Nearly 23 years ago — on August 27, 1990 — blues-rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan died in a helicopter crash after a show at East Troy, Wisconsin’s Alpine Valley Music Theater. Vaughan won millions of fans and almost singled-handedly put blues back on the commercial map during his seven years as a major-label recording artist, even while transcending many of the genre’s customary limitations.
He also captivated the imagination and earned the respect of a list of ruling six-string virtuosos that includes Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Larry Coryell, Keith Richards and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett. The latter unabashedly refers to Vaughan as one of his all-time favorite players. Veteran blues artists Etta James, B.B. King and Buddy Guy directly attributed the mid-’80s revival of their previously ebbing careers to Stevie Ray. And today, new generations of guitar heroes — from established hit-makers like John Mayer to newcomers like Nashville’s Bart Walker — all follow in his stylistic path and openly celebrate his influence.
What made and still makes Vaughan and his music resonate with so many, players and laymen alike? The nut answer is this: typically great guitarists either pivot toward the intellectual/technical or the visceral/gut-level. Vaughan was among the rare masters who’ve combined both.
Let’s look at the technical and physical aspects of his playing first, since they’re easiest to explain. One major reason for Vaughan’s appeal was his tone — single coil perfection regardless of whether he was playing through a Vibro-Verb, dual Marshalls or a pig-pile of chained amps. The list of factors that went into composing his tone is deep, from his hard-biting attack to his preference for thick necks to his delicate and extremely well controlled vibrato to his penchant for running amps without much gain and driving them as needed with a Tube Screamer to his brutally thick string gauge (.013 to .058). To get into the SRV zone, use your guitar’s volume pots liberally. Drive the amps sans gain as hard as possible — Vaughan played plenty loud — and turn down the instrument’s volume pot to sweeten up leads and melody lines while letting the volume fly full on rhythm. And stomp the Tube Screamer for howling leads.
Employing both your amp’s and guitar’s volume controls allows you to modulate your guitar’s voice as you would your human voice, and the vocal quality of Vaughan’s guitar is a big reason why his music “spoke” to so many.
Honing perfect vibrato like Vaughan’s takes years of practice and development, to say nothing of his raconteur-like phrasing and alternately howling and hushed string bends. When Stevie made his debut album Texas Flood at age 28 he’d already been playing guitar for more than 20 years and performing long multi-set nights in bars for a decade-and-a-half. He’d also been listening to more than his cornerstones, Albert King and Jimi Hendrix, although they are the primary forces reflected in his music. Great examples of Stevie’s jazz, country and rock diet can be heard throughout his repertoire. For his jazz side, check out “Riveria Paradise,” “Stang’s Swang” and his take on Kenney Burrell’s “Chitlins Can Carne.” For primal country, there’s “The House Is Rockin’.” And for rock, investigate the roaring instrumental “Scuttle Buttin’ ” and his version of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.” The point is, Vaughan explored every aspect of guitar that appealed to him. And, in essence, he was as much a player of “fusion” music as John McLaughlin and Jeff Beck, two other artists who became masters and developed singular styles by stepping fearlessly through boxes and not becoming mired in them. It’s a matter of shaking mental limitations or biases to find one’s own voice, and that’s a major stumbling block for most blues guitarists, who become mired in mimicry.
In addition to hitting his strings hard and using plenty of down strokes, Vaughan also employed the technique of string raking. It’s a cool, slurring sound made by muting the strings and playing them with a down stroke — as he does before the choruses of “Cold Shot.” Its an accent that, when thrown into a lead or used to punctuate a transition in a tune, is similar to a spoken “aside” in conversation. (Back to that idea of playing as though talking — thinking of the guitar as an extension of the voice.)
Vaughan’s bending was a marvel, and also very vocal in his use of quarter- and half-tone bends. Check out his sublime slow blues “Tin Pan Alley” to hear plenty of this as well as examples of shred-level speed used to create emotional nuance, rather than energy, in his melodies. Like King and Hendrix, Stevie was always generous with melodies. And his vibrato, also at the fore of “Tin Pan Alley,” was equally astounding, crafted from sheer muscle control and a gut-governed sense of placement.
I would argue that part of Vaughan’s spectacular guitar playing was born from a natural gift for the instrument. After all, he became a top-flight instrumentalist without any formal training and by all accounts the Vaughan you hear on his final two albums, 1989’s In Step and 1990’s Family Style (the latter cut with his bother Jimmie), was formed by the time he was 16 or 17.
However, Stevie Ray traveled well beyond the reach of most guitar virtuosos with his gift for pure communication, which came across in the soulful qualities within his delivery and his openhearted live performances. He held nothing back in stage in terms of energy or emotions, laying into his music like a driven mule and speaking to his audiences as if they were intimates.
Soul is hard to quantify, although the things that make a performance “soulful” can be analyzed down to techniques like phrasing, bending and vibrato that trigger the perception in a listener that something emotionally deep is happening. However, the subjective manner in which those techniques are employed to create that perception goes beyond the ken of musical and intellectual analysis into a realm that is innately personal. Ya got it or ya don’t, and Steve had it spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs. It also didn’t hurt that he could play blinding leads with his guitar hanging behind his back while he sang at full bore, and do it with a smile.
Overall, it’s Vaughan’s mix of virtuosity, energy, stylistic breadth and pure charisma that won him a place alongside the likes of Hendrix, John Lennon, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash and others who have left or will leave an undying legacy in their wake.