Guest Post by: Brandon Engel
Guitar virtuoso Gary Clark Jr. is rapidly gaining popularity and helping to turn a younger generation unto artists who they would perhaps have no familiarity with otherwise. The precocious 29-year-old from Austin has achieved tremendous commercial and artistic success — he has even shared the stage with The Rolling Stones on a number of occasions and performed on late night talk shows. He’ll be joining the Kings of Leon on the road for a number of shows this spring. He also recently appeared on the Guitar Center Sessions artist showcase which DirecTV bundles with its new Audience channel.
Although Clark is best known as a bluesman, his albums fuse multiple musical stylings, incorporating elements of hip hop, jazz, and even vintage heavy metal. And while all of these styles may sound somewhat disparate, the truth is that they all share familial connections to the blues.
“The blues as basis for heavy metal?” you may think to yourself, appalled. Admittedly, it’s a contentious point, and not one that every music fan will readily agree with. But hear me out on this…
Classical and baroque musical stylings did indeed become a major part of metal at least as early as the mid-seventies, thanks to artists who belonged to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, such as Diamond Head, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden. However, all of those bands were heavily indebted to the influence of Black Sabbath, who had, in turn, co-opted stylings from vintage blues greats and psychedelic hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, and Cream.
Certain pieces of Clark’s repertoire highlight the stylistic similarities between the blues and the most primitive forms of what we now call heavy metal. Clark is connected to the parts of heavier music that are steeped in blues, particularly the styles of Jimi Hendrix and early Black Sabbath.
The contributions made by Hendrix, were of course, too many to number. Although not explicitly metal by any purist’s definition, Hendrix albums such as Are You Experienced? and Electric Ladyland would ultimately prove to be highly influential for the artists who would develop metal as we know it today.There is the lightning fast soloing and the dissonant, “jazzy” sounds produced by his distinguished chord voicings (Hendrix had of course favored the dominant 7th sharp ninth chord which now colloquially bears his name). Black Sabbath essentially took what Hendrix was doing, slowed it down, evoked satanic and horror-movie-esque imagery through their lyrics, and this was essentially the inception of heavy metal.
The earlier Sabbath albums had the more crisp, blues-derivative guitar feel, with clear nods to Hendrix in Iommi’s unison bends, and fast-paced minor pentatonic soloing — very similar in style to how Clark solos on some of his heavier tracks. WIth their first two albums, they established what would become heavy metal cliches in earlier efforts — i.e., the satanic thematic content on their self-titled debut album Black Sabbath (1970) and the use of the “devil’s tritone” (an interval that sounds so sinister that it was purposefully avoided by ecclesiastical composers throughout the renaissance.) You must also consider the brutally distorted guitar sounds on Paranoid (1970)
The first true heavy metal album, though, (so far as this writer is concerned, at least), was Sabbath’s Master of Reality (1971). It was with this album that Sabbath forged their signature sound.
Part of what made the band’s sound unique on this album was the fact that the guitars were detuned to “C#” relative to standard “E” tuning. This was actually the product of a jobsite accident, wherein Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, who was working in a steel mill in the band’s native Birmingham, England, accidentally chopped off the tips of his fingers on his fretting hand. In order to play, Iommi had to reduce string tension on his guitar, and that is why he began detuning. Sonically, the lower tunings produce a more dissonant and noisy sound than can be achieved with standard guitar tuning, thus giving it that dark, sludgy sound.
Still not persuaded? Compare and contrast the following three songs: Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” off of Electric Ladyland, Black Sabbath’s rendition of “The Warning” off of their debut album, and Gary Clark Jr.’s Third Stone From the Sun off of his album Blak and Blu.
And the truth of the matter is that no matter how you want to classify him, Clark is one of the most impressive contemporary musicians working today, and what’s even more impressive than how successfully he’s managed to replicate certain aesthetics, has been his ability to defy categorization — the mark of any great artist.