KK Downing

Groupology

  • Judas Priest

Jurassic

Watch KK Downing in Action at the bottom of this page!

Famous / Infamous for

Being one of the founding fathers of Speed Metal. Judas Priest made their mark by speeding up the heavy riffs and rhythms of existing hard rock and playing them with a more metal and less blues rock sound. Sure, Sabbath came first, but where Sabbath rhythms were plodding and hypnotic, Priest focussed on fast, repetitive, driving rhythms that spawned the term "headbanging." Judas Priest in genaral, were also largely responsible for defining and toughening up the heavy metal image with leather and spikes.

KK Downing co-founded Judas Priest back in the early 70's. Today, 30 years later, Downing's still kicking ass stage right, opposite Glenn Tipton. He has never made a solo album, played with any other bands, complained about "creative differences" or being "stifled" by playing in a two-guitar metal machine. KK claims that there's nothing he loves more than playing Judas Priest music.

Like Glenn Tipton, KK has largely been ignored by the guitar mags. He has never placed in any polls, and was only featured in interviews during the metal boom of the 80s.

Influences

Obvious: Jimi Hendrix.

Tipton and Downing belong in a small, select group of players (such as Angus Young, Kiss, and Rudi Schenker) who were around in the 70s, but were defining what metal would become in the 80s. Both are 70s stylists who had enough chops to hold their own in the 80s metal era.

Not-so-obvious: Rory Gallagher, Paul Kossoff, Cream, Deep Purple, John Mayall's Bluesbreaksers.

Strengths

Teamwork: KK and Glenn Tipton wrote the book on how two guitarists should work together in a metal band. Pick any Judas Priest song, put on your headphones, and listen to these two guys play rhythm guitar - how they move from unison riffs to more distinct parts and back, how the guitar tones work together and compliment each other, how the differences in pick attack and tone make the parts breathe and sound so much heavier, even when they're playing the same part. It's the total opposite of a band like Metallica, for example, where the same basic tone is piled on top of itself via multiple overdubs.

Attitude: KK's solos are wild — full of attitude and aggression. Take a listen to the extended whammy bar freakout on the live version of Sinner, from Unleashed in the East, for a great example of this. Yet he can also play in a more melodic, blues-based style when the mood strikes him, as on The Rage from British Steel.

Evolution: Where Priest is different is from their contemporaries is that they continue to evolve and push themselves, so that they don’t sound dated even now. Put on their first CD, and then put on the later ones, and there’s growth and progression. Recently they’ve headed in a heavier direction, incorporating a more "death metal," extreme overtone in the post-Halford era. It's not what they do best, but it is current.

Weaknesses

Tone: KK's tone is thin and heavily boosted in the mids. This works for rhythm. Tipton's warmer, flat sound and KK's thinner, midrangey sound remain distinct and clear, even when doubling the same part. It's the same idea as doubling a rhythm part with a Les Paul on one track, and a strat on another. However, by itself it's not a particularly pleasant tone. I prefer a fatter, warmer lead tone. Your mileage may vary.

Downing is more into noise than Tipton. Downing has some chops but he doesn’t want to sound like anybody else, so he takes the: "I’ll play weird” approach. In this way, Downing is really the precursor to guys like Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman from Slayer.

Vibrato: KK has an extremely fast, very nervous vibrato. It's similar to Danny Kirwin's or Kirk Hammett's. It works given the wild nature of his solos, but it's not particularly musical.

Tone

KK's tone is your basic Strat + Marshall tone. Even though he uses srtats with humbuckers, they still sound more like Strats than Gibsons. In the glory days, the amps were 50W non-master Marshall heads with EL34 power tubes. After flirting with guitar synths and what sounds like a Scholz Rockman on Turbo, KK switched to Rocktron Piranha preamps and a Rocktron Replifex, while continuing to rely on Marshall heads and cabs for amplification. KK sounds like he boosts the midrange around 1K - 2K fairly hard, with the bass rolled off and the treble up.

Downing's guitars were primarly a 64 Flying V and various strats up until the mid 80's, when he switched to custom Hamers. He has recently added a few Hamers with scalloped fingerboards, and some others with extended upper registers to his collection. Most of KK's guitars are equipped with Kahler tremolos. KK uses light picks and ridiculously light strings: .007, .009, .012, .018, .028, and .036.

Like Tipton, Downing used a Range Master treble booster was employed to push the front end of the Marshalls, along with a Cry Baby, a MXR Phase 100, and a Roland Space Echo for effects.

Guitar Style

KK's soloing is very wild, with lots of whammy bar dive bombs, overbends, delay, and chaos — drawing heavily from Hendrix in his more psychedelic moments. His playing is based largely on the pentatonic scale, with a lot of seemingly random notes tossed in. KK claims to use "major, minor, and chromatic" modes in his solos. He improvises his leads in the studio, and tries to stick as close to the recorded versions as possible in concert, although he reserves a few spots in the set for improvisation. When trading licks with Tipton on album, KK's guitar is usually heard on the left side of the stereo spectrum.

KK is not a particularly disciplined picker. He relies primarily on downstrokes, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and dive bombs — alternate picking only when necessary.

Vibrato:

Very fast, fairly wide — similar to Danny Kirwin or Kirk Hammett, and like Kirk Hammett, applied whether it needs to be or not! KK will often use the whammy bar to apply vibrato.

KK Downing in Action

Recommended listening

Judas Priest

Profile By John Walker. Copyright ©2002 All rights reserved.