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Music

The first time Eric Clapton heard Stevie Ray Vaughan

@jackwhatley89

For a while in the 1960s, there was only one guitarist in England who had earned the moniker of being a bonafide guitar deity. Eric Clapton’s position in some of the most important bands of the moment (John Mayall’s & The Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds and Cream) guarantees him a spot in musical history. While plenty of other guitarists challenged Clapton for the crown, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix being the most obvious candidates, Slowhand retained a sense of superiority that rarely waned.

As time passed one and the need for a virtuoso guitarist fell away, thanks in no small part to the three-chord brilliance of punk, Clapton’s hopes for a new generation of astounding guitar players petered out. It wasn’t until he heard Prince’s stunning performances that he was reinvigorated with the instrument and rock at large. However, one more player captured his imagination and garnered his appreciation — Stevie Ray Vaughan.

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 Vaughan’s tragic death, the guitarist had already left an indelible mark on the world of blues, a genre that Clapton held dear to his heart.

As part of an interview with A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Clapton shared his love and appreciation for the iconic performer. He recalled the first moments he heard the unique player’s eclectic tone: “I was in my car, and I remember thinking, ‘I have to find out before the day is over who that guitar player is. That doesn’t happen to me very often. About three or four times in my life, I felt that way in a car listening to the radio where I’ve stopped the car, pulled over and listened and thought, ‘I’ve got to find out before the end day’. Not sooner or later, but ‘I have to know now who that is’. I remember being fascinated by the fact that he never ever seemed to be lost in any way.”

For Clapton, it wasn’t necessarily the notes or scales he was playing but the attitude and feeling that emanated from his guitar: “It wasn’t ever that he took a breather or paused to think where he was going to go next. It just flowed out of him. Always seemed to flow out of him and actually, even that doesn’t come just with virtuosity, practice or any of those. It’s not a question of doing it over and over again or anything like that. It’s just that he seemed to be an open channel. He just flowed through him; he never ever seemed to kind of dry up.”

“Because when I play, I sometimes stop,” confessed Clapton, acknowledging SRV’s unique disposition for playing. “Every now and then, I just stop and think ‘what I’m going to do now’. I don’t want to repeat myself, so I get caught up somehow. You freeze, and most players do, I never saw him do that; he was a channel in some way.”

During the same interview, Clapton also shared one of the moments he witnessed the guitarist perform live: “I saw him play in London one time. So I sat about six rows back at the Hammersmith Odeon, and for about the first 10 minutes, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to take it because it was so loud. I thought, ‘I can’t take this’ and actually got used to it. Within 20 minutes after that, I was used to it, and it was right, it got me, become all right.”

The experience of watching Vaughan play was far beyond watching a singer or band go at it, for Clapton, it was a holistic experience: “At the same time was kind of like that thing I had to surrender to it completely and in a way. When we were in Alpine Valley, I couldn’t let myself do that. I had to put up a bit of resistance in order to keep my own kind of self-esteem up. Because I wouldn’t be able to go on otherwise. I’m not joking. To be up to be completely absorbed by what he was doing, I would have thought, ‘what’s the point?’ And I kind of done a runner, and I cleared off, run away.”

There aren’t many guitarists who could give Eric Clapton a bout of jealousy, but it would seem that Stevie Ray Vaughan was just that damn good that he could even make Slowhand look for a quick exit. Listen below to some of SRV’s best work.