Welcome to Young Guns, our series exploring the most notable guitarists from the next generation of six-string legends. For more interviews with the guitarists inspiring us right now, click here.
WHO: Gary Clark Jr. has been hailed as everything from “the new Hendrix” to a 21st century savior of the blues, thanks to the fiery guitar playing and soulful singing showcased on Blak and Blu, his 2012 major label debut. Starting out as a self-described “boy from Austin, Texas, with a guitar and a dream,” the 30-year-old Clark – who was mentored by fellow Austinite Jimmie Vaughan – has gone on to share stages with the august likes of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Buddy Guy. He also won a Best Traditional R&B Performance Grammy earlier this year for his song “Please Come Home.” But 2014’s Blak and Blu The Mixtape, which revisits and reimagines several of the album’s songs with the help of D-Nice, Big K.R.I.T., Talib Kweli and others, demonstrates that Clark’s musical vision extends far beyond straight blues and R&B.
HOLLOW MEN: Clark, who favors semi-hollow Epiphone Casinos as his main axes, traces his semi-hollow preference – and love for the guitar, in general – back to watching footage of Tito Jackson playing a Gibson ES-345 during early Seventies Jackson 5 performances. “My mom was a huge Jacksons fan,” he explains. “She had all their records, and would record whatever specials on them came on TV. Of course I loved Michael Jackson, but I was always curious about the kid in the hat with the red Gibson hollow body. I saw this one live tape of them doing Isaac Hayes’ version of ‘Walk on By’; Tito was playing the fuzz line, and I was obsessed from that moment – I had to have a guitar!”
FUZZ FEST: While Clark’s soulful approach puts him in a markedly different bag than such contemporary garage-blues purveyors as Jack White and the Black Keys, his freewheeling use of fuzztone and distortion effects also sets him apart from the blues “purists” who favor achingly clean guitar tones. “I play way much more fuzz than I probably should,” he laughs, “But I still feel like that 12-year-old kid discovering it for the first time!” Clark name-checks Ernie Isley of the Isley Brothers and Eddie Hazel of Funkadelic as two of his all-time fuzz heroes, but admits he occasionally gets a little self-conscious about overdoing it. “When a guy like Jimmie Vaughan shows up to a gig and is standing side-stage, I’ll be looking at my fuzz pedal, like, ‘Should I hit that thing?'”
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED: “Blues savior”-type plaudits can weigh heavily upon those thusly anointed, but Clark simply shrugs off such pigeonholing. “Everything’s open to interpretation and opinion,” he says. “I’m just here – and I do what I love. I don’t think that I’m reaching my full potential if I just do what people expect of me. I love blues; that’s my foundation, and I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t had that education at a young age. But growing up, I was also hanging out with people who were listening to Nirvana, and I was listening to hip-hop records, and my folks brought me up on the Isley Brothers, Prince, the Brothers Johnson and Earth, Wind and Fire. All of that’s in me, and to deny that would make it no fun for me, because I love to play, and I love to experiment, and there are a lot more roads to explore. I don’t know if I want to get too far off the path – I don’t want to get lost in the forest – but I like to wander out a bit and adventure.”