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Was Stevie Ray Vaughan The Greatest Blues Guitarist Of His Generation?
A man stands before us. He is dressed in a black coat, black pants, and black cowboy boots. A round rimmed black hat that screams “Texas Blues” sits atop wringing wet hair, its round bill shrouding heavy lidded eyes. His head tilts back ever so slightly to reveal them, partially closed, staring into the distance, focused on nothing. His body trembles ever so slightly as his head moves side to side. His fingers fly, fret to fret, plucking notes from his guitar like a painter pulling colors from his palette. The people around me stand, enthralled, staring at this modern day virtuoso, painting pictures in sound that would rival Davinci himself. His guitar spews an endless stream of consciousness that grips us to our very souls. The audience knows we are witnessing unrivaled, pure creation. We are all tied to it at a biological level, waiting for the last note so we can catch our breath. We are watching Stevie Ray Vaughan, the greatest blues guitarist who ever lived. Vaughan’s ability to resurrect the blues genre is significant in itself. His many Grammy nominations, and the respect and awe of his peers are only further testament to his ability, but it is the passion of his play that sets him apart. The raw emotion in Vaughan’s live performances is incomparable.
Stevie began playing guitar very early on in his life. Home movies show Stevie and his brother in grade school playing better than most adults. Apparently, the musical gift was in the genes. His brother, Jimmy Vaughan, was a great guitar player in his own right. Jimmy became lead guitar for the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and a great mentor to the younger Stevie. Jimmy was heavily involved in the new sounds of the 60’s, and brought home records of artists that quickly became household names.
However, no other artist affected him more profoundly than Jimmy Hendrix. Hendrix took an “out of the box” approach to guitar play that became a great catalyst for Vaughan’s improvement as a player. “I loved Hendrix for so many reasons,” Vaughan states with great reverence. “He was so much more than just a blues guitarist. He played damn well any kind of guitar he wanted. In fact, I’m not sure if he ever played the guitar- he played music” (qtd. in Frank).
In fact, just like Hendrix, this set Stevie apart from other great guitarists. His technical proficiency was breathtaking, but his passion set him apart. Eric Clapton said that as he was backstage listening to Vaughan, he asked himself if he would ever reach that level. He described Vaughan’s playing as a “palpable, emotional… oneness.” He called him a “master of everything, with no room for improvement” (qtd. in Redbeard). Stevie’s own words cast a little more light on this:
There are nights…. when I have nothing to do with it. There have been nights when I start playing chord solos, and I don’t know any of the chords. There have been nights when I completely lost it, and by the time it struck me, I wouldn’t even know what song I was playing anymore. Sometimes it’s effortless… but the chill bumps are worth it when you get em’ (qtd. in Forte).
Vaughan fell into his music. When he played, his mood was always apparent. His emotions rose and fell with the inflection of his guitar. The song encompassed his life; it capsulized his emotions, and bottled them for his audience. Vaughan lived within the capsule of each of his songs, living life to its fullest a few minutes at a time. Like Hendrix, Vaughan was a powerful performer who bared his soul for the audience to see.
Another similarity to Hendrix, but one that set him apart from all others was the awe he inspired in his peers. Eric Clapton remarked on this in his interview with Rolling Stone when describing Vaughan’s last performance:
Stevie Ray had been sober for three years and was at his peak. When he played that night, he had all of us standing there with our jaws dropped. I mean, Robert Craye and Jimmie Vaughan and Buddy Guy were just watching in awe. There was no one better than him on this planet. Really unbelievable (qtd. in Henke).
Eric Clapton’s endorsement of Vaughan is a testament to his transcendent ability with the guitar. For a world renowned musician like Clapton to make such a statement provides concrete evidence of Stevie Ray’s skill with the guitar.
Vaughan charted new territory and introduced his peers to a new musical direction. Jazz blended with blues became more apparent in his later albums. J. Swenson of Rolling Stone described Vaughan’s song Telephone Song “the most fully realized adaptation of Hendrix-style technique he recorded” (15). Walter Trout, a blues-rock singer, songwriter, and guitarist said he “turned on an entire new generation on to this music by playing it soulfully… but also aggressively and with a lot of rock n’roll” (qtd. in Tarradell). St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture described him as the “most influential guitarist of his generation” (Pendergast, Vaughan, Stevie Ray). Stevie expanded on his predecessor’s discoveries and technique and rejuvenated a dying genre of music.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was probably the biggest blues man in entertainment in the 1980’s. While radio waves were consumed by synthesized pop beats, Vaughan’s ripping blues riffs breathed fresh air into music’s stale environment. Vaughan’s climb to stardom began in 83’ when his band Double Trouble got a gig to play a private party for the Rolling Stones.
David Bowie was in attendance, and Stevie’s playing blew him away. He invited Stevie to play in Bowie’s hit song “Let’s Dance.” Later, Vaughan’s band Double Trouble played at the Montreaux festival where they met another man, Jackson Brown, who was so impressed that he offered them free studio time.
Double Trouble cut their first album Texas Flood in 1983 and it was immediately a huge hit. Vaughan was nominated for two Grammy awards. In 1983, Stevie Ray Vaughan became only the second guitarist to be awarded three major awards from Guitar Player magazine. Guitar player magazine went on to award him the title of “Best Blues Guitarist” for the next seven years, up until his untimely death.
Unfortunately, three years after his climb out of drug and alcohol dependence he was snatched away from the world. On Aug. 27, 1990, at the pinnacle of his career and after his greatest performance, he died in a helicopter crash on the way to Chicago.
When making an argument for one player or another as the greatest, so much is subject to personal opinion and circumstance. Was Stevie Ray Vaughan the greatest ever? Beloved by fans and peers alike, Stevie Ray announced his superiority and musical genius to the world. His passion, ingenuity, and technical precision can hardly be matched. Vaughan’s many awards and nominations in such a short career give further testament to his great ability. Stevie Ray Vaughan blazed new trails in music that are followed to this very day. Stevie Ray Vaughan was, without a doubt, a musical inferno that blazed out far too soon.
Brett A. Wood
Forte, Dan. “GP Interviews.” Guitar Player Magazine.Oct. 1984. Print.
Frank, Joseph. “Guitar Legends.” Tangledupinblues. Guitar World, 1992. Web. 21 Jan. 2011.
Henke, J. “The Rolling Stone Interview: Eric Clapton.” Rolling Stone. Oct. 1991: 42. Print.
Pendergast, Sara and Tom Pendergast. “Vaughan, Stevie Ray.” St. James Encyclopedia of
Popular Culture. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. Print.
Redbeard. “Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble 20th Anniversary Audio. Inthestudio. In the Studio. 2010. Web. 21 Jan. 2011.
Swenson, J. “Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954-1990).” Rolling Stone Oct. 1990: 15. Print.
Tarradell, Mario.“Stevie Ray Vaughan Legacy: Admirers Celebrate Blues-Rock Guitarist on20th Anniversary of his Death.” Dallas News. The Dallas Morning News, 27 Aug. 2010.
Web. 1 Feb. 2011.