President Obama called him “the future of music.” Now, the Texas guitarist transcends the hype via an album packed with strong songs and sounds crafted with a broader palette of guitars and influences.
It's been almost a decade since Gary Clark Jr.'s breakout performance at the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival. Technical issues marred his set—not that you could tell. If anything, those problems conspired to make his showcase even more epic. His playing lit the blues world aflame and gave hope to crusty old-timers yearning for a return to their music's glory days. Rolling Stone called him, “the chosen one." President Obama dubbed him, “the future of music." The hype was outrageous.
For guitar nerds, the real interest was Clark's embrace of the Epiphone Casino. Flip through your back issues of Premier Guitar. That guitar was all anyone wanted to talk about. A lot of critics also made lazy comparisons to Jimi Hendrix—except Clark sounds nothing like Hendrix, and that's despite his killer cover of “Third Stone from the Sun" on his 2013 debut album, Blak and Blu.
But a lot has changed since then—in both his choice of guitars and in his voice as a songwriter. In 2014, Pat Smear (Foo Fighters, the Germs, and touring guitarist with Nirvana) gifted Clark a 1961 Gibson Les Paul SG Standard reissue, and that opened the floodgates. Clark isn't a collector per se, but since then he's been amassing a significant cache of guitars, which even includes a resurrected old friend.
“I've got an Ibanez Blazer with me that I got back from my folks," he says. “I just had to dust it off a little bit. It was actually the guitar I spent the most time with. I adjusted it myself and did everything. So when I picked it up, I was like, 'Oh yeah, this is my guitar.'"
Clark's latest release, This Land, which came out in February, also displays differences in his songwriting approach. While his albums have never been revivalist throwbacks, This Land is purposefully forward-looking. The tones are modern and edgy. The arrangements are tight and not necessarily springboards for live, extended jams. Cultural issues inspired some songs, and the first two tracks, the title cut and “What About Us," tap into current concerns about race, generational change, and class. This Land also flirts with multiple genres, including reggae, dub, soul, '70s-era funk, hip-hop, and even hardcore, drawing on their sounds and elements of their classic arrangements for inspiration, yet still sounding fresh and original.
“I'm listening to everything," he says. “A recent list includes Anderson .Paak, Valerie June, Jon Batiste, classic Stevie Ray Vaughan is up here, Sammy Davis Jr.—a lot of non-guitar players—just to get a sense of musical lead-playing approaches … like a piano or something, the way Jon Batiste plays. I'm trying to get more into that world."
That openness and stylistic wanderlust, not to mention Clark's consistent songwriting and killer live show, explains his staying power. He's not staid or complacent. He's also aware that his momentum could have easily fizzled after that lucky break in 2010. “I got more than I ever asked for," he says. “I'm fortunate. I'll say that."
We spoke with Clark a few days after his debut on Saturday Night Live. We discussed his growing—and what he considers somewhat embarrassing—guitar arsenal, some of his playing techniques, his understanding of rhythm and different feels, and how he approached the making of This Land.
You just played Saturday Night Live. How does that work?
You show up, do a day of rehearsal, camera blocking, get your stuff together, and come back and do it Saturday night.
Did you use the same gear you use on tour?
Yeah. Sometimes I use backline for television, but for SNL or something live, I just want to use my gear. If anything happens, I can only blame myself [laughs].
Do you find the TV format restricting? You get a four- or five-minute block, and that's it.
No more than four minutes. You might get 4:05. But it's pretty quick, so we have to do some adjustments for television. You know, you can't say certain things, so, you gotta play nice.
TIBIT: Clark says he's playing the songs from his new album by the book in concert. “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," he explains.
You have to watch your language.
Yeah, all that stuff. You gotta behave yourself.
On the clip I saw, you were playing a Flying V, but when you first hit a few years ago, every interview was about your Epiphone Casino. Now it's like you have a different guitar—like that V, or an Ibanez—in every picture. Do you just like a lot of guitars?
[Sighs.] You know, I didn't think that I would. I was kind of set in my ways until Pat Smear gave me a '61 SG reissue, and for better or for worse that opened up my mind to different things. Of course, the Casino is always going to be there. As far as my Ibanez goes, that was my second guitar I ever got. In 1997 I had that one. I was over at my parents' house, and they had it in a closet. I was like, “What is this doing over here?" And I grabbed it back. But I've also been fortunate … people giving me gifts. I am loving exploring and playing all of them. But the Casino will always have the number one spot.
Do you switch them up for different songs?
Yeah, I do, and I gotta say, doing studio stuff really made me switch up my style. Certain things weren't working or weren't getting the tones that I needed. They were too dark or they were too bright. Hanging out with guys in the studio and they've got a bunch of gear … like [producer] Mike Elizondo. I gravitate toward certain things, but when you're forced to get out of your comfort zone, maybe you might find a new gem. I'm just trying to be open and not be like an old crotchety dude that's stuck in my ways.
Do you take those lessons with you on the road or is that limited to the studio?
It's starting to get out of hand.
Just more gear … and more of it's mine, I'm embarrassed to say.
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:
At Coachella 2016, Clark plays the guitar that started his collecting kick: a 1961 reissue Gibson SG with a vibrola tailpiece. Besides his Gibsons and Epiphones, he's also appeared more recently brandishing a white Stratocaster.
Photo by Debi Del Grande
You tour with a second guitarist, but do you play all the guitar parts on the record?
Yes I do. I played all the parts on the record.
How do you divvy them up when you hit the road?
We listen to them and we both learn both parts, each of us, and then we figure out what serves each other better: If I'm singing, if it's better for me to sing this part and play. It's really not that big of a deal.
Do you discuss ways to distinguish tones? Like, he'll play a Strat if you're using a Gibson?
No, [Eric] Zapata, he's got a pretty dialed-in tone. He can get whatever he wants out of his gear. Me, it's a little bit different, if I'm going for an old-school bluesy type of sound or a rockin' thing like “Pearl Cadillac," or an SG or a Flying V or something. It's on me to balance out the guitar tone.
When you lay down your solos in the studio, do you do just a few passes and that's it?
I can only give a guitar solo a few passes before I start thinking about it, and then the technical execution becomes more of a focus than the feeling and the emotion—actually playing and being loose. So I'll give it three or four, and then I'll just let it be what it is.
Do you cobble stuff together in Pro Tools to craft the perfect solo?
I'm not going to lie. I've taken the first chunk of one and slapped it onto the end of another. But for the most part, I try to keep it all one thing. I can tell in post if it's broken up. I'm like, “I wouldn't do that normally."
Do you stand in the control room when you record your solos?
I stood in the control room for a few of these things. I was using a César Diaz 100 watt and turned it all the way up. I like to hear, so for the sake of my hearing, I got out of the room.
What else did you use?
I used that one and I used a normal Fender Vibro-King. I didn't stray too far from home.
You don't have a closet of vintage gear back home?
I'm not really a crazy vintage collector guy. I've had maybe three amps that I've bought. I've had some nice gifts and stuff, but no, I'm not really that curious.
Do you use the amp's reverb?
I did, but sometimes we play these stages and they're really boomy and shake around. You hear that reverb tank bashing around. It's been a little bit distracting in some low-down, minor blues, intimate moments. You just hear schcrang!
You played on Tom Morello's recent solo album. He told us that you just showed up and jammed for a few hours, and then he cut it into pieces.
[Laughs.] Yeah man, it was awesome. I showed up to the studio, the whole crew was there, it was cool. You know his mother goes with him everywhere. She was hanging out. It was sweet. It was like being in a garage band again as a teenager. It was funny. I was a little bit intimidated, because he was like, “Hey can you come and play on my record?" I was like, “What can I do that you can't do?" But it was cool. We just threw some ideas back and forth and the way that he slipped them into the album really blew my mind, because I didn't know what he was thinking. I didn't know what his vision was. To see it go from where we started to where it ended up was, like, the dude is onto something. That album is amazing. He's a cool guy, too, man. It was fun.
It's very different from his other stuff.
That's what I liked about it. I really loved that he's not scared to take chances and try other things. It was badass.
You've met most of your heroes who are still alive. Some of them were probably playing guitar from before your parents were born. They must have wisdom and war stories oozing out of them. What are some things you've learned? Anything you can share?For the most part, it's been pretty cool: Be yourself; you've gotta find your own voice. If you're going to be in this, you've gotta know what the history is. It's important to know the history—so they give me lessons. Gave me records to listen to and references to check out. But one that really stood out to me was when I first went out with Jimmie Vaughan. We were out in San Francisco—I think we were playing at Slim's—and I was backstage. Me and the band were acting up, and I was cutting up, and I was a little bit underage. I was sipping on a little bit of whiskey, and Jimmie Vaughan just comes up to me with a bottle of water. He just points at it and looks at me dead in the eye, turns around, and walks away. That was it.
Gary Clark Jr.'s stylistic blend—in this case, a little reggae, some nasty-ass rock, and blues—comes across in the title track to his new album, “This Land," which also resonates within the current cultural climate. Clark's got his three-pickup SG on this February 17 Saturday Night Live performance, and he and his band's second guitarist, Eric Zapata, share gristle-toned interplay.
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