Gary Clark Jr: The New Jimi Hendrix?
The first time I heard Gary Clark Jr, I was heading to a music festival with a couple of friends. Just outside the festival campsite, we got stuck in a traffic jam. The mood in the car was starting to turn south when the song Bright Lights came on. We cranked it and totally drowned out the Justin Bieber that was blasting from the Fiat 500 next to us. I don’t think we made the best impression on our fellow festival goers, but it was a small price to pay for spreading the good vibes of Gary Clark Jr.
After the festival was over, I began listening to his music incessantly.
When I first started to play the guitar, I was most heavily influenced by guitarists who adopt a very precise approach to their playing. Peter Green, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan captured my imagination because of their total control of the instrument. Outside of the blues, I’m also a huge fan of guitarists like David Gilmour and Mark Knopfler. Both of these musicians are renowned for their beautiful clean tones and their modest approach to soloing.
Gary Clark Jr stands in opposition to these players. His music showcases a raw and filthy style of blues. It is authentic, powerful and totally intoxicating as a listener. In fact, the effect it had on me was so profound, that it’s altered my approach to my own playing.
At gigs and whilst jamming with my old band, I used to wince if I hit a dud note or played a phrase I thought could have been more precise. My approach was always one of trying to emulate the precision of B.B. King and Peter Green. I dismissed any alternative as not being right for me. What I’ve come to realise, is that authenticity is what matters. If you pour emotion into your playing but happen to clip a few notes or play a few phrases out of time in the process, then so be it.
I’m not suggesting that Gary Clark Jr is imprecise – because to do so would be overly simplistic, but there is a real rawness to his playing that stands in contrast to some of the more cerebral players out there.
Gary Clark Jr vs Jimi Hendrix
When I first heard Gary Clark Jr, I instantly likened him to Jimi Hendrix. At first I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. On a basic level – he utilises many of the same guitar effects as Hendrix. His guitar is heavily overdriven with fuzz, and he often utilises one of Hendrix’s other favourite sounds – the wah-wah pedal. As Clark Jr himself noted, ‘I can understand the Hendrix comparison; fuzzy guitars over heavy riffs… I get it.’
Personally though, I think the similarities between the two guitarists are rooted a little deeper.
Growing up in the 1980s – Gary Clark Jr listened almost exclusively to Motown music. This is quite surprising, as he was raised in Austin, Texas – a city that has given birth to some of Blue’s greatest legends. Buddy Guy, Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughan are just some of the notable musicians to have grown up in the city.
Despite this, Gary Clark Jr didn’t draw inspiration from these players initially. It was actually Tito Jackson who prompted him to start learning the guitar. It wasn’t until he grew older and began to jam at Antone’s – the famous Austin blues bar frequented by Buddy Guy and co – that he began to play more blues. As a result, he was exposed to a variety of different music and styles. His music reflects this. Like Jimi Hendrix, his discography is varied in style and feel. He blends the blues with rock, hip hop and soul.
The second and more profound similarity, is the free and loose approach both Gary Clark Jr and Jimi Hendrix take to their playing. It is uninhibited and driven by emotion, which is a rare characteristic that not many guitarists possess. It’s the perfect kind of imprecision, which makes for interesting listening and distinguishes Gary Clark Jr from so many of his contemporaries. As comedian Joe Rogan summed up when interviewing Clark Jr in 2016:
There are certain sounds where you go ‘oh, that’s a Gary Clark Jr sound… People can catch that unique sound in a world of people riffing, in a world of people making these amazing sounds with guitars
In the same way that Jimi Hendrix deflected compliments about his playing, Gary Clark Jr responded with much the same humility: ‘I want to be great. And if people are throwing (my) name in the same sentence as greats… then I’ll take it and just keep on practicing.’
‘There’s only one Jimi Hendrix’
Comparing Jimi Hendrix with other guitarists is flawed. As I noted here, Jimi Hendrix is lauded by many as the greatest guitarist of all time. This is not because of his technical ability or song writing, despite both being exceptional. Rather it is because of the immense and lasting impact he had on the world of music.
This impact was the result of a unique historical moment. Jimi Hendrix entered an established and revolutionary British music scene and turned it on its head. His guitar playing and stage performances totally surpassed anything that had been seen before. It is this for which he is remembered and celebrated. It is also this that makes it unlikely we will talk about contemporary guitar players in similar terms. As Stevie Ray Vaughan best summed it up – ‘There’s only one Jimi Hendrix and there’ll never be another one’.
When people do compare other musicians to Jimi Hendrix, it is because they are unable to articulate what made Hendrix great (and what it is they love about contemporary guitarists). On a surface level, there are obvious similarities between Gary Clark Jr and Jimi Hendrix. They play a similar style of music, use similar effects and have a similar playing style.
These reasons do not account for why they are so frequently compared. Rather, it is that Gary Clark Jr also captures the revolutionary spirit that Hendrix embodied.
In a world where music and studio production is becoming ever more refined, Gary Clark Jr stands in opposition. He maintains a raw and authentic style of playing that captures the essence of blues. It is what makes him such an interesting and brilliant musician. It is also why he is frequently mentioned alongside greats like Jimi Hendrix.
Gary Clark Jr’s Best Songs
With 2 studio and a number of live albums to his name, Gary Clark Jr has a wealth of great material. If you’ve never heard him before, here are a few of my favourite tracks that provide a good place to start:
As Jimi Hendrix once said – ‘Blues is easy to play, but hard to feel.’ Simplicity is key to the genre and Gary Clark Jr adopts this approach in much of his music. When My Train Pulls In is a perfect example of this. The song is dominated by a simple but powerful riff. This runs throughout and provides a fitting accompaniment for the intense lyrics. The song runs for almost 8 minutes and features two guitar solos – the second one soaked in fuzz and wah-wah. It showcases Gary Clark Jr’s playing at it’s most frenetic.
Clark Jr deserves respect alone for the sheer amount of fuzz and distortion he lays down on this track. The intro is pure filth and one of his heaviest riffs. It is a perfect example of the loose and raw style of blues-rock he often favours. Interestingly he has since reworked the riff for a heavy blues-rock cover of The Beatles’, Come Together. This featured on the soundtrack for the ‘Justice League’ film and is also definitely worth a listen.
Wah-wah is an effect that few guitarists have put to good use. They often use it to liven up solos that are otherwise lacking in imagination. Either that, or they include it as a token gesture. As a result it often feels superfluous and a bit gimmicky. That’s not the case here. Clark Jr places the wah-wah front and centre, punctuating the song throughout with short but intense licks. He also throws in a wah-wah laden solo for good measure. Combined with the simple but impactful lyrics – ‘Well I’ve been thinking too much, That I’ve been thinking too much’ and this is one of the best tracks of the album (‘The Story of Sonny Boy Slim’).
I used to listen to this song everyday on the way to work without fail. It’s very different from the predominantly blues-rock songs that feature on ‘The Story of Sonny Boy Slim’. It’s much closer to the hip hop, soul and funk that influenced Clark Jr when he was growing up. It’s a super catchy, feel good song that always make me smile and puts a spring in my step.
Gritty, fast paced and with a killer riff that runs throughout, the song embodies Gary Clark Jr’s confident style. It also features a great guitar solo. Although this is only comprised of a couple of phrases that Clark Jr repeats, it fits perfectly with the driving repetition of the rest of the song.