Clark playing a sunburst version of his favorite guitar, the Epiphone Casino, on “Please Come Home” at Lollapalooza 2012 in Chicago’s Grant Park. Photo by Chris Kies

These days you’ve got a pretty killer band behind you when you’re on the road—Eric Zapata [guitar], Johnny Bradley [bass], and Johnny Radelat [drums]— but in a way you’ve also been your own band, right?
That started when I moved out of my parents’ house and got my own apartment. Instead of buying furniture, I bought drums and an 8-track recorder and keyboards and turntables—anything musical, that’s what I wanted. I just started collecting instruments. I had two roommates who were going to college, so they would go to school all day and I would sit there and bang around. And right around when I was 19, I started to get really familiar with what was going on in my head, and then hearing it back on tape, and trying to lay that down and translate it. It all started to make sense then.

When did you first feel like you were getting your own sound together and doing your own thing as a guitar player?
It’s definitely an ongoing process, but I think when I was around 20 or so is when it really started coming together. I was recording my own stuff outside of the blues “genre,” I guess. That’s when I quit covering T-Bone Walker and Freddie King and all that. I strayed away from straight-ahead blues for a while, and started getting into people like Shuggie Otis and Cody Chesnutt. [Otis’] Inspiration Information changed my whole perspective on what you could do with the guitar. That whole psychedelic thing was funky and raw, cool and soulful, and just very outside the box.

It comes from Curtis Mayfield too, definitely, but basically it got to the point where I said, “Okay, I can get through fine on lead, so let’s play some rhythm guitar now,” you know? You can play a lead for 25 minutes, but it’s a different thing to get that timing and tone and feel and groove going. So it’s an ongoing process.

What was your first guitar?
It was an Ibanez RX20. It has two humbuckers, black with the white pickguard, and a maple neck. I wanted the “Little Wing” tone right away. I didn’t understand why, and, of course, a little bit later I was like, “Well, you need a Stratocaster.” I got one eventually and I still have it—it’s actually an American Squier. This guy came to a show at Joe’s Generic Bar down on Sixth Street in Austin. I was maybe 15, and he says, “I’m gonna send you something— give me your address.” And sure enough he sends me this American Squier Strat! I think it’s an ’89 or a ’90, whenever they were making them here.

Funny you should mention “Little Wing,” because of its connection to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. How did you first discover them?
Well, a friend of mine down the street heard that I was playing guitar, and one day he was like, “Check this out,” and he gave me The Ultimate Experience CD. It’s the green and purple one with Jimi on the cover, and he’s standing there with a cool military jacket and scarf—really trippedout. So I got back home and put it on the headphones first, and that changed everything. I’d never heard anything like that really. It was crazy. He definitely takes you to a different place mentally. I’d never heard sounds or lyrics or chords like that before—the tension, the resolution, the mind-bending—from the first few songs, it completely flipped a switch. I felt like I’d been missing something for a long time.

And along with that Hendrix CD, I got Texas Flood the same day. I mean, you can’t really play anywhere in Austin without Stevie Ray Vaughan being part of the conversation. He’s just so major. You can’t pick up a guitar as a kid in Austin and not know his music—at least, I think that. If it’s not that way, it should be. He’s so influential. Stevie and his brother Jimmie, and Derek O’Brien, too—the list goes on. When you’re in Austin, these are the people whose music you have to know.

Gary Clark Jr. sat in with several artists at the Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2010, including with the man himself, Mr. Eric Clapton. Photo by Chris Kies

What was it about Jimi’s “Third Stone from the Sun” in particular that pulled you in?
I was just drawn into it—the spoken dialogue, the sound effects, the slap-back delay, and the whole spaceship-landing thing. It was one of the coolest things I’d ever heard in my life, so it always stuck with me. Playing it just came from us jamming around town—I think it was Jay Moeller [drums] and James Bullard [bass] with me at the time. I’d just go into something and they followed, and over the years it turned into what we do now.

And, in fact, a lot of the way we play is based on just seeing how things go. That’s always been a fun way to experiment, and onstage you get that energy sometimes. It can be really great, or sometimes people look at you like, “What the hell are you doing?” And that’s how you know. That’s how I started to engage with what’s really going on out there. Years and years of trial and error have gotten us to where we are at this point.

How did you first get hold of the Epiphone Casino?
I was guitar shopping with my friend [Eric] Zapata, who plays guitar in the band. I think I just really wanted a hollowbody. And I like the P-90s—the sound and the look of them—so I just came to the conclusion that I wanted a Casino. We rode around town and ended up at this spot, and I was looking at the natural ones. Zapata said, “Try the red one!” and I was like, “No man—that’s a bit bold, don’t you think?” And he was like, “Just try it, man— that’s the one!” Sure enough I plugged it in, A/B’d them—the natural and the cherry red—and the cherry was just screaming at me like, “You know I’m the shit. I’m the one!” When I got back to the house and plugged it into my rig, it was like I’d just been waiting for that sound.

What is it about the tone of those P-90s that really packs a punch?
Well, you can flip it on the neck and it’s dark, round, and bold. It’s really slick and sexy if you want to go there, and you can get that treble in the bridge if you want a bite. The range is just so broad. It’s the most versatile axe I’ve ever picked up, and it’s light, so it won’t break my back. And it might be annoying at points, but I love how it feeds back when you crank it up. It’s also fun to sit there unplugged and just play. It has a great tone and resonance.

Are there players who have played that particular guitar that may have inspired you to pick it up? Didn’t Otis Rush play a Casino, for example?
Yeah, and I think he also played the Epiphone Riviera. Have you ever seen the American Folk Blues Festival footage? He plays “I Can’t Quit You Baby”—just some lowdown blues on the Epiphone. That’s so sick. I think I want one of those. And later on, you know, the Beatles recorded with the Casino. They made some okay records too [laughs]. But also I just like the look of it. It’s just a beauty to look at.

What’s your main amp these days?
Lately I’ve been using a Fender Vibro-King. Zapata gave me my first one, and he’s the one who got me to jump in with both feet on the whole hollowbody thing, so a lot of that’s from him. There’s just something about the three speakers in the Vibro-King that got me. It breaks up just enough at the right volume. It’s crunchy but it can be real sweet to you, and the reverb on it is killer—the vibrato, too.

You’ve got a few pedals in your arsenal, too.
I’ve got a Fulltone Octafuzz and a Real McCoy wah-wah, and I’ve got a couple of Analog Man pedals—an Astro Tone Fuzz and their new [ARDX20] delay. Zapata kind of snuck that one on my rig. It has the expression pedal, too, so you can adjust the time of the sweep. I think those options can help express certain feelings and certain attitudes, and I’m always looking for new ways to do that. It’s exciting because there’s so much out there that I don’t even know about—the whole thing’s an adventure.

What was it like working with Mike Elizondo and Rob Cavallo on Blak and Blu?
It’s been very new to me. Rob’s got the aggressive, loud, harder sounds on the album. “Numb” was actually with Mike, but on “Bright Lights,” that was with Rob. And he’s all about guitars—loud and fast. When it comes to Mike, he can really relate on grooves and textures— soulful R&B stuff. He’s got that from playing bass with Dr. Dre. So he had an understanding of where I come from, but it was broad and diverse, as far as points of view were concerned. Our heads were all in it together. I learned a lot from making this record, and I had to let go of a lot of stuff, too.

For the basic tracks on “Numb,” you and Mike and J.J. Johnson all played together live as a power trio, right?
Yeah. We were all in the room at Can-Am [Studios] in Tarzana [California]. It was great. Mike has everything—Pro Reverbs, AC30s, Marshalls—he had all kinds of amps. I think there were two or three fuzz pedals on that song, too. Mike was on his hands and knees like, “Check this one out! Check that out!” But I’ve really gotta give it up to him. I don’t think I really knew that he was so into guitar tones. It was definitely like being a bunch of little kids putting Legos together!

Gary Clark Jr.'s Gear

Epiphone Casino, Gibson ES-335, Gibson acoustics

Fender Vibro-King

Fulltone Octafuzz, Real McCoy wah-wah, Analog Man Astro Tone Fuzz, Analog Man ARDX20 delay, Prescription Electronics Experience pedal (on the album)

So who are you listening to now?
Otis Redding, Parliament—actually I just got this Eddie Hazel record yesterday. I haven’t really explored Eddie Hazel as I should, but from what I’ve heard so far, he’s just doing some fierce, powerful, psychedelic guitar playing. It’s some funky-heavy blues—I mean, my dad played that stuff all the time. But I’m doing a little research on him, so I’ll get back to you on that.

I’ve been listening to stuff that’s all over the place though. I mean, I’ve been riding around in a van for a few months with a bunch of dudes, so we’ll put on anything from hip-hop stuff to Little Dragon to Radiohead to Bob Marley and the Wailers, Nina Simone—a lot of different things, man. With all the music, I’m just trying to soak it up and let it go. I try not to think about it too much, and just let it happen and have fun, you know?