What made Stevie Ray Vaughan such a great guitarist? If you ask Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, a devoted student of the blues, it’s “his timing, his tone, his feel, his vibrato, his phrasing–everything. Some people are just born to play guitar, and Stevie was definitely one of them.” This may come as disappointing news to guitar players who want to sound like SRV but weren’t born with his genes. Hammett assures them it’s possible to approximate his style, to some degree, with the right gear and mastery of his signature techniques. Hammett lays out the SRV repertoire thoroughly, but there is no substitute for the source.
SRV’s dual education in both the British blues and the American blues of his heroes gave him “less reservations and less reasons to be so-called a ‘purist,’” he says in the video above. He then proceeds to blow us away with imitations of the greats and his own particular spin on their techniques.
You could call it a guitar lesson, but as his student, you had better have advanced blues chops and a very good ear. As he runs through the styles of his idols, Vaughan doesn’t slow down or pause to explain what he’s doing. If you can keep up, you probably don’t need the lessons after all.
Although compared, favorably or otherwise, to his idol Jimi Hendrix during his life and after his tragic death at 35, Vaughan also “incorporated the jazz stylings of Django Reinhardt, Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery,” Guitar magazine notes, and was “a keen student of Muddy Waters, Albert King, Freddie King, Chuck Berry, Lonnie Mack and Otis Rush.” Muddy Waters, in turn, was a great admirer of Vaughan. “Stevie could perhaps be the greatest guitar player that ever lived,” the blues legend remarked in 1979. But like his hero Hendrix, Vaughan’s talent could be overshadowed by his addictions. “He won’t live to get 40 years old if he doesn’t leave that white powder alone,” Waters went on.
The drugs and alcohol nearly killed him, but they didn’t seem to cramp his playing. The video above comes from a January 1986 soundcheck, the same year Vaughan’s substance abuse hit its peak and he entered rehab after nearly dying of dehydration in Germany. He would get sober and survive, only to die in a helicopter crash four years later. While his early death may have something to do with the way he has been deified, what comes through in his albums and performances thirty years after he left us is the brute fact of his originality as a blues player.
Perhaps the the most concise statement of this comes from John Mayer’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech:
There is an intensity about Stevie’s guitar playing that only he could achieve, still to this day. It’s a rage without anger, it’s devotional, it’s religious. He seamlessly melded the supernatural vibe of Jimi Hendrix, the intensity of Albert King, the best of British, Texas and Chicago Blues and the class and sharp shooter precision of his older brother Jimmie. Stevie is the ultimate guitar hero.
If you’ve ever had reason to doubt, see it for yourself above.