1989 Interview with Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan was unabashed in his admiration for Jimi Hendrix. Jimi's approach to tones, phrasing, chord voicings, rhythmic timekeeping, and other techniques echoed in Stevie's original songs "Lenny," "Say What," and "Riviera Paradise." Vaughan recorded close covers of Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" and "Little Wing" -- no easy feat -- and played "Third Stone from the Sun" in concert. On February 9, 1989, Stevie took a break from an In Step session to speak about his greatest hero.
Guitar.com: When did you first become aware of Jimi Hendrix?
Stevie Ray Vaughan: The first time I ever heard his name was when my brother Jimmie brought a record of his home around '67, '68. Jimmie had found it in a trash bin, and he recognized it because he'd seen a little blurb in a magazine, a short paragraph about Jimi Hendrix. He knew he was supposed to be something pretty happening, and he just happened to find this record. He brought it home and put it on the record player, and we just about -- what can you do? What can you do but say, "Yeah!" God, he knocked my socks off. My brother Jimmie had this knack for figuring out who was really happening -- and why. So at the same time I heard a lot of the different influences that were on Jimi Hendrix: Albert King, Lonnie Mack, Albert Collins, and Muddy [Waters]. Jimmie would bring all that stuff home at the same time.
Guitar.com: Did you learn by playing along to Jimi's records?
Vaughan: Sure. Hey, man, I remember miking up my little stereo. It was like an Airline with the "satellite speakers" -- that's what they called 'em, but they were really these cardboard boxes connected with long wire. I would set that up and mike it up. I had a Shure P.A. in my bedroom. When we were playing some of my first gigs, I would go and rent four Super Reverbs, and I'd have all this set up in my room [laughs]. Of course, my parents were at work. I would go in there and floorboard it, you know? Dress up as cool as I could and try to learn Jimi's stuff. It all went together. I did the same thing with a lot of B.B. King records. If somebody had walked in the room, they probably would have gone, "What's he doin'?" Because I wouldn't stop at one place. I'd go for every bit of it I could find. I remember doing that a lot with Axis: Bold As Love. I didn't have the phasing, and I'm sure I didn't have a lot of the sounds, but some of them I could find. I would go as far as I could to get as close as I could.
Guitar.com: What is your opinion of Jimi Hendrix as a blues musician?
Vaughan: Some people don't see it. Some people really do see it. I don't know whether to call Hendrix a blues player along with a lot of the originals. Before he got famous, he did go and play with a lot of those people during that heyday. He was on the tail end of something.
Guitar.com: The whole R&B movement.
Vaughan: Yeah. And a lot of it was at the peak of it -- he was doing that stuff as it was going on.
Guitar.com: You mean back when he was based in Nashville in the mid '60s?
Vaughan: Yeah. See, in his music I hear not just the newer stuff that was a lot different. To my ears, there's just as much of the old-style warmth.
Guitar.com: The blues style.
Vaughan: Yeah. I hear it in "Red House." I hear it in just the way he approaches things. Even though he was not ashamed at all of doing things different, I still hear the roots of the old style. Not just roots, but the whole attitude of it.
Guitar.com: He's not that far removed from Muddy Waters.
Vaughan: To me, he's like the Bo Diddley of a different generation. If you were a kid and you heard Bo Diddley for the first time back when all that was going on, wouldn't you think that was the wildest thing you ever heard? I'm not saying that Jimi Hendrix was a Bo Diddley, but in that sense, there's not that much difference. Or a Muddy Waters. Or a Chuck Berry. It was that different. He just happened to have those influences as well.
Guitar.com: Jimi restrung a right-handed Stratocaster so that when he played it left-handed, the skinniest string was towards his toes. Could changing the scale lengths and tension of the strings have affected his sound?
Vaughan: Yeah. I have guitars with the necks set up that way. There is a difference. However, to me the bigger difference is the shape of the neck. I've got a left-handed neck on an old Strat, and the main thing I notice is the neck feels different because it's shaped backwards. The tension of the strings does work well that way. Another thing that's a lot different is where the wang bar is. It's on the top instead of on the bottom. Even if I hold it with the same grip as if it was in the other place, it still feels different to me at the top. It seems more approachable or something.
Guitar.com: How did Jimi use a whammy bar during blues?
Vaughan: He did it cool. I think if somebody else had thought about it first, they would have done it too.
Guitar.com: Was Hendrix one of the first?
Vaughan: No. I say that because there's a record that I think Hendrix must have heard. He must have heard this guy and gone, "My God, I need to check this out." It sounds like something Hendrix would do, except it was recorded in '58. It's on a compilation album called Blues in D Natural. It's on Red Lightnin', an English import, and the number is 005.
Guitar.com: What's the song Jimi might have heard?
Vaughan: "Boot Hill" and "I Believe in a Woman." It's by Sly Williams. Go get you a copy and listen to it, and you'll go, "Shit!" I've never heard anybody but Hendrix get this intensity and play as wild as this guy. He uses a wang bar, and he uses it real radical. From what I've been told, it's Syl Johnson a long time ago. I don't know if it is or not. What it says on the record is something to the effect of "Sly Williams, guitar and vocals. Bass, drums, piano, and horn unknown." Then it says, "California," followed by a question mark and "'58-'59." It's unbelievable. It's like this guy's teeth are sticking out of the record. Every time I hear it, it seems impossible that Hendrix didn't hear this guy. Some people think that it might be him playing guitar.
Guitar.com: I haven't heard much about this artist.
Vaughan: I haven't either. That's the only record I ever heard by him. [It's still unknown who played on the Sly Williams cuts, which are his only two blues recordings; vocally, Williams resembles bluesman Clarence Samuels, with whom Johnny Copeland made his studio debut in 1956. --ed]
Guitar.com: What made Jimi's blues playing different?
Vaughan: I think a lot of it's his touch and his confidence and his perspective. His perspective on everything seemed to be reaching up -- not just for more recognition, but more giving. I may be wrong about that, but that's what I get out of it. He did that with his touch on his guitar and with his sound and with his whole attitude.
Guitar.com: Your song "Texas Flood" comes pretty close to Jimi's sound.
Vaughan: I've tried to get as close to a natural, old-style sound as possible. And I think a lot of his tones were that way. He was just reaching for the best tone he could find. I kind of just think that's the way he heard them, and he didn't have to worry about it, which is something I do a lot! I'm a worrywart, man.
Guitar.com: Why is Jimi Hendrix more popular now than ever?
Vaughan: It's a good question. I think a lot of people need what he had to offer musically. There was a lot of honesty in it. Yeah, there was a lot of drugs and things, but people are looking back because they miss something that's here. A lot of people tend to look somewhere else for something that they want to fix them. Jimi's music, though, is wonderful. It's full of emotion. It's full of fire. At different points it's full of light and heavy feelings. By light feelings, I mean uplifting feelings, heavy meaning heavy! It could mean anything from one day to the next, really. A lot of people miss what his music was doing for them. A lot of new people are coming around to going, "What's this?" In very few instances has anyone surpassed what he did. He should be popular. It's a damn shame that he's dead and gone, and now is when people are listening. But at the same time, I'm glad they're listening.