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How Stevie Ray Vaughan's love of Jimi Hendrix taught him to play from the heart

For fans of the blues, Stevie Ray Vaughan is something of a deity. Despite his short career, Vaughan has left an impressive legacy behind, the shadow of which still looms over the landscape of American rock music to this day.

With his incredible technical prowess and astounding ability to re-interpret old classics, Vaughan managed to inject new life into a genre that, by the 1980s, was going through a creative slump. However, with one foot in the past and another rooted firmly in the present, Vaughan changed the game, leaving an indelible mark on blues music. Back in 1984, six years before his tragic death, the guitar legend sat down to discuss his love for the man who wrote the rulebook for modern guitar playing; Jimi Hendrix.

Recalling the impact of the legendary guitarist, Vaughan said: “I loved Jimi a lot. He was so much more than just a blues guitarist. He could do anything. I was about sixteen 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.”

Throughout his career, Stevie Ray Vaughan was constantly refining his style, always looking for new ways to capture the music swirling around his head. Having come to music theory much later than his schoolmates, Vaughan appreciated that Hendrix was entirely self-taught: “I took music theory for one year in high school and flunked all but one six-week period,” he said. “That’s because I couldn’t read music and the rest of the class was already eight or nine years into it. The teacher would sit down and hit a ten-fingered chord on the piano and you had to write all the notes down in about ten seconds. I just couldn’t do it. It was more like math to me,” Vaughan recalled.

Hendrix, however, was proof of the fact that Vaughan didn’t need books to be a great musician. This self-taught tradition was one that the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt had also been part of. For Vaughan, it was the way Hendrix seemed to celebrate Reinhardt’s amateur spirit that he found so appealing: “To me, Django and Jimi were doing the same thing in a lot of ways,” he began. “Django would do it with acoustic guitar and Jimi would do it on electric, using feedback and things. Instead of using feedback, Django would just shake those strings like crazy. And 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.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan continued the DIY legacy Hendrix left behind, showing young musicians that the only thing that mattered was passion and drive. He was proof that books could only teach so much, that the greatest music came straight from the gut.

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