Stevie Ray Vaughan Opens Up in His First Guitar World Interview from 1984
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."