Player Spotlight - Gary Clark Jr.
By Strings Direct – 29 August, 2023
We journey down South for this weeks guitar master and tone connoisseur. This instalment finds us in Austin, Texas: "The Live Music Capital of the World”!
The stage is set, and the amps are lit 🔥, so let's catch the train as it pulls in and get on the movement that is the smokin’, modern bluesman Gary Clark Jr. 🤘
Texan Blues and City Limits
Gary has his roots in Austin in more ways than one; his family name carries a link through a distant relative, W.C. Clark dubbed the ‘Godfather of Austin Blues’ who also accompanied Stevie Ray Vaughan as part of his band at one time.
The connection to this relation was not actually apparent to Gary until later on in his musical development so it wasn't something he relied on or felt pressured to appease.
Having roots to a musical background or heritage is not the same as growing roots, and real soul can't be bought, sold, or handed down. You've got to have soul to grow your own roots.
Gary Clark Jr. is a man of true soul establishing roots in the modern Blues 🕶 .
“I didn’t want to get a job, because the time that I wasn’t on stage, I was trying to write songs, or learn to be a better drummer, or how to work drum machines, or be a DJ, how to work Pro Tools… because I just wanted to work in music so much. I was just living the textbook life of a struggling musician.”
Josh Gardner - 20th February 2019 - https://guitar.com/
Like many guitarists before him - and I'm sure many that will come after - the fascination with a guitar came at a young age through curiosity and familiarity. First encounters with a guitar (that generally isn't yours) to be inquisitive with can always be quite memorable.
In numerous interviews Gary mentions that there were a few guitars in the house belonging to his father. One particular day, curiosity got the better of him and he attempted to sneak a quick go on one. After, he delicately placed it back on the stand, only it actually fell off and left a ding to remember 💥 .
I imagine we can all relate to this in some form or other from memories of our first inquisitive investigations into guitars or instruments around the house or a relative's house.
I myself, recall a similar situation being around one of my best friend's houses and always being fascinated by his dad's guitars as they hung on the wall like unattainable trophies. Two acoustic guitars that we nicknamed “Batman and Robin”! Simply for the fact that they were both acoustic guitars and the pickguards were different, one guitar had a standard “Teardrop’ pickguard (Robin) and the other a Country and western /Hummingbird style pickguard (Batman) 🤷♂️ .
Don't ask me why now but it seemed to make sense at the time and it was definitely memorable and we almost certainly dropped and damaged one or both of the guitars (by accident of course) led by our own inquisitive behaviour.
So I believe we can all relate to Gary's initial experience with the guitar to some degree, but it’s when Gary started to pick up the guitar and progress that most of us stop relating day-to-day familiarity to his absolutely phenomenal talent and natural ability, what a truly incredible player.
This is no longer achievable relatability but truly awe inspiring to witness and to admire a master of his craft.
No true Bluesman gains such status overnight and Gary is no exception, obtaining his first guitar at the age of 12 in the early-mid 90’s many feel he would've been swung by the over-shadowing influence of grunge and indie rock. But Gary was more swayed towards the natural heritage of his hometown with so many blues and country legends coming from here; it was almost a natural progression and a cultural responsibility.
As he progressed as a player his influences swept him into the blues clubs and local scene, and night after night he definitely earned the stripes as a player that's laid experience on his fingers and in his tone.
More than a Blues Revivalist at (The) Crossroads …
Making a movement on the scene and creating a legacy for your sound as a player is really something that can not be done as much as it can be felt. Gary truly made his mark to all peers and mentors at the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival.
A truly thrilling rendition of his now iconic track “Bright Lights”. The guitarist circle truly took notice with both respect and admiration.
Eric Clapton was truly humbled and inspired by Gary Clark Junior's presence at the festival.
“Slowhand was so struck by the young guitarist’s performance that he famously wrote him a letter afterwards, saying: Thank you – you make me want to play again.”
Buddy Guy has said of Clark that “He’s as good as it gets,” and the aforementioned 44th President hailed him as: “The future of music.”
Josh Gardner - 20th February 2019 - https://guitar.com/
This performance has seen 18-million views on YouTube and truly cements Gary Clark Jr. as a true modern day guitar hero along with this incredible and truly mesmerising performance there is but another treasure to discover right here in the UK, this mind blowing rendition of “When My Train Pulls In” is really something quite stunning in terms of pure feel and AdLib ability, a true organic player that is clearly otherworldly but always developing and adapting to the modern day demands of being an artist in today’s society.
The Healing & The Soul …
The true way to understand Gary as a guitar player and a singer is to truly absorb his music, his key expression and his undeniable timeless charisma.
Check out the two songs below, completely diverse and dynamic in a way that only a true artist who will not be encapsulated into one genre can render such depth of expression.
Landmark statement for modern times…
An artist can have so much power in regards to projecting a statement through musical interpretation. Music is definitely power and this is a statement and topic that Gary Clark Jr. holds close to his heart from personal experience.
It's incredible that he's wearing his heart so openly on his sleeve so other people who felt any type of similar oppression in these modern times or past times strongly relate an associate.
It's a political stand without being political in it's a hidden truth through honesty that people shy away from.
The into interview here via Rollingstone magazine really cuts like a knife with more emotion and honesty that is rarely seen in the modern times.
It's a landmark piece of work that also shows Gary Clark Jr. is not just a BluesMan but he is a blue smell of the future with multi-genre influences coming through on this track. Incredibly strong with grooves, with some hip-hop elements that are really intricate synth sounds.
The Chrome Tone …
Reflecting on Gary's raw, organic and very immediate tone, what type of string do we expect to find here 🤔 ?
Another essential visit to the iconic Rig Rundown introduces us to Dave Holman, Gary Clark Jr’s long-serving and loyal tech. It's here we truly discover everything we need to know behind Gary's raw and soulful tone.
Really interesting to learn that the string choice here is extremely particular, thought through and very precise for specific reasons. The approach is not as you would expect and he is actually a three-point form of attack with some variables.
This brief interview with D'Addario and Co. which could now be considered quite old footage back in 2012 shows us that Gary has always been fond and pretty much exclusively attached to D'Addario's EXL115 Nickel Wound set.
But over the years it seems string preference is slightly more defined and a little more distinguished - like a mature whiskey 🥃 . We discover Dave revealing that Gary is now very set on playing D’Addario Chromes on most guitars and replaces the wound 23 with a plain 18.
This is of course a practical measure as Dave says “This is the solo string, it's his 'go to' for solos so he needs to be able to bend.”
Other guitars of course require the standard round wound EXL115’s. For example, on Gary’s old beloved Ibanez Blazer that he’s owned since his teenage years, one of his first major electric guitars, the round wound strings are used for more bite and punch to push more from the weaker single coils.
The other set mentioned in the Rig Rundown is for Gary's long-standing side man on guitar Eric Zapata.
Eric is also pushing 11’s but the only difference here is Eric quotes that he is on the Pure Nickel 11-48 (EPN115).
It just feels inherent that the Texas boys really dig a big string for a big sound - files back to the echoes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and real hotrodding Texas blue sound. 🎸 .
Gary Clark Jr. is now firmly established as one of the modern days guitar heroes.