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Stevie Ray Vaughan - The Interview

Issue #20

Suffice it to say in a life as fast and furious as one of his solos, SRV burned his name into guitar history. Some pundits rate him as one of the finest ever. Whether you go along with that or not, no one can deny that SRV’s hot Texas Blues style was electrifying and dynamic - arriving just at a time when the Blues was sounding a bit down at heel.
Gary Cooper

Stevie Ray Vaughan - The Blues Born Again

Celebrating 30 years since the release of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s Texas Flood and commemorating the guitarist’s tragically early death in August 1990, Guitar Interactive brings you our first ever tribute edition.

Gary Cooper considers the short, blazing career of the man from Dallas, Texas who re-wrote the Blues guitar handbook.

It’s 30 years since Stevie Ray Vaughan picked Blues guitar up by the scruff of the neck and gave it a good, hard shake. It needed one.  An earlier generation of fine Blues players like Peter Green, Eric Clapton, Paul Kossoff, Mick Taylor and Johnny Winter had fallen, either from grace or mass public acclaim (or both), while others, like Buddy Guy, Rory Gallagher, Albert King, Albert Collins and

BB King, though they were still actively preaching the Blues, weren’t hitting the mass audiences that the genre had commanded a decade before. What Stevie Ray Vaughan (SRV) did was inject attitude, fire and a blazing style back into the Frankenstein’s monster that had lain on the slab waiting for just that jolt of Texas lightning.

In this issue we’re bringing you a feast of SRV, starting with an interview by John Stix from 1984. Later in this special issue, Jamie Humphries offers some  biographical notes then takes us through a superlative SRV Tech Session, analysing just what it was that made the guitar world sit up and take notice when

SRV walked on stage. Vintage guitar expert Phil Harris journeys back to the era with a Strat, amps and FX of the SRV period and, finally, Michael Casswell shows some mercy to those of us who can’t afford pre-CBS Strats and ancient Super Reverbs by showing us how to get that magical sound from much more affordable, and easily available, modern gear. Whether you can handle SRV’s taste for 013 strings is, of course, another matter, but I’ll leave that to Messrs Humphries and Casswell to worry about!

What we aren’t going to do is a track by track retrospective review of SRV’s tragically short discography (he released just four studio albums before his death in a helicopter accident in 1990), nor a potted biography - both of which you can find anywhere on the web. We’re here to bring you the stuff you can’t find elsewhere!

Suffice it to say in a life as fast and furious as one of his solos, SRV burned his name into guitar history. Some pundits rate him as one of the finest ever. Whether you go along with that or not, no one can deny that SRV’s hot Texas Blues style was electrifying and dynamic - arriving just at a time when the Blues was sounding a bit down at heel. Some say Joe Bonamassa is doing much the same today and while the two aren’t much alike, it’s eerily true that whenever the Blues looks

about ready to be consigned to the history books, someone always seems to come along to revive it. And in SRV’s case revitalise it, too. It took him just seven,  intense, years.

Screaming like a Texas Twister

In 1984, just as Stevie Ray Vaughan’s career was starting to peak John Stix recorded the following interview, reproduced here with its original introduction.

Screaming out of Austin like the Texas twister he portrays on the album cover of Couldn’t Stand The Weather, Stevie Ray Vaughan has become the newest guitar hero in the ‘80s by shedding fresh light and spirit into the two fundamental elements of Rock ‘n’ Roll from the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Blues and Jimi Hendrix. In this post Eddie Van Halen era of guitar playing where modern greats develop new techniques and sounds by reshaping the way we play the instrument with both hands or exploring the outer reaches of sound synthesis, Stevie Ray exits to  standing ovations on the bare bones soul of the Blues. The naked truth as Santana might say.  

Reared at the heels of his older brother, Jimmy Vaughan of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie soaked up the sounds of the finest Bluesmen on record and in the local clubs. His hours listening to the British Blues heroes were mixed with an equal dose of Albert King, Buddy, Guy, T-Bone Walker, Django Reinhardt and Jimmy Smith. But it was all over when he stepped into the shadow of rocks finest innovator and Blues master. Stevie made Hendrix his guru. By combining the sound of Hendrix with the soul of the Blues Stevie struck pay dirt with his audience.

Amongst the first to fly him past the Austin city limits was Mick Jagger. Stevie and Double Trouble (Chris Leyton on drums and Tommy Shannon on bass) were flown to New York by the head Stone for a private party. Jerry Wexler then recommended to Claude Nobs, the promoter of the Montreaux Jazz Festival, that he put Stevie on the bill. That performance, part of which is on a live sampler album for Atlantic, was witnessed by both Jackson Browne and David Bowie. Browne offered Stevie free studio time, and Bowie later invited him to play on his comeback record Let’s Dance. Still most people first heard of Stevie from all the play he got in the music press by not joining Bowie’s touring band. Who was this unknown guitarist that Jagger, Bowie and Browne showed so much interest in?

We did not have to wait for long. Stevie’s demos from Browne’s Down Town Studio hit the streets as the album called Texas Flood.  Crossing the generations, it appealed to the ‘60s crowd by sparking memories of the early raw passions of Clapton and Mick Taylor. To a younger audience it was about discovering the fiery energy of the Blues, something that would not know through their love of Randy Rhoads and Michael Schenker. We met Stevie in his hometown of Austin, and spoke briefly with him during a break in the shooting of his first video.

Were records your first introduction to the Blues?

That and my brothers playing made a big impression. I got to meet a lot of people who were Blues players, not too far from when I started playing. I would hang out on Hall Street in Dallas. I saw a lot of bands play.

Since you learned a lot from your brother’s record collection and a record is a record, could you have grown up in New York City with those same records and still have developed the same?

Probably not, but the differences would mainly be things I wouldn’t notice unless I left for a long time. It’s the feeling of the people. I ‘m sure the heat has something to do with it. It’s just a way of life around here.

What characteristics does Texas Blues have that make it different than the British Blues of the late ‘60s?

There’s quite a bit of difference in different ways. Texas Blues has more horns, it’s a bit more uptown in style. It’s also a little rougher sounding and meaner. It’s not quite so slick. Not to sound out of line, but the English people were copying Texas music, so it’s gonna sound a little bit different. There’s a difference doing it growing up in the surroundings that created it instead of seeing it from a distance.

Was playing the Blues accepted? Johnny Winter has told me he was an outcast for playing the Blues.

There were different periods of time when that was the case. As it is now, it’s totally accepted

I started off playing Rock and went back to the Blues. Did you experience anything like that?

I pretty much had all of my influences at the same time. It got heavier handed on the side of the Blues at a couple of different places.  I was pretty heavy into it early on and more so latter, but in the middle there was more Clapton and Hendrix. But keep in mind that at the same time I was still listening to the original songs that the English Blues people were copying. I was getting a good view of it because I was seeing it from both sides at the same time. I was listening to Beck, Page and

Clapton along with T-Bone Walker, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert Collins and some Lonnie Mack kind of things. In fact Lonnie Mac’s “The Wham” on Fraternity Records was the first record I ever bought.

Did you learn the solo?

I did my best to learn it. It’s a pretty strong thing, a pretty tricky one.

Like “Scuttle Buttin’”?

They didn’t get it on the record jacket for the first pressing of the album, but that song is dedicated to Lonnie Mack. It’s pretty much taken off his style

Did the guitar come easy for you?

It’s pretty much always been that way. Of course there were some difficulties at first.  As a rule it’s been fairly easy. I didn’t always sound this way. I’ve changed some. I’ve gotten closer to what I’m hearing.

Was there a time when you tried to completely sound like Hendrix?

Just to the point where I could tell what it was and how to do it. It wasn’t so much trying to copy him but learning how to do something, I have a strange perspective on the way he played. I think he and Django Reindhardt pretty much played the same. If you go and listen to a lot of Django’s stuff, especially when he’s doing improvisations by himself, you’ll hear a lot of things where Hendrix might do something similar with a wang bar, Django would do it with real fast picking. He used long extended phrases where Hendrix would do it with a wang bar and feedback. I think they were probably two of the free-est guitar players that I’ve ever heard in my life. 

Was it Are You Experienced that got you going?

Yes, I couldn’t believe what I heard the first time I heard him. It sounded like he was playing everything that ever excited him.  That’s pretty much the way I look at playing myself. That’s where I get ideas. I’m not necessarily copying anything to a tee, but I’ve tried to incorporate everything that I’ve ever heard that excited me. I want to be excited, it’s more fun that way.

What do you think of Robin Trower?

I like his straight Blues playing more than I do his other style. I may be wrong but it seems to me that I get more the dark side of his playing on the Hendrix things. It’s not uplifting. Those sounds Hendrix came up with are very valid. But they were not all there was to his playing.

Did you study Curtis Mayfield as well?

Yes, I listened to him a lot.

The middle of your rendition of “Voodoo Chile” reminded me of Mayfieid.

The idea was more what Hendrix got from Albert Collins, and the way he would pick it. There’s a softer touch to it. It’s trying to put the excitement of Albert Collins style with crystal clear tone that’s not quite so biting.

Do you ever have to shy away from Hendrix style to avoid the comparison?

Only because people make that hard to deal with. I’m not really trying to sound like Hendrix. But I’m not going to avoid what I do understand about how he played. It’s valid and one of the first times in a long time when Rock music was played with soul. That was the whole thing with him. He put so much soul into it he made it come back to being real again instead of just a commercial thing.

Did you study Django as much as you did Jimi?

Not quite as much, but I listened to him a lot all the time.

“Stang’s Swang” struck me more as a Kenny Burrell type thing more than Django?

Jimmy was also bringing home Kenny Burrell, Groove Holmes and Jimmy Smith. I was real lucky to have a brother like Jimmy.  He wasn’t into just the new fad.

When Jimmy took off with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, did you daydream that one day you might record and play on the big stages?

We were already working on those kinds of things. We put out a local record with my band at the time, The Cobras. I wasn’t singing then but my guitar tone and style was pretty much the same now as it was then.

Have you experimented with other guitars besides a Strat?

I play Strats because I like the way they feel.  My newest guitar is a custom model designed after my Stratocaster. It’s got an ebony neck with pearl inlay. It’s at least half pearl. The body is more like a Gibson body in the shape of a Stratocaster. It’s a lot heavier wood. I also have a ‘58 Gibson 335. In the past I’ve played Gibson Byrdlands and Barney Kessel models. I’ve used an Epiphone Rivera and a Telecaster.

Who built your custom guitar?

Billy Gibbons had it built for me by a man named James Hamilton. It’s called a Hamiltone. I’m using five Strats and that. It has EMG pickups but I’m changing those. They are battery operated and they say you can’t hear the battery run down, but I do and it bothers me. I may go to a regular pickup. The only plus is that with a battery operated pickup with a pre-amp, it doesn’t buzz because it is such a low Ohmage. You also can’t be shocked either. I have a problem a lot of times getting shocked with the other guitars.

Do you still use the Howard Dumble amp with four 12’s?

It overheats a bit but it doesn’t blow up like it used to. I had Howard come to Austin and we changed resistors here and there. We tweaked it out. I also use two

Fender Virbroverbs number 5 and 6 off the production line and a Fender Leslie Vibrotone.

What box do you kick in for “Voodoo Chile”?

A Tube Screamer. The only reason I use something like that is because I don’t have enough arms to be turning up knobs all the time. So I just push a button and have the Screamer preset to full. Then I stomp on a wah once or twice.

Have you always been confident in your style?

Sure, if I’m not confident in what I’m doing, I shouldn’t be up there. I don’t mean that to sound presumptuous but that’s what I ‘m supposed to be doing. If I’m not going to be confident and it’s not going to sound that way, who else is going to pay attention to it.  That’s the way it’s been all along. I haven’t had another job since I was 12 1/2. I never did look at it any other way.

Are you that much better now or has the stage just grown larger?

I’m doing the best I can to do that much better. I don’t even think about it other than to keep on trying harder every night.

You once said when you practice you start off with the same opening lick.

What I meant was that usually that’s what comes out first. I don’t know the lick. It’s usually something fast in A. I pick up a guitar and go. It’s just something to see how the neck feels, how it runs. That applies to any guitar I pick up. It’s not intentional.  It’s just something I ended up doing out of habit.

Is there a particular reason why you tune the guitar down to E flat?

I like the sound better. In fact the Hamiltone guitar has an inch longer scale so the strings are the same pitch as if it were tuned to E.  That way it works more accurately and it still has the same sound which is a little lower. As far back as the electric Blues that 1 know of, people have been tuning to D. Some people even tune to C. Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’  Wolf ’s guitar player, played in C. He used great big strings and played in the four chord position, all the time. If everybody was in A, he was playing in D. He didn’t always do that but it made the strings sound real powerful and look like rubber bands. He sounds that way pretty much no matter what he plays on.

You’ve played in many different band configurations, why did you choose the trio?

Right now it’s more free and I’ve gotten used to playing several parts at the same time.  When you play with a bigger band you have to forget part of that so that you can leave holes. I still enjoy playing with bigger bands and always will. There’s nothing that would stop me from using that in the near future. There’s a certain thing that happens when I play with a trio, especially this trio, these three people. We’re real free to express ourselves the way we want to.

Do you find it difficult to sing and play at the same time?

It can be difficult to play up to par comping when you sing because most of the time the lyrics and the phrasing of the lyrics have nothing to do with the phrasing of the guitar part, especially when you’re trying to comp in a trio. It’s another story when you have a horn band or rhythm instruments that can carry the rhythm while you sing. Then you can relax and go ahead and sing without worrying about making sure that the rhythm of the song keeps going right.

Both albums sound live in the studio. My guess is the first thing you look for is the right feel.

That’s what we have to have.

Do you have to do anything to get in the right mood for recording?

You don’t want to run in and run up to play.  We relax for a few minutes.

“Tin Pan Alley” was all finesse and simmer.

That’s something that sometimes I don’t know how to do. We set up in the studio, made sure that everything worked right and that was the first song we did, first take. That simmer was pretty much intentional. We had the chance to hear how we were playing and go ahead and stay relaxed on it. The style we had in mind was something like the “It’s My Life” album by Buddy Guy and Jr. Wells.

How did the title tune “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” get pieced together?

I wrote all the parts to that song myself.  It’s the first time I’ve ever done that. Most of them were written between gigs on the bus going from town to town. I had a little Fostex 4 track recorder. I would record one track and go back and play bass or something and work with it until I found something that fit. That way it’s much easier to show other people what I need. I was trying to do something completely different then I’d done before. The first part that I wrote was the octave funky rhythm part.

Is there any song in particular that really sets you up for playing?

All the songs are about finding the right groove and feeling. “Scuttle Buttin” is simple but tricky if you don’t know how to play it already. It’s not that hard at all once you get used to doing it.

How does Weather stand up with Texas Flood?

I like it as much or better. The first record was basically a demo that became a record.

The story goes that Jackson Browne offered you free time at his studio.

That’s right.

Was John Hammond there for the recording?

He was there for the mixes. On Weather he was there for the recording. What he does is to make sure you sound like you, and not changed by effects or tricks. His job is to make sure you sound just like you. Thank god that there’s still producers like that.

Have you produced the Albert King record yet?

No I had to use the time we were going to record to remix my record. I’m still hoping that will come off as soon as possible. I’m really excited about doing that.

What will you do for him?

I’ll help choose songs, musicians the whole deal.

I’ve noticed that many of the old Blues masters don’t play with the best players?

A lot of times they go more for the feeling then the technicalities and that still holds true.

How was your jam with Jeff Beck in Hawaii?

Great! We did “The Wham,””Don’t Fall For Me Baby Because My Hearts A Lost Cause,” and “Jeff’s Boogie.”

How was playing at the Grammy awards?

It was fun but it could have been more fun.  Certain things happened and there was some respect that wasn’t there. We were supposed to being giving Chuck Berry respect and somebody was stealin’ thunder and that wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.

You’re talking about George Thorogood. 

You said that.

How important was the Jagger/Bowie connection to getting you a shot at the majors?

Of course they helped a lot. Texas Flood was recorded before Bowie asked me to do his record, but after he heard us the first time.  The Stones helped us a bit. That was before even we went to Montreaux.

How was the Bowie record?

It was a lot of fun. I did one song in three takes and the rest of them in one or two takes.

How is the performance on the Live at Montreaux album that just came out?

It sounds like us two years ago but that’s fine.

When you go with a take on record is it because it’s good enough or because it’s a great performance?

Because the performance is good enough, and we’re comfortable with how it sounds and feels.

Do you have any favorite performances on record?

“Voodoo”. I go back and forth on which I like the best. We improve on the songs as we go along, because it’s another day of playing together. We get tighter and tighter. We go through phases of things changing a lot and sometimes they just tweak out.” 

Now check-out this issue’s exclusive Jamie Humphries SRV Tech Session, plus a look at SRV vintage gear with Phil Harris and Michael Casswell on how to get the SRV sound with equipment most of us can actually afford!

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