Interview: Kenny Wayne Shepherd

The blues-rock guitarist talks about why he picked up the guitar, his early days and gives some advice to young players.

GUITAR WORLD: What inspired you to start playing guitar?

My dad was a disc jockey at various radio stations in our hometown and he used to take me to concerts. I attended my very first blues concert when I was 3 years old. It was Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. And because my dad got to go backstage, too, I got to meet many musicians. Watching all these concerts while I was growing up played a major role in my interest in the guitar.

But the defining moment for me was when I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan. I was 7 years old at the time and I got to meet him afterward. I walked away from that concert just dying to get serious about the guitar. I already had some toy guitars that I had played around with at home, and I probably learned my first notes on one of them, but I got my first electric guitar right after I had met Stevie.

What was your first guitar?

It was a Yamaha copy of a Strat—just a real cheap starter guitar. When you’re seven years old, your parents don’t know how serious you are about music, so they’re not going to rush out and buy a custom Strat or something. So I basically learned on that guitar for the first few years before I finally upgraded.

What was the first song you learned?

I don’t remember exactly, but one of the songs I was most inspired to learn was “Pride and Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughan. But it takes a while to get to the point where you can actually play a song like that properly, so I think my first songs were probably simple tunes like “Yesterday” by the Beatles, songs that were primarily just chords.

Do you remember your first gig?

The first time I got up onstage I was 13 years old. I sat in with the Bryan Lee band down in New Orleans on Bourbon Street. Nobody else at the time would let me get up and jam a little, but he did. I was supposed to do only two songs and then get down, but I did the two and he wouldn’t let me off the stage, so I played all night, until three in the morning with him.

And soon after that, I put together my own band and started doing my own shows, and by time I was 16, I had signed a record deal.

What is your favorite piece of gear?

My 1961 Fender Stratocaster. It fits me like a glove and sounds like no other guitar. It has toured the world with me several times over, and I can’t imagine ever playing music without it.

What advice would you offer young guitar players?

Focus on your vibrato. People who want to learn the guitar sometimes just want to play a whole bunch of notes and play really fast, and they forget to focus on the vibrato, which gives each note a voice.

If you listen to B.B King or Albert King or Eric Clapton, they have a signature vibrato that distinguishes their sound from anyone else. So if you can nail the vibrato, everything else will sound right on.

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