Guitars and golf have long been Kenneth “K.K.” Downing’s passions, but when he left Judas Priest in 2011 to pursue the latter almost exclusively, the world of heavy metal lost a Vulcan, one of its most Olympian players. On Priest’s classic songs “Hell Bent For Leather,” “Living After Midnight,” “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” “Pain Killer,” “Breaking the Law” and, of course, “Heavy Metal,” he and Glenn Tipton defined the dual guitar sound of British metal, blazing a trail that Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and many others chose to follow.
And during Judas Priest’s classic era, from its founding in 1969 through most of the ’80s, Downing’s trademark guitars were Gibsons, starting with an SG Junior that was his first professional instrument. Seeking more versatility and power, he next stepped up to a two-pickup 1959 SG Standard.
“Gibson has always been my preferred guitar,” Downing, who turns 62 on Sunday, October 27, told Guitar World. “I've found that it has a more powerful pickup and allows me to play a 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.”
In 1970, three years before Judas Priest would make its debut album Rocka Rola, Downing would find the Gibson model that he would be most closely associated with for the rest of his career — the Gibson Flying V. In that same Guitar World interview, he claimed that he fell under the Flying V’s spell after seeing Kim Simmonds of British blues rockers Savoy Brown and American blues icon Freddie King with V’s in their hands, although King is more closely associated with theLes Paul Gold Top and Gibson ES-345 and ES-355 models.
“They look a little more adventurous and not many people play them,” Downing elaborated. “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.”
Another of the first players Downing saw with a Flying V was Jimi Hendrix, whose psychedelic-painted 1967 model with a whammy bar is among the most famed instruments in rock ‘n’ roll. In 1970 Gibson made a run of 500 Flying V’s with whammies, and Downing purchased number 233.
That whammy bar sustains the screaming energy of Judas Priest’s 1977 cut “Sinner,” from the album Sin After Sin. In general Downing, given his interest in Hendrix, King and Simmons, is a blues based player — although the anvil-like down-stroked rhythm parts he and Tipton crafted were certainly an influence on Metallica and many other bands who moved metal away from a blues based vocabulary. But when Downing goes for a more melodic solo, as in Judas Priest, “The Rage,” he usually reaches into his blues bag.
Using 50- and 100-watt Marshall heads, Downing minted a throaty mid-range heavy sound on Priest’s classic recordings that perfectly complimented the lower tone of Tipton’s rig, putting the snarl into their dual-guitar approach by lowering the bass and cranking up the treble as well. Downing also has the more vicious attack than Tipton on Judas Priest’s recordings — pronounced even in his speedy vibrato technique — playing most of the truly unhinged solos in the group’s cannon and often diving into chromatic scales to put his gnarly brand on tunes. And like another famed blues based Gibson playing rocker, Z.Z. Top’s Billy Gibbons, Downing uses a ridiculously light set of strings to make his heavy sounds, starting with .08s on the high E string and ending with .40s on the low E.