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Dissecting the dynamic sound of Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitar

Despite having a career that spanned only seven short years, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s influence on blues guitar is immense. It’s impossible to overstate just how much his virtuosic yet accessible style informed those who came after him. By 1990, the year of his tragic death, Vaughan had already left an indelible mark on the world of blues.

But what made him so special? If there’s one thing I can say for certain, it’s that blues is full of highly skilled guitarists; hell, it’s the foundation of the whole style. BB King, Buddy Guy, Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, the list is endless.

However, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s playing contained something indefinable, something which allowed him to play with more than just skill. He played with a tenderness and precision which seemed utterly at odds with one another and yet formed into a cohesive style. His playing was, in a word, sublime. Below, we put his style on the operating table. Join us as we dissect the guitar playing of Stevie Ray Vaughan.

The first thing most people notice about Vaughan’s style is its simplicity. His stripped-back approach to blues guitar heightens the style’s rhythmic properties. In tracks like ‘Pride And Joy’, Vaughen plays a simple 12-bar blues pattern on the off-beat, giving the track an energetic, bluegrass feel.

That’s not to say that Vaughan doesn’t know how to rip it. He is famed for his dynamic and highly skilled lead parts. He is second only to Hendrix in his ability to make his guitar sing like some sort of insane bird. His use of pentatonic scales, double stops, and triplets combine to form kaleidoscopic and intricate solos.

The influence of Hendrix was always present in Vaughen’s guitar playing and, in his own words: “I loved Jimi a lot. He was so much more than just a blues guitarist. He could do anything. I was about 16 when he died. I could do some of his stuff by then but actually, I’ve been trying to find out what he was doing more so lately than I was then. Now I’m really learning how to do it and I’m trying to expand on it – not that I can expand on it a whole bunch. But I try.”

Vaughan knew his fretboard so well, was so well-versed in finding the right route to any given note, that he could play an eight-minute solo without repeating himself even once. In this way, he was like many of jazz’s great guitarists. Vaughan’s solos were often generated from a pre-established structure around which he was able to improvise freely. That’s why the sound is so intoxicating: because we are listening to Vaughan in a moment of instantaneous creation. As a result, Vaughan admired the ability of guitarists who made their own rules, taking a foundation of knowledge and then breaking the rules.

It’s possible this jazz sensibility stems from his love of gipsy-jazz legend Django Reinhardt. As Vaughan himself once said: “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… 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.”

Beyond his understanding of physical guitar playing, Vaughen was also adept at utilising his amps and pedals to full effect. There are countless Youtube videos that seek to teach people “how to play like Stevie Ray Vaughan”, but they frequently ignore his use of technology. His rich tone is the result of hours spent customising his amp and guitar set up, twiddling the knobs and dials until they matched the sound he had in his head. The warm valve amps Vaughan used, were always set so that they were just on the cusp of distortion, just on the verge of giving that grit and bite which defines much of Vaughan’s most soaring guitar work.

Certainly, the guitar playing of Stevie Ray Vaughan has lived on even after his death. Today he is regarded as one of the world’s greatest blues guitarists, joining his heroes, Hendrix, Reinhardt, and King in that rehearsal studio in the sky.

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