K.K. Downing

KK Downing

Founding member, formerly of legendary heavy metal group Judas Priest, K.K. takes out some time with us to talk about his early years as a guitarist, musical influences, the original roots of Judas Priest, guitars, his most recent recording project for the Who tribute album, “Who Are You? An All Star Tribute to the Who”, and much more.

December 5, 2012

Guitarhoo!: Hello K.K. thanks for joining us! At what age did you pick up guitar and do you play any other instruments?

K.K. Downing: I was nearly 16. I can only play guitar with any proficiency.

G!: Did you learn by ear or did you take formal lessons?

KK: A bit of both but I am mainly self-taught. I’m also more of a music theory man these days, except when I write. Then I usually just pick up the guitar and trust my instincts.

G!: Who were some of the musicians or types of music that inspired you to play?

KK: There were many but Jimi Hendrix was the future and I was very quick to recognize it.

G!: What was the first concert you ever attended in your life and how did it affect you?

KK: It was probably John Mayall with Mick Taylor. And yes I became addicted to what I was experiencing at that first gig.

G!: At what age did you join your first band and what kind of music was it?

KK: Maybe 17-18. It was just me and my second cousin Brian Badhams (now with The Elki Brooks Band) on bass and a lad named Martin Philips who had a couple of drums. We mainly jammed a few Cream songs and a few 12-bar blues. I and my cousin actually tossed a coin in his bedroom to see who would play guitar or bass.

G!: What was the music scene like in your hometown at the time you starting playing in bands?

KK: It was excellent although lots of venues would have both a tamla motown act and a blues band; both on the same night. Many people were actually into both genres at the time, though I wasn’t.

G!: What led to the formation of Judas Priest?

KK: As I have said many times Judas Priest were a very fine blues band led mainly by Al Atkins but after tragically losing their guitarist they disbanded. I auditioned for the job but I wasn’t a blues player. Later Al was at the rehearsal rooms and saw what me, Ian Hill and drummer John Ellis were doing. Al consented to joining so, Judas Priest #2 was born. Al was excellent as he never tried to push us in the blues direction but instead got right on board with us, going forward to the new direction we were pursuing.

The original Judas Priest circa 1972-73. From left to right: bassist Ian Hill, K.K. Downing, drummer Chris “Congo” Campbell and vocalist Al Atkins.

G!: Who came up with the name for the band and why?

KK: I think the original Judas Priest took the name from a Bob Dylan song.

G!: Did Judas Priest play the local bars for very long before their debut album and if so what are some of your memories from that time?

KK: We sure did. It was tough but a lot of fun to do. It was also great to get to know our country better by gigging everywhere. Too many memories to quote here, guess I need to write my book.

G!: In the late 60’s, early 70’s other UK rock bands such as Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were having mainstream success. Did you or Judas Priest use that as a gauge for something to strive for or did you and the band have a distinct vision and focus on creating your own style of metal regardless of what else was happening in the scene at that time?

KK: Totally spot on! I was convinced that there was a gap that could be filled.

G!: Did Judas Priest play cover songs initially (if so what were some of the covers) or did you start to write original music right away?

KK: We did originals mainly but I can remember us playing “Spanish Castle Magic” a few times and couple of songs by Quartermass.

G!: What led to Judas Priest getting signed and the release of your debut album Rocka Rolla, in 1974? Did the band get a lot of support and promotion from the record label, Gull Records, and how was the album received by music fans at that time?

KK: We were progressing with the gig side of things and building quite a fan base so I guess that helped. Gull were ok but were unable to give the support the band needed – although the album was quite well received.

G!: Judas Priest had written so many excellent songs which turned out to be classics to this day. When it came to write for the Judas Priest albums, did the band have so much chemistry that the songs came together fairly effortlessly, or can you recall certain songs that were more laborious, but you were glad you stuck with it?

KK: All of the above went on. Sometimes it was easy, other times it was hard and I really don’t know why.

G!: When you record a solo do you spend time with it to develop a theme or do you improvise and get it done in a couple of takes?

KK: Both! Although these days I do tend to analyse the backing musically, so that I know what scales I can integrate.

G!: Do you feel the 1983 US festival, in Southern California (sponsored by Steve Wozniak of Apple Computers) was a milestone achievement which established Judas Priest as a household name in the USA? How was the experience playing the US Festival?

KK: Yes I am sure that it was. The whole thing was seriously mega, we even got to land backstage in a chopper. Very cool!

G!: When was the first time you heard the term “Heavy Metal” to describe the genre of loud hard rock distorted guitar driven music?

KK: I am guessing but I think it was around 1974-1975. It was, as far as I know, simply one journalist that coined the phrase in a regular music paper. I can’t remember which band he was referencing or if it was actually Priest!

G!: Was Judas Priest referred to as a Heavy Metal band since the beginning, if not what genre title was the band associated with?

KK: To start with I think we were known as progressive blues, then progressive, then rock, then hard rock, then heavy rock, then heavy metal. All in a space of about five years.

G!: On a lot of Priest songs you either traded off solo’s with Glenn Tipton, but occasionally one of you would handle the entire solo. How did the two of you work out who does what and where?

KK: I think usually Glenn would indicate some of the solos he had a fancy for, and I would then do the remainder. It was all very amicable.

G!: On the last Judas Priest album “Nostradamus”, it’s nothing like anything the band has put out before. The lush textures, epic symphonic arrangements interwoven with the metal groovin’ guitars, and a concept theme about 16th-century writer Nostradamus. Who in the band initiated the concept and direction of this album?

KK: After we discussed things, we all felt that it was an opportunity to get a lot more out of our system. I think we were also quite excited to be able to show we were musically more proficient than some people thought.

G!: How long did you work on the album from beginning to end?

KK: I think it came together quite quickly considering the size of the project. Not sure how long it took exactly.

Official video for the song, “War” by Judas Priest off the album, “Nostradamus”.

G!: Throughout the years you’ve stayed pretty loyal to playing the Gibson Flying V. What is special to you about that guitar?

KK: I’m not sure but the first time I saw one I knew it was for me. I guess it was my first romance.

K.K.’s signature Flying V guitar by KxK Custom Guitars

G!: What do you think were some of the key elements of Judas Priests success and longevity?

KK: We were not an overnight success so we had to grind it out year after year, trying to get to where we hoped that we belonged.

G!: What is your favourite Judas Priest track to listen to or perform?

KK: There are many but I really liked playing “The Rage” on the 2009 “British Steel” tour.

G!: There have been so many cover versions of Judas Priest songs by other bands as a tribute to the band. Are there any particular covers that you are impressed with?

KK: Yes many but to name just two, “Sinner” (Devin Townsend) and “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin'” by Saxon.

G!: Are you a connoisseur of guitar, how many guitars do you have in your collection?

KK: Not too many as many guitars have gone to charity. Maybe 25-30.

G!: Do you have a home studio? Can you give us a rundown of some of the gear you prefer to record with?

KK: Yes, I do most of my work at home. I think I’m like a lot players who change gear every year as we are all trying to get things better and better. I can’t remember being ecstatic about any of my sounds when recording. Yet, when the album is finished I am often delighted on how good it is.

G!: After being one of the founding members of Priest and having a long successful career with the band, you retired in 2011. What brought about your decision?

KK: There had been an on-going breakdown in working relationships between myself, elements of the band and management for some time.

G!: Most recently you performed on the song, “Eminence Front” by the Who for the album, “Who Are You? An All Star Tribute to the Who”. How did your involvement come about and how was the experience?

KK: I was simply approached by Cleopatra Records who told me about the great collection of artists who were contributing, and I said yes and feel honoured to pay tribute to such a great band.

G!: Do you have any plans to record new music, perhaps a solo record, or any other creative ventures in the future?

KK: Not at the moment!

G!: What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of music?

KK: Golf, tennis, football, snooker, table tennis, walking, fishing, beer, dining, architecture, history, antiques, interior design, English heritage.

G!: Are there any new bands or artists that you like in the mainstream or indie world presently?

KK: Not really. I am still looking and listening.

G!: Looking back at your career so far, what are some of your fondest memories?

KK: I can’t really list the highs or lows as there have been too many to mention. Except for getting to where I am and it is all thanks to the loyal fans.

G!: Any Spinal Tap moments that make you chuckle that we should know about?

KK: There have been many of course but as you would expect most are still x-rated. Sorry!

G!: Is there any advice you’d like to share with aspiring musicians?

KK: My advice is never give up! I could have many times but I never did.

G!: Thanks so much for taking out the time for this K.K., its been an honour. Thanks for the years of great music!

Interview © 2012 Guitarhoo!

K.K. on the web