How To Sound Like Gary Clark Jr.
I have wanted to sound like Gary Clark Jr. ever since I first heard him a couple of years ago.
His massive guitar sound blew me away. It is raw, powerful and perfect if you want to play hard blues rock.
Refreshingly, it is a sound that is not that difficult to replicate. Many of the guitarists that I’ve covered so far in my ‘sound like’ series – Joe Bonamassa, Gary Moore and Stevie Ray Vaughan use(d) bespoke made, vintage gear. Replicating their rigs with authenticity is cripplingly expensive. And so the challenge in capturing the tones of those guitarists is how to get a similar sound without remortgaging your house.
The great news, is that you can sound like Gary Clark Jr. on a relatively modest budget. Even replicating his rig exactly is not beyond the realms of possibility. You can buy the exact gear that he uses, without breaking the bank.
Over the course of his career, Clark Jr. has altered and adapted his rig. He has also experimented with various styles and sounds – some of which are closer to hip hop than to blues and blues rock.
So without further ado, here is everything you need to sound like Gary Clark Jr.:
The Epiphone Casino
Gary Clark Jr. has 2 main guitars. The first of these is the Epiphone Casino. This is the guitar that he played for his first album, Blak and Blu. He has also used it extensively since then, both live and in the studio.
Given the style of music that Clark Jr. plays – the Epiphone Casino isn’t the obvious guitar of choice. The Casino first came into popularity in the 1960s, when John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison started playing them. Keith Richards also used them for a number of years in the 1960s, before switching to his Fender Telecaster. Since then, the Casino has generally been associated with softer rock and pop guitarists, like Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher.
Yet as Clark Jr., has proven – the Epiphone Casino is a great guitar for heavy blues and rock tones. Unlike similar Gibson models, the Casino is totally hollow. It also features P90, rather than humbucking pickups. P90s are single coil pickups, but with more warmth and less brightness than the single coils in Fender Stratocasters.
This combination is great for vintage tones. You can get warm and dark tones that are perfect for heavy blues. The P90s also provide tonal clarity and definition though, allowing you to push the treble. Just listen to ‘Revolution’ by The Beatles to hear the Casino’s biting treble tones.
The Standard Vs. The Elitist
Gary Clark Jr. has used a number of different Epiphone Casinos during his career.
The first of these is a standard Epiphone Casino. If you are on a more conservative budget, this is a brilliant choice. At only $620/£490, not only is it a very affordable guitar, but considering the quality of its build and tones, it is also amazing value for money.
In addition to the standard Casino, Clark Jr. uses his own signature model that Epiphone also sold for a number of years. This is very similar to the standard Casino, with just a small number of differences. The most significant of these are:
- The P90 pickups are made by Gibson, rather than Epiphone
- There is no scratch plate
- It comes fitted with a Bigsby tremolo arm (though there was also the option to buy a model without it)
Unfortunately the model was discontinued a few years ago, but you can still buy it on sites like Reverb for around $760/£600. So if you want to look the part and you don’t mind buying second hand, the signature model could also be a great choice.
Finally, if you are looking to spend a bit more, you can opt for the Epiphone Casino Elitist. As you might expect, this is very similar to the regular Casino, but it is built to a higher standard and with better quality components. The Elitist is built with a 5 ply body, grover tuners and Gibson made P90 pickups.
At around $2400/£1900 – the Elitist is in a higher price bracket. But if you really want to sound like Gary Clark Jr. and are happy to make the investment, it would make an amazing addition to your rig.
The Gibson SG
More recently, Gary Clark Jr. has started to add Gibson SGs to his rig. Here though, he has branched out a little – making alterations to the stock Gibson models. Specifically, he has changed the regular humbucking pickups to P90s, and also added a third pickup in the middle position.
This gives him the warmth and clarity of the P90s, with enough power and output (from having 3 pickups) to really crank his amp and get those beautiful heavy blues tones. None of the stock Gibson or Epiphone models come fitted with 3 P90 pickups. In fact, almost no SG models come fitted with P90s.Gibson did make a limited run of models at the beginning of 2019, but the range has since been discontinued.
Don’t worry though, you can still sound like Gary Clark Jr. without having to buy a custom shop SG or fitting your guitar with P90s. As I’ll explain in more detail shortly, a huge part of Gary Clark Jr.’s sound comes from his pedals. The guitar and amps that he uses obviously have a large impact his sound. But some of the more nuanced details of his setup are less relevant once you add his fuzz, overdrive and octave pedals into the mix.
In other words, buying a regular SG model will help get you close to the Clark Jr. tones. And with that in mind, my recommendations from least to most expensive are as follows:
Finally, if you really want to sound like Gary Clark Jr. and are looking for authenticity, then there is the option of buying a guitar and ‘modding’ it. You can buy any of the models listed above and replace the pickups with P90s. Gary Clark Jr uses Gibson P90 pickups, which at around $100/£80 are great value for money.
Gary Clark Jr has used Fender amps ever since he started playing small blues bars in Texas. In his own words, everyone in the Texas blues scene was using Fender, and ‘if you didn’t have a Fender amp, you weren’t really doing it’.
His first amp of choice is the Fender Vibro-King. Originally released in 1993, this is one of the lesser known Fender models. In some ways, it is also quite different to a lot of the Fender catalogue.
Fender amps are renowned for having beautiful clean tones and lots of headroom. This isn’t the case with the Vibro-King, which actually breaks up at relatively low levels. With the volume on 3-4, you get beautiful and slightly overdriven blues tones. If you start to crank it, then it breaks up in a way that is not typical of Fender amps. It does all of this whilst maintaining a tight bottom end and being super responsive to your guitar and the dynamics of your playing.
Unfortunately, the Vibro-King is no longer in production. In 2013, Fender brought out a 20th anniversary model but that too has been discontinued. If you really want to get your hands on a Vibro-King, you can pick them up on sites like Reverb for around $2500/2000. Truthfully though, I wouldn’t recommend it.
This is mostly to do with its size. The Vibro-King is a huge amp. It is 60 watts, has 3 speakers and weighs 33kg. Even though it breaks up at relatively low levels, it is still far too loud to play at home. If you are playing big gigs or have a studio, then the Vibro-King would be an amazing choice. Otherwise I would suggest opting for a smaller Fender amp.
The Princeton Reverb
Luckily, Gary Clark Jr.’s second amp of choice is a more viable option for those of us who have neighbours to consider. The second amp that he uses in conjunction with the Vibro-King, is the Princeton Reverb. This is one of the most popular Fender amps ever made. It has beautiful clean tones, breaks up into warm overdrive when cranked, and also features a reverb and tremolo circuit. It embodies the American Fender sound, and is an amazing all round amp for vintage blues tones.
Perhaps best of all, the Princeton Reverb is a brilliant amp for small gigs or home use. At 12-15 watts, you can get great tones at lower levels.
Ultimately these amps are very similar, but with a couple of notable differences. The 65 Reissue is a more classic Fender amp. It is slightly higher wattage and has more headroom. It has very sparkly highs and beautiful clean tones. In regards to its construction and features, it remains true to the original Fender Princeton Reverb amps.
Conversely, the 68 Custom Reissue aims to take the best of both vintage and modern engineering. So you get all of the classic Fender features, but there is a modified tone circuit and reduced negative feedback. This amp has less headroom and breaks up at lower levels. It is also designed to provide a very good platform for pedals.
For these reasons, if you want to sound like Gary Clark Jr., I would suggest opting for the 68 Custom Reissue. It will help you get those beautiful overdriven blues tones at lower levels, and it takes pedals very well. Also, although there is some conflicting information online, my understanding is that Clark Jr. mostly uses the 68 Custom Reissue. So adding the 68 Princeton Reverb to your rig will definitely help you get those Clark Jr. tones.
At around $900/£999, the 1968 Princeton Reverb Custom Reissue isn’t the cheapest amp out there, but it is amazing value for money considering both the quality of the tones and its features. If you want classic blues tones and an amp that you can use at home, you’ll struggle to go wrong it.
If you want to sound like Gary Clark Jr., you need to invest in your pedalboard. Guitar pedals play a crucial part in his sound, and without them you will struggle to replicate the same tones. Over the years, Clark Jr. has used a vast range of different pedals, but the key elements of his pedal board have broadly remained the same. He uses a lot of fuzz, as well as overdrive, reverb, tremolo and wah-wah. When combined together, these pedals really provide the foundations of Clark Jr.’s tones.
To sound like Gary Clark Jr., you need to get a fuzz pedal. This is crucial if you want to replicate the guitar sound on songs like Bright Lights and When My Train Pulls In. Clark Jr. has used a number of different fuzz pedals over the years, and for a long time was a proponent of the Astro Fuzz by Analog Man. This has now been discontinued, but you can still pick up a second hand version from sites like Reverb for around $300/£230. More recently though, Clark Jr. has started to use the following 3 fuzz pedals:
Fuzz is the defining sound of Gary Clark Jr.’s rig – and so it is no surprise that his fuzz pedals take up most of the space on his pedal board. 3 fuzz pedals might feel like overkill, but each of them serves a slightly different purpose.
The Octafuzz is modelled around Jimi Hendrix’s fuzz tones. It is a vintage voiced fuzz pedal that doubles as an octave pedal. The Clusterfuzz is a very versatile fuzz pedal, with a huge number of tones and options to tweak them. It has 5 different clipping options to adjust the saturation level. Finally, the Cannon Dual Fuzz also acts as a 2 in 1 fuzz and octave pedal. This is actually based on the Astro Tone Fuzz but with a few changes, as well as the addition of the octave effect.
Whilst Gary Clark Jr. relies most heavily on fuzz for his overdriven tones, he also has a single overdrive pedal on his board. Until recently, he used the Ibanez Tube Screamer for his overdrive. Now though, he use a Hermida Audio Zendrive by Lovepedal. Gary Clark Jr.’s guitar tech describes the Zendrive as ‘a Dumble in a box’. It has also received rave reviews from players like Robben Ford and Sonny Landreth for its richness and ‘harmonic factor’.
If you really want to sound like Gary Clark Jr., buy a Zendrive and you’re good to go. If however, you are looking for a slightly cheaper option (the Zendrive currently retails at around $240/£180), then check out my shortlist of some of the best overdrive pedals for the blues.
They won’t be quite as authentic as the Zendrive, but if you are on a budget, then there are some great value options listed there. All of them will help you get beautiful overdriven blues tones similar to those of Gary Clark Jr.
Replicating Gary Clark Jr.’s wah tone is pretty straight forward. Clark Jr. uses a signature Dunlop Cry Baby, but any of the classically voiced Cry Baby wah pedals will help you sound like Gary Clark Jr. Some of my top recommendations are:
All of those pedals are reasonably priced. But if there is room in your budget, I would recommend the 535Q pedal, which allows for a greater level of tone tweaking. You can alter the tone on that pedal from a wide and subtle vintage wah-wah sound, through to a more modern, sharp and narrow wah-wah sound.
Reverb and Tremolo
To finish his set up, Gary Clark Jr. uses the Flint Strymon Reverb and Tremolo pedal. This is a 2 in 1 Reverb and Tremolo pedal built to emulate the features of American made amps of the 1960s and 70s.
This pedal is focused on vintage tones. There are 3 tremolo settings and another 3 reverb settings, all of which are linked to a particular year during the 1960s or 1970s.
Both of the amps that Gary Clark Jr. uses have reverb and tremolo circuits. By all accounts he favours the Flint Strymon as much for practical reasons when gigging as he does for its tone. So if you have an amp with reverb built in, don’t rush out to the buy the Flint Strymon. The reverb and tremolo circuits built into the amps are already very high quality.
Conversely, if you don’t have those features on your amp, then the Flint Strymon will make a brilliant addition to your rig. At $380/£300 the Strymon Flint is in a higher price bracket. So if you are looking for a more budget friendly option, I’ve shortlisted some of the best reverb pedals for the blues here.
Prioritising Your Pedals
Although Gary Clark Jr. doesn’t use lots of different pedals, those that he does use are high quality. Relatively speaking his rig is very affordable (you could buy a Princeton Reverb and an Epiphone Casino for less than $2000/£1600!) And even if you bought all of his pedals, you could still replicate his set up for less than $4000/£3200. That isn’t too bad, considering that Clark Jr. is one of the most famous blues guitarists in the world. Equally though, $4000/£3200 is still a fair chunk of money – and you can definitely save by streamlining your pedal board.
Ultimately, the one crucial element of Gary Clark Jr.’s rig is fuzz. You can play a Gibson SG and use a Fender Princeton, but you will struggle to sound like Gary Clark Jr. without a fuzz pedal. He uses the effect a lot. He even ‘stacks’ his fuzz pedals into one another to achieve extreme levels of saturation. This creates an amazing sound that just isn’t possible without investing in a decent fuzz pedal.
If you are looking for absolute authenticity, then you should stack multiple fuzz pedals. But if you don’t want to buy 3 of the same kind of pedal, I would opt for either the Function f(x) Clusterfuzz or the Function f(x) Cannon Dual Fuzz. They are both versatile fuzz pedals and they both have some pretty extreme settings. Combine either of those pedals with a high quality overdrive pedal and a bit of reverb on your amp, and you are well on your way to getting those Clark Jr. tones.
Some Closing Thoughts…
Well there we have it, everything you need to sound like Gary Clark Jr.
Prior to writing this article, I thought that Clark Jr would be a player with a huge range of different gear, and so I was pleasantly surprised by the reality. Not only is Gary Clark Jr’s rig very affordable; it is also very versatile.
Clark Jr is best known for his heavy blues and rock tones. But take the fuzz pedals out of the chain and he uses a set up that is perfect for beautiful vintage blues tones. Add the fuzz pedals back into the mix and you have a huge range of tones available from a simple set up.
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Feature Image of Gary Clark Jr. – Alize Tran Photo (Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License)
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