Gary Clark Jr. Shows His Guitar Finds and Talks About His New Album

January 6th, 2016

This is an excerpt from the all-new JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and guitar gallery, plus features on Clash frontman Joe Strummer’s 1966 Fender Telecaster, Rudy Pensa’s collection of the world’s finest archtop guitars, the guitars and amps of Ratatat’s Mike Stroud, the vintage and boutique gear of Blackberry Smoke frontman Charlie Starr and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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CAUGHT UP IN THE NOISE: Gary Clark Jr.’s search for sounds has led to several satisfying guitar discoveries.

By Joe Bosso | Photos by Kevin Scanlon

Gary Clark Jr. is kicking back in the dimly lit lounge of Hotel on Rivington, a sleek and ultra-swank locale on Manhattan’s rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side. He’s in the middle of a busy week that is itself but a prelude to a full schedule that will last for months. His new album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, is about to be released, an occasion that brings with it a busy flurry of press interviews and appearances. Simultaneously, the blues-rock sensation is performing on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and launching an arena-and-amphitheater run opening for the Foo Fighters.

It’s heady stuff, to be sure. But if the swirl of high-profile activity is getting to the 31-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist, he isn’t letting on. Clark exudes an aura of Zen-like calm. He’s got a handle on this fame thing.
“Actually, it wasn’t too long ago that all this stuff was just a dream,” he says wistfully. “Just a few years back, I played one of my first gigs here, not too far from this hotel. The hype was starting to build, and there were people in the audience doing this.” He folds his arms and assumes a jaded “prove-it-to-me” expression.

Clark lets out a good-natured chuckle. “You just have to get out there and do your thing,” he says. “You don’t think about that when you first pick up the guitar. You don’t know what’s coming. You’re just caught up in the noise you want to make.”

Growing up in Austin, Texas, Clark became enamored of the guitar at the age of 12 after seeing his idol, Michael Jackson, in concert. “I wanted to be a shredder and play the ‘Beat It’ solo,” he recalls. “All the kids wanted to play that. It was always on MTV and the radio. You couldn’t escape it.” Clark’s parents gifted the wannabe shred king with an Ibanez RX20, which he remembers as “nothing fancy, but it did the trick. I got a little 10-watt amp and I went for it. I started playing barre chords, power chords, tried to rock out and play Nirvana. It was what I could wrap my head around at the time.”

Two years later, Clark realized that his starter guitar just wasn’t cutting it. He had begun listening to R&B and hip-hop along with his father’s Santana and Eric Clapton records. “There was a sound I just couldn’t get on my Ibanez,” he says. “I didn’t know what it was or how you got it, but I knew I wasn’t making it.”

A two-pronged thunderbolt moment occurred when a friend gave Clark the Jimi Hendrix compilation album The Ultimate Experience and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Texas Flood. “Hearing those records,” he says, “I was like, Okay, I want to sound like those guys.” To better approximate the Stratocaster tones he was now enamored with, Clark pestered his parents for another guitar, an Ibanez Blazer. Beyond its sunburst finish, he relished the guitar’s five-way switch that enabled him to bypass the humbucker pickup in favor of its two single-coils. “Suddenly, there was the sound I was looking for,” he enthuses. “I loved it.”

By now, Clark had met a schoolmate named Eve Monsees, a fellow guitar obsessive who currently plays with her blues band Eve & the Exiles, and the two formed a tight bond, jamming together for hours in her parents’ garage on everything from Freddie King to the Ramones. “Eve educated me a lot,” he says. “She turned me on to some of the great blues players and records. I owe her a lot. She’s still a great friend.”

It wasn’t long before Clark decided to try his luck in the Austin clubs. He still wasn’t old enough to buy a beer, but his chops were solid enough that blues icons like Hubert Sumlin Jr. and Bobby “Blue” Bland invited him to sit in. One night in 1999, after a show, the young guitar hotshot was approached by a man named Billy Demota, who bestowed upon him a red Squier. “It was pretty incredible,” Clark remembers. “He just said, ‘You’ve really got something, so I want you to have this. All I ask is that you give me a thank you when you win a Grammy.’” Fifteen years later, after winning a mini Victrola statue for Best Traditional R&B Performance, he made good on that request.

The Squier was Clark’s go-to guitar as he became a familiar face on the stages of the clubs that line Austin’s Sixth Street. It was inside the town’s most-celebrated saloon, Antone’s, where he befriended another local boy who made good: Jimmie Vaughan. “Getting Jimmie’s seal of approval was pretty special,” he says. “He might not have known it, but when we would play together, I’d always be watching his hands, trying to pick up little tips.” Other guitars were added to the mix—a 1953 Gibson ES-125 and an Olympic White Fender Roadhouse Strat—but now there was another elusive sound that Clark was chasing. “I thought, Maybe I need a hollowbody like B.B. King’s Lucille,” he says. “I heard this tone, but it wasn’t coming out of my fingers. Maybe another guitar was the answer.”

With his friend and rhythm guitarist bandmate Eric “King” Zapata in tow, Clark headed to the Musicmakers shop in South Austin, where his eyes hit upon a sight that both excited and intimidated him: a cherry red mid-Sixties Epiphone Casino. “I thought, Red? I don’t know… Kinda bold, right?” Clark says with a laugh. “Maybe I should go for a sunburst, something a little more subdued. Zapata was like, ‘No, man, just do it. Be bold.’ ” Then Clark remembered seeing pictures of the Jackson 5 with Tito Jackson playing a red Casino. “That tipped the scales a lot,” he says, “but when I plugged it in, that’s what really sealed the deal. It sounded just like I imagined it would—a whole range of tones. I took it home and totally fell in love with it.

“The Casino and the Strat were my main guitars while I played in Austin,” he continues, “but there was one more. I was listening to the Ice Man, Albert Collins, and I was like, Okay, how does he get that sound? It’s in the fingers, sure, but it wasn’t just that. He got me into checking out Telecasters. I went to Mars Music in Austin, and I found a cool ’69 Thinline reissue. It’s like a Mexican Telecaster. I ended up playing that guitar a bunch.”

Two self-produced indie albums, 2004’s 110 and Worry No More from 2008, received strong notices, but it was Clark’s appearance at the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival, where he shared the stage with show organizer Eric Clapton, Doyle Bramhall II, and Sheryl Crow, that led to a contract with Warner Bros. Rolling Stone called Clark’s major-label debut, the four-song EP Bright Lights, one of the best records of 2011. The full-length follow-up, Blak and Blu, a galvanizing mix of blues, rock, neo-soul, and hip-hop, signaled to the world that an important new artist had emerged.

Clark worked with heavyweight producers Rob Cavallo and Mike Elizondo on Blak and Blu, but he changed things up on the even more adventurous The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, manning the board himself at Austin’s Arlyn Studios with a trio of engineers: Bharath “Cheex” Ramanath, Jacob Sciba, and Joseph Holguin. “I just wanted to make a record that I wanted to hear,” Clark explains. “Producing the record myself gave me the ultimate creative freedom to go wherever I saw fit. Curtis Mayfield, Outkast, John Lee Hooker, Parliament-Funkadelic—it’s a mix of all that. I didn’t block anything out. Whatever inspirations and sounds came into my head, I went with it.”

He also brought along a couple of new friends, namely a 1961 Gibson Les Paul/SG Standard, presented to him by Pat Smear in 2014 when Clark guested on a Foo Fighters session. The guitar shows up throughout the new album, most notably in the stinging, growling solos of the hip-hop–flavored rock hymn “The Healing” and the appropriately named, unhinged R&B pounder “Grinder.” “It’s an all-purpose guitar, but it’s really good for solos because you can control the feedback ” Clark says.

Also making its first showing is a stock, heavily faded red 1966 Epiphone Casino, heard on various rhythm parts but also on the biting, B.B. King–inspired soloing in the song “Stay.” Clark bought the guitar in 2013 in London and he’s sold on its rich, snarling tone. “If you’re working on a heavy track and you need a harsh solo, it really does the job,” he says. “Put it on the middle pickup setting and it’s full of teeth, but it’s not too bright. That’s the ticket…”

This is an excerpt from the all-new JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and guitar gallery, plus features on Clash frontman Joe Strummer’s 1966 Fender Telecaster, Rudy Pensa’s collection of the world’s finest archtop guitars, the guitars and amps of Ratatat’s Mike Stroud, the vintage and boutique gear of Blackberry Smoke frontman Charlie Starr and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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