K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest Talk Gear in 1984 Guitar World Interview
Here's our interview with K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest from the July 1984 issue of Guitar World. The original story by Bill Milkowski ran with the headline "Judas Priest's Scorching Twin Leads," and the story started on page 34.
K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton have paid their dues. Their humbucking heavy metal is now playing at the top of the charts after years of slogging the road.
Ken Downing was a chronic "schoolleaver." He was a bored and restless fifteen-year-old, looking for an escape from his dreary day-to-day existence in the grimy, industrial environs of England's second largest city, Birmingham. Nothing was happening and there was no way out.
And then, the electric guitar came into his life. Suddenly, there was something to live for. It was the escape he had sought all through high school.
From that point on, Ken Downing shut himself away from the outside world, barricading himself in his bedroom, where he would spend countless hours on end trying desperately to master a barre chord, getting familiar with the fretboard, fantasizing that he was on stage playing before tumultuous throngs of rock fans.
During this intensive woodshedding period, however, his parents were hardly supportive of their son's ambitions.
"They watched me grow my hair and sit in my room, just playing my guitar all night long. They thought I was a drug-crazed hippie."
Ironically, it was actually Downing's parents who were directly responsible for starting their son off down the long road to rock stardom.
"Yeah, when I got kicked out of the house," he laughs. "That's when I decided that 'I'm gonna show ya.' That was when I started to get serious about the guitar. I wanted to play the guitar and do nothing else, really. I suppose it was my drug in a way, you know. I went through everything that any young junkie goes through – getting kicked out of the house, not wanting to work, not having any money and all that. So I suppose my parents might have been right, in a small way, because it did lead to seven or eight years of poverty and alienation. I was a very unpopular person within my family, because when you shut yourself away as I did and you just play guitar, and you have long hair and you don't eat or you stop relating to people because all you really want in the world is to play your guitar ... maybe they were right. Maybe I was on drugs, in a sense. Yeah, the guitar was my drug."
Of course, Downing did eventually find his way out of Birmingham and today is riding high and mighty with Judas Priest, one of the most formidable and popular heavy metal bands in all of rock music. Yet, for all his successes and accomplishments in his career, Downing still hasn't won over his stubborn parents.
"They think there's more in the world that just wanting to become a rich and famous rock musician, which only compels me to want it all the more. They think that I'm under the influence of something ... some weird God that I might be worshipping. You know how parents are."
Despite his parents' suspicions, Downing and his partner Glenn Tipton serve as role models for aspiring heavy metal guitarists all over the world. This twin guitar attack-with Downing on a Gibson Flying V and Tipton on a Gibson SG-has stunned audiences in Japan, America and all throughout Europe with scorching licks and sheer bone-crunching power. And if that weren't enough, audiences are further wowed by the group's visual extravaganza, which includes a massive, multileveled stage with hundreds of lights and various hydraulic and pyrotechnic devices.
Add a few dry ice effects and singer Rob Halford 's notorious on-stage entrance aboard a Harley-Davidson and you've got one impressive package. Of course, Downing's parents might not appreciate it, but this is the stuff that sends hordes of fifteen-year-old boys into fist-raising, slavering ecstasy. At least Downing himself can take pride in the fact that, after fourteen years of hard work on the headbanging circuit, his group has finally emerged on top of the heavy metal heap. And it's been a long road indeed.
Downing and Judas Priest bassist Ian Hill began kicking around the Midlands club circuit in England back when they were schoolmates together in hometown Birmingham. They see ked out a living by playing blues-tinged material in small clubs and pubs. This eventually led to the formation of Judas Priest in 1969, a time when many British bands were beginning to re-interpret the guitar-laden sounds of black blues music, emulating such guitarists as Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and other more obscure black bluesmen.
Unfortunately, Judas Priest got lost in the shuffle, as Downing explains: "We were there at the time when the blues thing was happening but we just missed the boat, in actual fact, which is the reason it took us so long to surface with a record deal.
"There were bands that were around at the time but were a year ahead of us… bands like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. They had all just been signed up real quick and there were quite a few other bands as well-Kim Simmons and Savoy Brown, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds.
"There were so many, in fact, that they had quickly exhausted all the record companies. So by the time we came along to do auditions for record companies, they would say, 'It's okay, but you're too much like Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath or Jeff Beck or whoever.' And to their mind I suppose we did sound very similar because we had a similar format. And obviously, while we were struggling to get some kind of a record deal going, these other bands were becoming bigger and bigger and bigger. If only we could 've been there a year earlier we could 've gone the same route."
But Downing is quick to add, in retrospect, "It's sort of ironic that now, ten years later, we have managed to surface on top. Now we are doing tours with Savoy Brown or Humble Pie opening for us… all these groups that initially made it way back then. So while we did sort of miss the boat back then it seems now that we still have the opportunity of doing what we originally set out to do. The only difference, of course, is that we've been poor for many years while we could 've been rich for many years, like these other groups."
Downing and Bassist Hill played around for a while with the original Judas Priest outfit before they eventually found singer Rob Halford and guitarist Glenn Tipton.
"We went through some changes, obviously, in the early days," Downing recalls. "People came and went. Actually, we met Rob the singer through a girlfriend that Ian was dating at the time. Rob was this girl's brother. She used to tell Ian, 'Oh, you should hear my brother sing. He's really quite good.' So we went to give him a listen. It didn't take us long to decide to kick out our old singer and get Rob in. That was around 1971.
"Then later on when we decided to add another guitar player to the band, it was quite a coincidence the band Glenn was with at the time finally went broke and ceased to exist. So we asked him to join Judas Priest because it seemed at the time that we had a little more going for us than Glenn 's band did. Actually, it was all promises at the time and nothing really did materialize for quite a while. But obviously, the format that we got together did work a lot better and the result was that we were rewarded for our efforts with a recording contract."
They signed with the small, independent British label, Gull Records, in 1974. Two albums (Rocka Rolla in '74, followed by Sad Wings of Destiny in '76) quickly forged their dark style and gained some minor commercial success. But after a falling-out with Gull Records, they eventually left the label.
"Really, it's quite miraculous that we're still together," says Tipton, "because they were a terrible record company. They got us into all sorts of trouble and on top of that we got no money. They did everything wrong. That was a real disappointing time for the band. It was quite lucky that we managed to sustain and not break up then.
"But, of course, we were no strangers to adversity. There were many chapters before Judas Priest ultimately broke through where if we were each getting thirty bucks a night it was considered big money. We used to have to carry our own equipment up flights of stairs, drive hundreds of miles and back again from gig to gig each night... it was a struggle. It was all we could do to put gas in the van. We had it very, very rough for a time, but I don't think there's a band in the world that hasn’t 't been through it."
Luckily, they were signed by CBS Records the year after they left Gull. The group's breakthrough album came in 1980. British Steel, their fifth for CBS and seventh overall, gained unprecedented attention from radio, notably the album's two singles, "Living After Midnight" and "Breaking the Law," the latter a vehicle for a ground breaking promotional video concept by Julian Temple, notorious for his Sex Pistols and Rolling Stones vidclips. That rousing success was followed by 1981's Point of Entry and 1983's Screaming for Vengeance, the Priest's biggest seller to date.
The flash and frenzy behind the Judas Priest powerhouse is the twin attack of Tipton and Downing. The two trade blistering solos on hellbent tunes like "Pain and Pleasure, "Devil's Child" and "The Sinner," spurring each other on with a kind of healthy competition. But as Downing explains, the two didn't exactly have an instant rapport when they first met.
"I think it was more like an instant barrier was put up at first because neither one of us had ever played with another guitar player before. I think that's were the competition started. But it was a friendly competition from the word go. It wasn’t that we wanted to prove to each other that one was better than the other. It was just that we were always aware of each other, that one didn't try and overtake the other one.
"That could happen very easily with certain personalities. If one person is very pushy, he'll try and take over. And if the other has got a more passive personality, he's going to let him. But Glenn and I were both very much of the same temperament. We've always been aware that ... 'If you try and overtake me or try and overstep the mark a little bit, I'm gonna come down on you.' And that's the way it's always been with us."
Tipton adds, "It's definitely a healthy competition. If I know that Ken is practicing hard, then I gotta do the same, just to keep up with him. And vice versa. It's always good to have competitiveness in a band, as long as it's friendly competition. The other positive aspect is that we each bring fresh ideas to the band. If you're the sole guitar player in a band, then obviously there are certain things that you're going to miss ... new sounds, new equipment, new things happening. When you're on the road as much as we are, you can get so wrapped up in what you're doing that you can miss all those things. Whereas, with us it's like two heads are better than one all the time. I mean, between the two of us, we can keep our eye on everybody and everything that's happening. And it's important to keep up."
Downing and Tipton have both used Gibson guitars almost exclusively over the years, though both have been experimenting with Hamer guitars of later. Downing reports excellent results:
"I think it's the best guitar in the world. It's absolutely beautiful. It's like the original Gibson red mahogany underneath with a mantle top. It's very well-made, very strong and it's got a Floyd Rose clamp system on it. There are a few tiny problems with it, which you always get with a brand-new guitar. You really have to wait for the neck to settle in to a point where it's trustworthy, because you do get a certain amount of movement with new wood. And you have to give it time to adjust to different temperatures. The Hamer also has an excellent-sounding pickup. My '64 Flying V, which has got PAF pickups in it, is no comparison, and that is a beautiful-sounding guitar itself."
Before discovering the Hamer, each player went through a variety of guitars. Tipton says he started off with a semiacoustic Hofner, graduated to a Rickenbacker, then progressed to a '67 Stratocaster. "It was one of my all-time favorite guitars," Tipton says. "It was salmon-pink, really nice. But it was stolen. Shame, really, 'cause I had no money to buy a new one. But what happened was, the club where it was stolen from reimbursed me for the guitar and with the money I bought another Strat for very, very cheap. Later, I moved on to a Gibson SG, which became a favorite guitar of mine."
Downing says he started off on a Gibson SG Junior, which led to a 1959 Gibson SG Standard. "I've always been a Gibson fan for some reason," he says, "But I've also always had a Strat as well throughout most of my professional career. I like those as well but Gibson has always been my preferred guitar. I've found that it has a more powerful pickup and allows me to playa little bit more fluently. Plus, the frets seem to be a little closer together, and the Gibson has that extra frets. I've gotten used to using that extra fret way up there."
After seeing guitarists Freddie King and Kim Simmons sporting Gibson Flying Vs, Downing decided to pick one up himself. "I just like the look of them. They look a little more adventurous and not many people play them, I like them, I think they're cute. I know some guitar players wouldn't buy them because they couldn't sit down and play them. Well… who wants to sit down and play?!
"Even when I'm in the house practicing solos, I stand up and play. I even stand in front of a mirror when I'm practicing, just to see what I look like when I'm playing. I suppose it's trying to see yourself from an audience point of view, I like to watch my hand going up and down the neck. I can remember when I used to watch guitar players, and it used to impress me to watch their hands, playing all those notes. So I place importance on the visual aspects of playing too. I want it to look good and sound good."
Recently, Downing and Tipton have been toying with the notion of designing their own guitars to suit their individual needs. "I don't think Ken and I will ever be satisfied with a guitar, no matter how long we go on," Tipton says. "We're always looking to improve our sound. And this search will naturally lead us to designing our own instruments, There's a multitude of little things, very fundamental things, on a guitar that cause it to break down or go out of tune or not play fluently.
"And it's these little things that build up over the years… silly things, like the position of the volume control. I want something that you can easily get to, so I know just where it is, where it's totally accessible and doesn't get in the way of the tremolo arm, as some do. There are so many variables- the wood, the electronics inside, the frets, the tremolo bar setup-that determine the sound of a guitar. And it's something that you can always keep improving. So it's a continuous process of trial and error, trying to make your guitar trustworthy,"
Downing adds: "We're looking for something now that we can use just as much as a tool as an instrument; something to get the job done and something that'll be fast replaceable. Aside from my Hamer guitars, I've been using two Flying Vs-a '64 edition and a '70. And as they get older and become more valuable, it seems a shame to take them on stage and do with them what we do. They do tend to get very bashed about. And we do so many shows every year. Plus, the fact that the people who look after the guitars are not always brilliant at their jobs. It's a little risky to take a collector's model on stage. So we'll be looking to manufacture some guitars that can take the abuse or be easily replaced."
Tipton, who says he was initially inspired to pick up the guitar from watching his older brother play, feels that his own playing has improved a great deal since joining Judas Priest. "I was really into the blues when I started out ... Robert Johnson all the way up to Freddie King. Then later on I started listening to the more current, progressive guitarists that were coming out – everybody from Allan Holdsworth right up to today's crop of young players. You have to keep tabs on everybody and be aware of all the good guitar players."
He's quick to add, "I think any guitarist around today can play glistening fast lead breaks. The technique is so much more advanced these days, so that sort of thing is a given. But there's only a chosen few of that bunch who can interpret speed into tastefulness. And that's what I've learned since joining the group. Now I believe that on every lead break you play you gotta have something to say, something interesting and tasty that people really want to hear, or otherwise you shouldn't do it. Even if it's just five or six bars to fill in between verses, it's gotta say something."
While he does try to keep up on what new guitarists are playing, Tipton tends to look to other instruments to help him find new ideas for his own playing. "It's always an interesting exercise to take saxophone scales and interpret them through a guitar. Those kinds of exercises open new doors for you. They show you things to play that you probably wouldn't come across by studying guitar books or watching other guitarists. So I closely watch horn players and keyboard players as well. As a result, my own playing has improved and I think it will continue to do so. I mean, I don't think anybody ever reaches a level that they're satisfied with, where they decide to stop growing. Otherwise, a lot of the fun would go out of it and probably then it would be time to call it a day. You've always got to strive for better things. That's always been our outlook anyway."
As for Downing's own position in the guitar universe and his future plans, he says: "Can you really call yourself a guitarist unless you can play everything? There are so many unknown areas-flamenco, classical, jazz. There was a period that I went through when I messed about with all the other styles, and I enjoyed them immensely. But I eventually came to a point where I had to say, 'Look, I can play anyone of these styles if I practice and expend all my time at playing that one particular style.' But I decided to concentrate on rock guitar because there was no way I could really see jazz creeping into what I wanted to do, or indeed classical or flamenco. So in retrospect, I'd say I made the right decision. Rock is where my bread is buttered, so to speak. I think there probably will come a time in my life where I will spend a lot more time playing classical or jazz, just to play at home for my own satisfaction. But that time is not now."