. I’m keeping that thing going pretty much the whole time. I don’t even know what I’m doing—just going in between the G, D, and E string using thumb, index, and middle finger. That’s about it. I’m just banging on that thing man, just no manners.
You’re known as a blues player, but you don’t stick to the blues scale. You do all sorts of cool stuff harmonically as your solos start building. Is your approach more schooled or intuitive?
It’s a little of both. I never really thought about it. Obviously, it’s boring to stay in one place and repeat yourself, so I find myself drifting off into other territories. I’m not sure. I just feel it. With YouTube now you can pretty much learn anything, so when I get some time I try to figure out some stuff and noodle a little bit, which has been exciting. I feel like a kid again, having guitar lessons. Still more work to do, obviously.
Have you spent time learning different feels, like a shuffle versus a straight rock feel?
I gotta give up all that to playing in the Austin blues scene. When I first started going down there with my friend Eve [Monsees, also a guitarist], we didn’t know what a shuffle was, what a 6/8 was, what a rumba, a rock ’n’ roll—not straight, but a swinging rock ’n’ roll like Chuck Berry. There’s a major difference. Hanging out at Joe’s Generic Bar, Babe’s blues bar back in the day, Antone’s … those are the guys who even showed us the difference between major and minor. So I learned all those grooves from there. And then playing with different players. We played every Sunday. You go down there and there’s a blues jam and it would be a whole new group of folks that you didn’t get a chance to play with the week before. It would always make you play different and it forced us to really pay attention to what was going on—that you played a certain song, and not feel like you need to get up and jam and show people you got this badass 24 bars that you can’t wait to show everybody.
And that’s where you developed your time?
Yeah, all that stuff, and, really, playing with a drummer. [Austin drummer and John Mayer sideman] J.J. Johnson really helped me lock in. He’s obviously one of the better musicians as far as timing goes. Between him and Steve Jordan, that will force you. You play with guys like that—they’ll look at you funny if you’re not in time.
What are you listening to when you’re playing?
I’m trying to lock in with the kick. Kick drum and bass guitar. If they fall together, I’m trying to line up with them.
How fully formed are your songs when you bring them to the band? Do you give them room to come up with parts or whatever?
No. Sorry [laughs]. For this last record, the ideas, musically, were pretty well developed. I knew what I was going for and the sounds that I was going for. I didn’t use the band that I go on tour with. I used other people just to change up sounds. I knew what their snare would sound like, their rhythm compared to what I was doing. It was pretty much figured out musically except for the lyrics. That’s where I filled in the space. But no, I was pretty selfish with this one.
Do the songs take on a new life on the road or are you loyal to the format from the recordings?
For the last record, after we got in the studio, we started recording stuff and it was, you know, adapt and we’ll run with it. And I realized that was probably a terrible idea. You gotta really know what you’re working with before you can move around and expand on it. So we’re pretty much keeping it locked in for what it is. I spent so much time in the studio, trying to figure out how I want it to sound. I’m not ready for people to interpret it their own way yet. Maybe in some time I’ll give it up, but nah.
Watch Gary's 2015 Rig Rundown episode: