If you’re looking for two legendary guitar players who occupy opposite ends of the musical spectrum, you could do worse than Kirk Hammett and Stevie Ray Vaughan. One is a blues-rock legend, filled with Texas soul and a dedication to purity in tone. The other is a metal God, frequently experimenting with pedals and distortion to get the heaviest and most cutting sound possible.
However, in an interview with Guitar World back in 2019, Hammett made a compelling case for himself as a disciple of Vaughan’s southern-soaked string bends. “It’s definitely true that Stevie Ray Vaughan is one of my all-time favourite guitarists,” Hammett explained. “Ironically, I was never really into Stevie while he was alive. Then, shortly after he died, I got hold of a video of him playing a live show and was just totally blown away by 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.”
Hammett acknowledges that the reputation he built for himself, centred around gain and humbucker pickups, doesn’t necessarily align with what Vaughan was known to play. “It’s difficult to emulate SRV’s tone because his hands and soul had so much to do with it,” he added. “Having said that, in my opinion, if there’s a player whose sound you really admire, you might be able to emulate his tone by investigating the gear he used.”
“For example, if you really want to get a sound similar to Stevie Ray’s, then buying a Les Paul and a high-gain Marshall stack definitely isn’t the way to go, because that’s not even close to what he used. However, you might get close if you buy a Strat – and probably even closer if you buy a vintage Strat,” he added. “You’ll get even closer if you get a vintage Strat and a vintage Fender amp, because that’s what he used. I also know that Stevie used an old Ibanez Tube Screamer and a Vox Wah, too.”
Vaughan and Hammett both favoured the wah pedal, and it likely stems from both of the guitarists being admirers of Jimi Hendrix. Vaughan’s wah of choice was actually previously owned by Hendrix, and he used to fascinating effect on tracks like ‘Say What’. Gear is an understated element to Vaughan’s signature sound and it’s something that Hammett summarises through directing his string gauge.
Detailing further, he explained: “Another real big factor in Stevie’s killer tone was the gauge of his strings and how hard he used to play. A lot of people try to do the SRV thing using a set of .009s, and you just can’t do what he did with slinky strings like that. Stevie used real heavy strings – .013 (high E) to .058 or even .060 (low E). So, to get even close you need to start with at least a set of .011s.
“In addition to using heavy strings, you also really need to attack the guitar if you want to get that big, percussive sound Stevie had. He was a super-aggressive player, and he didn’t really pick from his wrist – he picked with his entire arm”.
Hammett gets into the nitty-gritty of the technical side of playing, bringing up examples that include string raking, quarter-tone bends, and vibrato. It’s a lot to take if you’ve never picked up a guitar before, but for any aspiring six string player, it’s an invaluable insight into how one of the greatest guitar players of all time played, and the effect he had on one of his most unlikely disciples.