Stevie Ray Vaughan Opens Up in His First Guitar World Interview from 1984
Here's Guitar World's first full-length interview with Stevie Ray Vaughan, from the May 1984 issue. The original story ran with the headline "Stevie Ray Vaughan: Hendrix' White Knight."
In an age where musical tastes are being shaped by technological innovations, where sensibilities are being assaulted by arsenals of Linn drums and Fairlights and Mini Moogs, it's downright refreshing to see someone playing straight from the gut again.
With his stripped-down attack and electrifying prowess, Stevie Ray Vaughan has refocused attention back to the bare essentials—guitar, bass and drums in a basic 12-bar format.
He has no light show to speak of, no dry ice, no fog, no lasers. He doesn't go in for the leather-and-studs macho posturing of popular heavy metal bands and he's not particularly adept at crowd manipulation as many of the top rock bands are. Yet Stevie Ray Vaughan is a hot property, perhaps the hottest thing to come out of Dallas since J.R. Ewing.
A longtime local hero in juke joints throughout Austin, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth, Stevie Ray is now proudly waving the Texas flag all over the country in one sold-out concert venue after another. His formula hasn't changed much from his humbler days, but young concertgoers can't seem to get enough.
His secret? A soft-spoken, laconic man, Stevie Ray sums it up in three little words: "I just play."
Of course, there's more to it than that. Though he's not one to admit it, Stevie Ray is perhaps the most in-the-flesh exciting blues-based electric guitarist to come along since Jimi Hendrix passed.
Comparisons to Hendrix are inevitable. Listening to Stevie Ray's debut Epic album, Texas Flood, the similarities are all-too apparent. The title cut recalls the searing blues power of Jimi's "Red House," while the tender ballad "Lenny" is reminiscent of such lyrical Hendrix offerings as "Angel," " Little Wing" or "Wind Cries Mary."
The Hendrix influence looms large over Stevie Ray Vaughan. Yet, this is no clone act. The 29-year-old Texan is playing it sincere, offering up a heartfelt homage to someone who obviously touched his soul.
Says Stevie Ray of his alter ego: “I loved Jimi a lot. He was so much more than just a blues guitarist. He could do anything. I was about sixteen when he died. I could do some of his stuff by then but actually I’ve been trying to find out what he was doing moreso lately than I was then. Now I'm really learning how to do it and I'm trying to expand on it ... not that I can expand on it a whole bunch. But I try."
Like many of the young guitar enthusiasts who come to his shows, Stevie Ray never saw Hendrix perform live. Other than a few tips early on from his big brother Jimmie, he had no mentor to show him the way. He couldn't read music (still can't), so he didn't pick up any techniques from the various instruction books available on the market that dissect Jimi's technique.
Instead, he relied solely on his ears and an uncanny ability to capture the emotional essence of Jimi's playing just from listening to his records. He still relies on his keen ears to this day.
"I took music theory for one year in high school and flunked all but one six-week period," he confides. "That's because I couldn't read music and the rest of the class was already eight or nine years into it. The teacher would sit down and hit a ten-fingered chord on the piano and you had to write all the notes down in about ten seconds. I just couldn't do it. It was more like math to me.”
He adds, “A lot of the songs I write now … I don’t even know what key they're in. I have to ask somebody to find out. I can play it, I just can't name it. Jazz changes and all. But I don't know the names of what it is I’m doing.”
When asked how he communicates his musical ideas to the other members of Double Trouble (drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon), Stevie Ray again doesn't waste words: "With this," he explains, uncovering a recently purchased Fostex four-track cassette recorder. "Now I can just lay down tracks and play it back to the guys so they can hear just how I'd like it to sound. I did one the other day with two guitar tracks and a drum track. I played some drums before picking up the guitar and I still like to mess around with them. So now I can use this Fostex and get down pretty much what I want, then let the guys take it from there."
When asked if his current interest in the Fostex might eventually lead to some experiments in multiple-guitar parts, a la Hendrix' Rainbow Bridge rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," Stevie Ray laughs and says, "I'll get there ... I gotta figure out how to run this thing first."
For the young crowds flocking to see this new Texas sensation, Stevie Ray is providing a vital link to something they missed out on. He's carrying on the Hendrix legacy. Maybe these kids have seen pictures of Jimi and they may have attended midnight screenings of Monterey Pop or Woodstock or Jimi Plays Berkeley.
They certainly have purchased his records. But they never saw the late guitar hero in the flesh. They never felt the sheer electricity that Jimi could generate. But now they can get those vicarious thrills through Stevie Ray. His reverence for Hendrix becomes all the more obvious when you see him in action. His renditions of "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" and his extended jam on Jimi's freaked-out classic, "Third Stone From the Sun," are so emotionally charged and infused with the raw spirit of Hendrix that it makes your pulse quicken.
And it's not a blatant case of mimicry, either. It's more of a continuum than a rip-off. There's no cold calculation or planned choreography to Stevie Ray's show. He has no wardrobe person telling him what to wear on stage, no image-makers manipulating his career or no musical advisors (John Hammond included) telling him what to play.
Watching him in action, you get the sense that what he wears, what he plays and how he plays it is merely an extension of who he is and where he has come from.
According to Hammond, the respected industry sage who was instrumental in bringing to the public's attention such talents as Charlie Christian, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen: "Stevie is in that great Texas tradition of T-Bone Walker. It's a wonderful tradition. T-Bone, who I first saw back in 1936, used to do what Stevie does now ... play the guitar behind his neck and everything else.”
At a recent performance in New York at the Beacon Theater, Stevie Ray was indeed in classic Texas-showman form. Decked out in a blue Japanese kimono, loose-fitting and accented by an array of pastel silk scarves slung around his neck, he radiated that flamboyant charisma that was so much a part of the Hendrix mystique.
During one boogie-down number he reached up and removed his ever-present black, wide-brimmed Tex-Arx hat, plopped it on top of a nearby microphone stand as if it were a hat rack and proceeded to play his beat-up '59 Strat from behind his head as he shuffle-stepped his way across the stage. The crowd erupted, many abandoning their seats to push their way toward the stage for a closer look. Some of them fixed their gazes on Stevie Ray's fingers; trying desperately to memorize his licks. Others just stood by in awe, mesmerized by his stage presence.
It takes more than just sheer chops to generate such excitement. There's a hidden X-factor that goes into creating such pandemonium. Hendrix had it. So does Stevie Ray, but darned if he can put it into words, other than those same three words he keeps going back to: "I just play."
Not one to analyze his own style, he prefers to talk about the music he listened to as a kid in Texas that helped shape what it is he's doing today. “I started out trying to copy licks from Lonnie Mack records. He was a really big influence for me. And my older brother Jimmie used to bring home records by B.B. and Albert King, Albert Collins and guys like Hubert Sumlin, Buddy Guy ... all of 'em. I didn't hear as much of Johnny Winter as a lot of people around Texas. I'm not sure why. I remember seeing his picture and stuff on posters around town, but I really didn't hear that much of him."
He recalls seeing many of the local R&B bands that were popular around Dallas, including Johnny G and The G-Men and Hank Ballard and The Midnighters (also a favorite of the fledgling Jimi Hendrix, who dug Hank Ballard's records from his hometown in Seattle). And on occasion he got to see the big names like B.B., Albert and Freddie King whenever they blew into town. It was all a vital part of his musical education during his formative years in Texas; more valuable to him than scribbling down the notes to ten-fingered chords on a piece of paper.
One other guitarist whom Stevie Ray is particularly taken with is Django Reinhardt, the phenomenal three-fingered gypsy guitarist who helped revolutionize the instrument in the thirties.
"To me, Django and Jimi were doing the same thing in a lot of ways. Django would do it with acoustic guitar and Jimi would do it on electric, using feedback and things. Instead of using feedback, Django would just shake those strings like crazy. And neither one of them had anything to build on ... they just did it. Django didn't have any book or anything to borrow from. He wrote the book. Same with Jimi. Nobody was doing those kinds of electronic things he was doing. He just did it.”
Besides absorbing the essence of Jimi's spirit, Stevie also took a technical tip from Hendrix (and players like Otis Rush) by mounting a left-handed bridge assembly on his '59 Strat. "I like it better, it just makes more sense to me, " he says. "You don't have to really hold on to it. It 's right there."
Other modifications oh his main ax include a drastic fret job. "I don't like Fender frets," he explains. "I just can't grab onto the strings. The frets just aren't big enough for me to be able to get into it at all, so I use Gibson Jumbo Bass frets. If I didn't, I'd wear 'em out in no time."
No catalog of Stevie Ray's musical influences would be complete without mention of his brother Jimmie, currently the lead guitarist with another hot Texas band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Being three and-a-half years older, Jimmie naturally exerted a significant influence over his younger brother. It was, after all, Jimmie who brought home all the records that Stevie Ray would eventually emulate, and it was Jimmie who would inevitably supply Stevie Ray with his first instruments.
"Jimmie would leave his guitars around the house and tell me not to touch 'em. And that's basically how I got started. I actually wanted to be a drummer, but I didn't have any drums. So I just go into what was available to me at the time."
Stevie Ray recalls that there was a certain amount of tension between the two when he was playing bass for Jimmie's band, Texas Storm. "I was little brother, especially then, " he says. "What happened was he was moving ahead a little faster than me and I guess I was dragging it down a bit, so that didn't work out too well. But I think with any brothers there's a period of time when the little brother always gets in the way. That's just brother-to-brother shit. It wasn't anything between us that lasted. Hell, now we can't see enough of each other."
When I mentioned to Stevie Ray that his older brother now brags about him in interviews, he laughs and insists, "Well, I think he's the better guitar player ... so there."