For someone who spent a mere seven and a half years as a heavy player on the world stage, Texas guitar-slinger Stevie Ray Vaughan left behind a wealth of recorded material – and one hell of a legacy.
In that blink of an eye between his incongruous appearance on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance in 1983 and his death in a freak helicopter crash in 1990, Vaughan unleashed four indispensable studio albums that hijacked the trajectory of modern blues guitar.
Without the aid of light shows, edgy haircuts and goofy rock-star posturing, he introduced the MTV generation to passion-fueled guitar music – not to mention the work and importance of Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, Buddy Guy and Howlin’ Wolf. He even had time to star in his own mini rock-star drama of drug and alcohol addiction, breakdown, recovery and triumphant return.
Today, Guitar World looks back at what we consider SRV's 10 greatest guitar moments. Our list digs deep into his six-string artistry, while taking historical importance and other factors into account. In terms of material, we’ve considered everything, including his DVDs and videos available on YouTube – pretty much everything and anything he recorded.
10. Testify (Texas Flood, 1983)
The idea of Stevie Ray covering a funky song by the great R&B band the Isley Brothers might seem bizarre until you consider that rhythm and blues was a big part of the Double Trouble playbook.
Besides, his choice of Testify makes perfect sense when you realize that the guitarist on the Isleys' original 1964 version was none other than his hero, Jimi Hendrix. More a tip of the hat than a cover, Stevie pays respects to Hendrix’s original opening riff before ditching the rest of the song and heading into parts unknown.
It’s just as well. Testify wasn’t very good in the first place, and Vaughan carves a much more exciting path while ripping a total of seven – count ’em, seven – electrifying solos, each more intense than the one before it. But what really makes this one of Stevie’s very best performances is the variety of sounds he gets by using his wah pedal to subtly color his sound, as it gradually shifts from silky smooth to full-on banshee wail.
9. Couldn't Stand the Weather (Capitol Theatre, 1985)
Couldn’t Stand the Weather, Vaughan’s 1984 sophomore album, featured impressive guitar work and sold well, two factors that confirmed SRV and Double Trouble weren’t a mere flash in the pan.
Still, many critics and fans at the time couldn’t help but notice that the album was something of a letdown. With its combination of originals and covers and heavy reliance on the blues, the eight-song collection had a 'more of the same' feel about it. Almost forty years later, however, one can’t help but notice that Couldn’t Stand the Weather is where a Texas-sized portion of Vaughan’s most essential recordings live.
These include Voodoo Child (Slight Return), Cold Shot, Tin Pan Alley and the funky title track, which – contrary to the 'more of the same' criticism – finds Vaughan working hard to break out of the blues mold of Texas Flood. The song features several fine guitar parts, from its free-form intro to its funky figures to its Albert King–Jimi Hendrix stew of a solo.
One of the most inspiring performances of the song – from September 1985 at New Jersey’s Capitol Theatre – can be found on YouTube, courtesy of the Music Vault. It’s all there: Vaughan’s power, intensity, focus and mammoth stage presence, plus a new-for-1985 breakdown section that gave keyboardist Reese Wynans a chance to shine. This version also scores bonus points for its choreography! (P.S.: I was in the audience that night! – Damian Fanelli)
8. Riviera Paradise (In Step, 1989)
Stevie called it “The King Tone” – the bell-like, crystalline timbre of a Fender Stratocaster played clean, warm and in the in-between (out-of-phase neck-middle and bridge-middle) pickup positions. And he put it to extraordinary use on In Step’s Riviera Paradise, one of his rare but unforgettable forays into the world of Wes Montgomery–inspired jazz blues.
Done in one magic take, the recording session was the stuff of legends.
“Stevie told me he had an instrumental he wanted to try, and I said that I only had nine minutes of tape left,” producer Jim Gaines recalls. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s only four minutes long.’ We dimmed the lights and the band started playing this gorgeous song, which went on to six minutes, seven minutes, seven-and-a-half…
"The performance was absolutely incredible, totally inspired, dripping with emotion – and here we were, about to run out of tape. I was jumping up and down, waving my arms, but everyone was so wrapped up in their playing that no one was paying me any mind. I finally got Chris' [Layton, Double Trouble's drummer] attention and emphatically gave him the cut sign.
"He started trying to flag down Stevie, but he was hunched over his guitar with his head bent down. Finally, he looked up, and they brought the song down just in time. It ended, and a few seconds later the tape finished and the studio was silent, except for the sound of the empty reel spinning around.”
7. Rude Mood (Texas Flood)
Along with Testify and Lenny, Rude Mood is another of the three instrumental tracks recorded for SRV’s debut release.
Written by Vaughan and inspired by the Lightnin' Hopkins song Hopkins' Sky Hop, this barn-burning track serves as a tour de force display of Stevie’s mastery of a great many different guitar techniques, including fast alternate picking, complex sections devised of fingers-plus-pick hybrid-picking techniques, and seamless transitions from hard-driving rhythm playing to blazing single-note solos.
As a composition, it is perfectly constructed into distinct and individual 12-bar choruses, each of which brings the intensity of the song to a new and higher level. Says Chris Layton, “In early ’79, [country DJ] Joe Gracey made early recordings of Double Trouble while Lou Ann [Barton], Jack Newhouse and Johnny Reno were still in the band.
"That was blues stuff like, Ti Na Nee Na Nu, Scratch My Back and Sugarcoated Love, along with an early version of Rude Mood. Those recordings were done in the tiny basement of KOKE, a country station. Gracey recorded us on a four-channel mixer with a reel-to-reel, with everything done totally live using just four microphones.”
It’s fascinating to hear the recording of Rude Mood from that period, because the Texas Flood version, which is much faster, is a note-perfect recreation of it. There is virtually no improvisation whatsoever.
It is almost unheard of for a blues guitar player to compose something that lengthy and complicated, and perform it note-perfectly for years and years, just as Stevie did. He displays incredible attention to detail on this song, and this is even more obvious when you compare the two studio versions, recorded four years apart.
6. Lenny (Live at the El Mocambo, 1991)
Lenny is a beautiful, Hendrix-inspired ballad that Stevie wrote for his wife, Lenora. The solo section is made up of alternating bars of Emaj13 and Amaj9. Stylistically, the song is very similar to Jimi Hendrix’s classic ballad, Angel. For this El Mocambo performance, Stevie chose to play a guitar he dubbed Lenny, a 1963/1964 guitar that Lenny bought for Stevie in the early Eighties.
It was stripped down to the natural wood and features a light-brown stain as well as a butterfly tortoiseshell inlay in the body. The guitar originally had a neck with a rosewood fretboard, but Stevie soon replaced it with a maple neck that was a gift from his brother, Jimmie.
In true Hendrix style, Stevie treats the arpeggiated bridge section (the B6-D6-G6-Bb6-A6 chord progression) with subtle whammy bar manipulations. His improvised lines are based primarily on E major pentatonic (E F# G# B C#), with brief use of the minor third, G, as a passing tone into the major second, F#.
Of great importance is the subtle use of hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides throughout, which serve to provide a liquid feel to his well-articulated and melodic phrases. When playing these lines, Stevie sticks with the index and ring fingers of his fret-hand. Of note is the smooth and effortless way he moves from playing straight 16th notes to playing lines articulated in 16th-note triplets.
5. Leave My Girl Alone (Austin City Limits, 1989; released on The Real Deal: Greatest Hits 2, 1999)
One of the most frustrating things about Vaughan’s tragic death in August 1990 was the fact that, in the last two years of his life, his playing had somehow improved.
Vaughan’s (and the rest of the band’s) coke-induced distractions were snuffed out, and his portal – that magical gateway that connected the guitarist to his unique source of inspiration, divine or otherwise – was wide open. A perfect example is this live 1989 version of Buddy Guy’s Leave My Girl Alone, recorded on the Austin City Limits TV show.
Eric Clapton has mentioned how Jeff Beck “pulls” notes from his guitar; in this case, Vaughan is clearly “pushing” the notes out of his Strat, all in relentless, lightning-fast bursts that make you wonder what you’ve been doing with your life.
His ominous groans between phrases underscore the passion and excitement he felt during every performance, especially when he was able to experience his surroundings as a clean and sober guitar god.
4. Little Wing (Live at the El Mocambo, 1991)
Vaughan’s electrifying performance of Jimi Hendrix’s timeless ballad during his July 20, 1983, performance at the El Mocambo Club in Toronto, Canada, is one of the best live versions he ever performed, beautifully filmed and captured at what was the very beginning of his rapid ascent to stardom.
Stevie always played the song as an instrumental. Six months after this performance, he would record an instrumental version of Little Wing in the Power Station studio in NYC while working on his sophomore release, Couldn’t Stand the Weather. Without mimicking any of Jimi Hendrix’s licks, Stevie expresses his own distinct musicality – as well as complete and utter mastery of the guitar – while beautifully and faithfully emulating Jimi’s style.
He relies on specific elements, such as strong and wide vibratos, razor-sharp string bending and expressive legato techniques, delivered with a swinging 16th-note triplet feel.
Throughout, Stevie focuses his formidable technique on emotionally expressive phrases, as each new improvised melody balances perfectly against the last. Jimi’s original studio take may have been a mere 2:24 in length, but SRV uses Little Wing as a vehicle for extended improvisation, as this stellar version stretches out to just over seven minutes long.
A huge plus for all guitarists is that the DVD of this concert, Live at the El Mocambo, stays focused on his hands virtually the entire time, allowing for close scrutiny of just about every blazing lick, bend and vibrato that he performs.
3. Voodoo Child (Slight Return) (Couldn’t Stand the Weather, 1984)
It’s ballsy when any guitarist attempts to cover a Jimi Hendrix song, let alone a masterpiece like Voodoo Child (Slight Return).
And even though SRV was no ordinary guitarist, he labored long and hard over the decision to include his version of the tune on his second album, Couldn’t Stand the Weather.
“I love Hendrix’s music,” Vaughan told Guitar World in 1985, “and I just feel it’s important for people to hear him. I know if I take care of his music that it will take care of me. I treat it with respect – not as a burden. See, I still listen to Hendrix all the time, and I doubt I’ll ever quit.” In many ways Stevie was a perfect envoy for Jimi, as witnessed by his electrifying studio take on Voodoo.
His uncanny ability to smooth out some of Hendrix’s weirder edges without losing any of the music’s power or excitement allowed him to credibly deliver Jimi’s avant-garde blues to a whole new generation of guitar fanatics.
2. Pride and Joy (Texas Flood)
Imagine what radio listeners in 1983 thought when they first heard the fat, droning Eb notes that kick off Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Pride and Joy.
After their steady diet of Irene Cara, Flock of Seagulls and Human League, did they even know it was a guitar?
Regardless, the notes – which quickly morphed into a rollicking Texas shuffle – underscored the return of heart-felt guitar music as a viable artistic force. Part of what makes Pride and Joy stand out from, well, pretty much everything else is its reliance on heavy-gauge open strings, including the high E (.13, tuned to Eb), B (.15, tuned to Bb) and low E (.58, tuned to Eb).
Throw in Vaughan’s trademark “Number One” Strat, an Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer, a Roland Dimension D Chorus and a Dumble amp (which belonged to Jackson Browne), and you’ve got something truly unique.
“Stevie wrote Pride and Joy for this new girlfriend he had when he was inspired by their relationship,” Layton said. “Then they had a fight and he turned around and wrote I’m Cryin’, which is really the same song, just the flip side, lyrically.”
1. Texas Flood (Texas Flood)
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble – bassist Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton – didn’t walk into Jackson Browne’s Down Town Studio in Los Angeles in late 1982 with highfalutin' plans about recording their monster debut album. In fact, their sites were set much lower.
“We were just making a tape,” Layton said. “We hoped maybe we were making a demo that would actually be listened to by a real record company.” Browne had offered them 72 hours of free time, and the group recorded 10 songs over its last two days at the studio.
The last tune to be tracked was Texas Flood, an obscure slow-blues tune recorded in 1958 by Texas bluesman Larry Davis (with Fenton Robinson on guitar) that had been a staple of Vaughan’s live shows for years.
Vaughan’s version, which borrowed heavily from Davis’ arrangement and singing style, was recorded in a single take – live – just as the clock ran out. According to Joe Nick Patoski and Bill Crawford’s Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire (opens in new tab), there were only two overdubs, both covering mistakes made when Vaughan broke strings.
Listening to Vaughan’s ferocious Albert King–on-steroids two-string bends, it’s a miracle another three or four E and/or B strings didn’t self-destruct every few bars. The stark, five-and-a-half-minute recording is a composite of everything that made Vaughan great, from the note choices to the intensity to his ability to learn from, yet build upon, the groundwork laid by his influences.