Judas Priest have been rocked by the sudden departure of influential guitarist KK Downing after the axe hero announced his retirement with immediate effect.

Priest are just weeks away from a UK arena tour and headline appearance at this summer’s High Voltage festival.

But the band released a statement revealing Downing was stepping down and said: “The band respect his decision and naturally all wish him well.” Downing has been replaced by 31-year-old British musician Richard Faulkner – currently in Lauren Harris’ touring band – and Priest have pledged to fulfil all of their 2011 touring commitments.

“Richie has blended into the band perfectly and is a huge talent who is going to set the stage on fire,” added the statement.

“Having thought long and hard about how to proceed, Rob, Glenn, Ian and Scott unanimously agreed that they should go ahead with the tour and not let the fans down all around the world.”

The band’s Epitaph tour had been billed as their last across Britain but with plans for a new album in 2012 it seems Priest could well tour beyond this year.