K.K. Downing – Biography, Judas Priest, Guitarist

Kenneth Keith “K.K.” Downing is a guitarist and founding member of the legendary heavy metal band, Judas Priest. Born October 27th, 1951 in West Bromwich, England, Downing dropped out of high school at the age of 15 and, showing very little ambition, was kicked out of his parents’ home about a year later. It was shortly after this that, inspired by guitar legend Jimi Hendrix, K.K. bought his first guitar. Downing never received much support for his career path from his parents, even after Judas Priest achieved global success.

Downing and Priest bassist Ian Hill grew up together, attending the same schools in Bromwich. Having shared musical interests and taking up instruments around the same time, the two formed a power trio called Freight in April 1970 with drummer John Ellis. Later that year the band was completed with the addition of singer Al Atkins, who suggested the group change their name to Judas Priest, taking the name from Ellis’ group that had just split up, who in turn had taken the name from the Bob Dylan song, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” from his “John Wesley Harding” album.

This first line-up of Judas Priest played their first gig on March 16th, 1971 at St. John’s Hall, Essington, South Staffordshire. Mostly due to Downing’s creative input, the band evolved from blues-influenced sound to a harder, rock sound that would eventually become known as heavy metal. They performed in and around Birmingham, England with a series of different drummers until 1974, occasionally opening for major acts like Trapeze, Thin Lizzy, and Budgie. Financial difficulties and issues with the band’s management, Tony Iommi’s IMA, would lead to the departure of the band’s original singer Alan Atkins and their latest drummer.

At the time, Hill was dating a woman from a nearby town who suggested her brother, Rob Halford as the band’s frontman. Halford joined and brought along his drummer John Hinch from his former band, Hiroshima. The band toured the United Kingdom extensively, often in support of Budgie, and were given a handful of headlining gigs in Norway and Germany. Before the band entered the studio to begin recording their debut album, executives at their record label, Gull Records, suggested they add another musician to the lineup, leading to Glenn Tipton joining the band. The two guitarists worked together to adapt the material, as it was already written, and Tipton was given songwriting credits on Priest’s first album, “Rocka Rolla,” released September, 1974.

“Rocka Rolla” achieved little commercial success, and the band has noticeably not played any of the songs from the album live since about the mid-1970s. The band’s second album, “Sad Wings of Destiny” would be their last under contract with Gull Records, and would launch the band commercially. Though they lost the recording royalties to their first two albums when they ended their affiliation with Gull, they did retain copyright ownership of the songs and the “Sad Wings” songs “The Ripper,” “Victim of Changes,” and “Tyrant” would become all-time classics and staples at Judas Priest’s live performances.

Judas Priest would go on to release 16 studio albums, selling over 45 million copies around the world. They are commonly cited as one of the most influential bands in heavy metal history, and MTV has named them the 2nd greatest metal band of all time, behind Black Sabbath. Downing would eventually announce his retirement from the band on April 20th, 2011 after 42 years with the band, leaving bassist Ian Hill as the only founding member who remained with the band throughout its history.

Downing was known for his aggressive, rock-influenced lead guitar style and seamless dual leads with fellow Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton. Downing’s leads incorporated a raw, rough-edged sound and often included techniques such as pinch harmonics, tremolo picking, and dive bombs. Both guitarists began using tapping more in the late 1970s. Some of Downing’s more notable solos include the lead from “Victim of Changes,” the second solo in “Beyond the Realms of Death,” and the solo from “Sinner,” while some of he and Tipton’s notable dueling leads are featured on “The Sentinel,” “Screaming for Vengeance,” and “Hellrider.”