It’s amazing how many great guitarists, and how many great rock guitarists in particular, come out of a love for the blues. You don’t even have to be a fan of blues music to like Stevie Ray Vaughan. His signature Texas shuffle appeals to audiences regardless of their preferred musical genre, and his Grammy Awards and nominations in both Rock and Blues categories is testimony to this. Not to mention that his single, Crossfire¸ from the In Step album shot straight to Number 1 in the Rock Charts.
While his success as a “crossover” artist is undeniable, his legacy is still rooted in the blues. In fact, Vaughan is often credited with rescuing blues music from obscurity. Stephen Thomas Erlwine of Allmusic.com explains:
It’s hard to overestimate the impact Stevie Ray Vaughan’s debut, Texas Flood, had upon its release in 1983. At that point, blues was no longer hip, the way it was in the ’60s. Texas Flood changed all that, climbing into the Top 40 and spending over half a year on the charts, which was practically unheard of for a blues recording. Vaughan became a genuine star and, in doing so, sparked a revitalization of the blues.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. He got his first instrument, a three string toy guitar from Sears, at age seven. It was replaced by his first electric guitar when he was nine – a hand me down from his older brother Jimmie. Both brothers shared a taste for the music of bluesmen like Albert King and Freddie King as well as Texas blues rocker Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Stevie was particularly drawn to guitarists who mixed blues and rock such as Jimi Hendrix and Lonnie Mack. He later covered songs by both of them. Stevie’s own guitar playing is often compared to Jimi Hendrix, as both guitarists play simultaneous lead and rhythm.
Stevie’s professional life in music began when he dropped out of high school and moved to Austin, Texas. It was here that he cut his teeth playing with different rock bands in bars and clubs before forming his own band with bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton. They named themselves after a famous Otis Rush song, and were henceforth known as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. One of the first people to take notice of them was Rolling Stones‘ drummer Charlie Watts, who was given a videotape of the band’s performance at a Texas music festival. That got them a gig to play at a private party for the Rolling Stones in New York
1982 was a huge year for Double Trouble. They were the first unsigned group to play at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Their performance caught the attention of two famous audience members: David Bowie and Jackson Brown. So impressed by the show, Brown offered the band free recording time at his L.A. studio. In a similar show of admiration, Bowie offered Vaughan a gig playing lead guitar on his new album Let’s Dance. Around this time John Hammond, credited with discovering Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, signed the band to Epic Records. They recorded their debut album, Texas Flood, at Jackson Brown’s studio in less than a week.
By the time Texas Flood was released in 1983, Vaughan was already getting a lot of attention for his work on the Bowie album. Let’s Dance was the biggest selling album of Bowie’s career and he offered Stevie a spot playing lead guitar on his 1983 stadium tour. The job was ultimately turned down so he could tour with Double Trouble instead. The band’s follow-up album, Couldn’t Stand The Weather in 1984, was even more successful. Vaughan and Double Trouble continued touring and added a few new members to the band: Reese Wynans on keyboard and Joe Sublett on saxophone, both newcomers appearing on the next album, Soul to Soul, in 1985. Things slowed somewhat in 1986 with the band releasing a double live album and taking some time off. After recovering from alcohol and drug related problems, Stevie returned with renewed passion and energy in 1989 with the aptly titled In Step.
In Step saw Stevie co-writing songs with a long time friend and fellow Texas musician Doyle Bramhall. Doyle had also struggled with addiction and the pair co-wrote a few songs dealing with recovery such as “Tightrope” and “Wall of Denial.” Stevie recorded another Bramhall penned song about addiction, the acoustic “Life By The Drop.” Bramhall was also involved in Stevie’s next album – a collaboration with his brother Jimmie. Family Style sounded different than previous Vaughan albums as it used neither brothers’ backing band – Double Trouble or Jimmie’s Fabulous Thunderbirds. Working with producer Nile Rogers the result was an album that was not quite a purist blues album, but instead a joyful celebration of the music both brothers grew up listening to.
However, tragedy struck before the album’s scheduled autumn release. On August 26, 1990, after sharing the stage with Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan and Robert Cray, at Alpine Valley Music Theater in Wisconsin, a helicopter carrying Stevie and four others crashed, killing everyone on board. Stevie was thirty-five years old.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was a one of those musicians that never tried to hide his influences. He proudly reworked the music of Albert King, Jimi Hendrix and many, many others, with cover songs making up a fair share of the songs in his catalog. His legacy continues to influence many of today’s musicians like John Mayer, Kelly Richey, Robert Randolph, Johnny Lang and Doyle Bramhall II. Stevie’s unabashed playing makes his music accessible to more than regular blues audiences. Rock fans and their radio stations embraced his music and opened the door to blues music for a whole new generation of music lovers.
There are many books, DVDs and websites devoted to learning the guitar style of Stevie Ray Vaughan. After learning a few of his signature licks you’ll want to pay attention to capturing his tone. This is explored in detail in the eHow tutorial How to make your guitar tone sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Gibson Myth Busters article Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Massive Tone.