Austin, Epiphones and the secret language of guitar.
Is Gary Clark Jr. the future of modern blues? It’s a pretty safe bet. Like the pioneers of blues before him, Clark isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of the style—taking in all the world has to offer while he makes it his own—and, most importantly, play from the heart.
Clark found his way into the Austin, Texas scene after taking up the guitar at age 12. Receiving attention and later some guidance from long-time club owner Clifford Antone and local legend Jimmie Vaughan, among others, Clark not only had a chance to interact with modern blues guitar greats, he gained a deeper knowledge going back to the originators who influenced them. Embracing the spirit of innovation that separated such groundbreakers as Cream and the Stones from the crowd, Clark combined musical elements as diverse as the Ramones and Nirvana to the groundwork placed before him by the pioneers of blues. By 2007, he was named the city’s best blues artist and rock guitarist at the Austin Music Awards—awards he would go on to win in those categories every year since.
Like many artists, music seemed to find Clark as much as he found it, starting from a young age. “I’d been listening to basically whatever was on the radio at the time, like, as a young kid in’96. A friend of mine was playing in her garage. She had a band and they were playing stuff like The Ramones, The Stones. Her dad was getting her hip to the blues stuff that was going around Austin. So, when she introduced me to that, I just fell in love with it. I never heard anything so raw and real and soulful, especially with a guitar up front. That expression of playing music, I don’t know, it was simple. It made sense. I could grasp it.”
Not long after, Clark made his way out of the garage to see the local talent Austin had to offer, with a little help from Gary Clark Sr. “I guess I was 14 or 15 … I started running around 6th Street, Joe’s Generic Bar, this bar called Babe’s—ran around Antone’s. Saw guys like Tony Redman, Alan Haynes, Eric O’Brien, Keller Brothers … So, I got to see it at a young age and I wasn’t allowed to be in there, so my old man would take us down there and hang out and make sure we didn’t get into trouble.” Beyond the local acts, Clark saw other legendary artists around that time who would define his future sound. “I saw the Michael Jackson Bad tour in Colorado. Just blew my mind as a kid—that was something that stuck. Seeing Stevie Wonder was a highlight … B.B. King for the first time out at the Auditorium Shores in Austin … Getting to see all the great blues guys that since passed away, like Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins.“
The young Gary Clark Jr. started playing and began to assemble a rig that would be his sound. As he explains, “I always wanted a hollowbody guitar, but I never had any money to get one. My parents got me my first guitar, my second guitar. Couple of folks gave me a couple of them, acoustic and electric. I was fortunate in that way. People were nice enough to, like, not let my dream die due to lack of funds.” As he started playing the clubs, he put together some gear very close to what he uses to this day. “I saved up my gig money and got the Casino around 2008, and it was on from there.” Clark doesn’t require a huge selection of guitars to get his sound. “As far as Epiphone goes, I stick to the Casino only, and then the same idea with the Gibson 330—hollowbodies with P90s are kind of my thing. All kinds of them—you know, from those made overseas to the U.S.-made latest reissues. Anything Casino—I’m all about it.” While playing in Nashville, he was seen playing his Casino by the staff at Gibson. “Actually, I was just playing my first Epiphone I got. Some of the guys saw me playing it and we just kept in contact. They ended up giving me a couple of options to try out. I just keep loving them.” Although there are now many guitars available to him, the regular production models suit him fine. “I pretty much use them stock. The only thing I’ve done was to my first one—I put a Bigsby on it. Other than that, pretty much right off the shelf, right out of the factory, I’m pleased.”
For amplification, Clark found a Fender close by that he still uses to this day. “My buddy who plays guitar with me, [Zapata], he had a Vibro-King at his house. He sold it to me and it kind of stuck. “On the road, not always with his own gear, he has been given a chance to try a few different models. “Pretty much anything Fender. We’ve been traveling a lot, so we use backlines from time to time. I experimented with Super Reverbs or Twin Reverbs. I’ve got a Princeton at the house, ’65 reissue. Sounding pretty nice to me right now.”
His all-tube Fender amplifier choices are augmented by a few effects pedals, such as a Fulltone Octafuzz, RMC wah and Ibanez Tube Screamer. Between live and studio, Clark will use mostly the same setup. “I like to keep it the same. Sometimes there’s guys in the studio, just for different tone purposes or whatever option, they’ll pull out different amps and combo them up or throw a new effects pedal my way.”
Being on the road as much as he is, Clark’s time for recording and writing is at a premium, which has allowed for his creative process to evolve over the years. As he says, “It’s changed in a major way. I used to spend days and weeks at my house and not leave, just making noise. I had a setup there, a home studio so I could lay down all my ideas, complete thoughts. But being on the road all the time, I just take little bits and pieces and sing them into my phone or come up with my little rhythms on GarageBand or whatever.“ Clark takes advantage of getting the ideas down while he has them, in whatever form they take. “Songwriting … man, it’s a different process all the time. I don’t know, I don’t really sit down and say, like, I’m going to write a song, whatever. It just kind of happens.” From the rough ideas, Clark can expand a bit while still on the road. “I’ve got a little Pro Tools setup as well, so I can do some editing and things like that … but, yes, being on the go has made it a lot more difficult to complete a thought.” When home, he will demo his songs before getting his band to expand on the creative side. ”I record everything on my own and get the ideas out, all of the stuff that’s been taking up space in my brain, put it out, and then bring it to the guys and they make it better.”
A talented songwriter, his music is brought forth with his uniquely perfected blues guitar work, as it has always been his first form of musical expression. “It can scream. It can wail. It can be sweet and soft or whatever. It was a way for me to communicate without speaking words, which I can be bad at from time to time with people. So, it was just kind of a help for me to complete my thoughts, I guess, in a weird way. I don’t know how to explain it. Sounds kind of out there, but that’s how it is.” Gary Clark Jr. has a busy year ahead with extensive lives shows across the U.S., including many festival stops with the band in support of his latest album, Blak and Blu. Continuing to push towards the future, Clark has no fear about following the music wherever it takes him. As he says, “What is that song that says, ‘blues is a feeling?’ As long as you’ve got that in there, you’ll be all right.”