For several nights at the end of August, 1990, Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band Double Trouble were the support act for Eric Clapton at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin.
Clapton recalled that when he watched Vaughan play, “He had all of us standing there with our jaws dropped. I mean, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan and Buddy Guy and I were just watching in awe. There was NO ONE better than him on this planet. Really unbelievable.”
Half an hour after the concert finished, Stevie Ray Vaughan was dead. The helicopter that took him to his hotel in Chicago crashed minutes after take-off. Vaughan’s passing deeply shocked the music world.
During his seven years at the top, Stevie Ray Vaughan had lit up the world of music with his version of the blues, which had been in danger of becoming a forgotten genre by the early eighties, when Michael Jackson, Madonna, synth pop, and MTV ruled.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was instrumental in making blues and blues guitar relevant again. When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, his contribution was lauded as “the second coming of the blues,” and he was called “the messiah, shredding with B.B. King’s blessing.” Star guitarist John Mayer presented the induction speech, and called Vaughan, “the ultimate guitar hero.”
So who was Stevie Ray Vaughan and what made him such a great guitarist that he is to this day regularly included in the top 10 of lists of best guitarists of all time?
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s roots are in Texas, where he was born in Dallas, on October 3, 1954. His older brother, Jimmie, was born in 1951. Jimmie became a proficient guitarist, and Stevie tried to imitate him. Jimmie naturally was strongly inspired by Texas blues, which incorporates elements of jazz and swing, while Texan blues players like T-Bone Walker, Goree Carter, Albert Collins, Freddie King and Johnny Winter pioneered electric blues.
Jimmie often brought records home and Stevie closely analysed the playing of guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, Lonnie Mack, Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and many others, often learning to play their solos note for note. Vaughan was also strongly influenced by British blues guitarists, like Peter Green, Jeff Beck and, most of all, Eric Clapton.
By 1965, when Vaughan was still only 11, he joined a band called The Chantones. Soon afterwards, he played in a band called Brooklyn Underground, which performed professionally in local venues. During the seventies, Stevie cut his teeth playing in a variety of bands, and in 1977, formed his own band: Triple Threat Revue.
After some personnel changes the band name was changed to Double Trouble, after an Otis Rush song. Two years later the classic line-up of Double Trouble was established, with Chris Layton on drums and Tommy Shannon on bass. Around the same time, Vaughan’s problems with substance abuse came to light, as he was arrested for cocaine use. It led to a sentence of two years’ probation.
By 1980, Double Trouble had become one of the most popular live acts in Texas, but still failed to gain much attention outside of the state. This changed after famous record producer Jerry Wrexler heard the band play. He called Vaughan “a jewel, one of those rarities who comes along once in a lifetime.”
Wrexler recommended Double Trouble to Claude Nobs of the Montreux Festival. They played at the festival’s blues night on July 17th, 1982. David Bowie watched him in action. The evening after the Montreux Festival concert, Double Trouble played at the Montreux Casino, where another famous artist was in the audience, Jackson Browne.
As a result of his performances at Montreux, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s career took a sharp upward turn. Browne had offered three days of free recording time at his Down Town studio in Los Angeles, and with one day used for setting up, engineer Richard Mullen recorded ten songs live in the studio in two days, without overdubs.
A copy of the recordings made its way to Epic Records, and a contract was signed in March 1983, with an advance of $65,000 to mix and master the recordings. Meanwhile, David Bowie had called Vaughan during the sessions at Down Town, and asked him to play on his next album.
The sessions for what was to become Bowie’s famous Let’s Dance album took place over three weeks in December 1982 at the Power Station in New York, with Nile Rodgers producing and playing rhythm guitar, and Bob Clearmountain at the desk.
On March 14, 1983, the song “Let’s Dance,” was released as the advance single of the album. The song went to number one in dozens of countries and ended up being one of the best-selling and most influential songs of all time.
The album itself was released on April 1983. Featuring the same funk-rock-pop music as the title song, with Vaughan soloing on six of the tracks. It also was a major success, eventually selling more than 10 million copies worldwide.
Epic released Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s debut album, Texas Flood on June 13th, 1983. The album sold well, helped by the fact that there was an audience hungry to hear more by the mysterious guitarist who had set Bowie’s Let’s Dance album alight. Texas Flood went double-platinum in the US, selling two million copies.
Two songs from Texas Flood were nominated for Grammy Awards. “Pride and Joy” for the Best Traditional Blues Performance award, and “Rude Mood,” for the Best Rock Instrumental Performance award. In 2021, the album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame because of its “historical significance.”
In just a few months during 1983, Stevie Ray Vaughan had gone from unknown Texan guitarist—playing in local bars and clubs—to one of the most famous and talked-about guitarists in the world.
Vaughan’s searing, incendiary guitar style had a feel that was a direct extension of Hendrix and Lonnie Mack. Vaughan’s phrasing and choice of notes were strongly influenced by pretty much all blues guitarists that came before him.
Vaughan’s playing also was founded in the directness and aggression of Texas blues, British blues, and rock. In addition, Vaughan was influenced by jazz guitarists like Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, and George Benson.
Vaughan was able to incorporate this wide range of influences into a style of guitar playing that was uniquely his own, and that also included a capacity to play outside the box, and come up with new licks, note choices, and techniques.
Vaughan’s approach to the guitar was characterized by a strong left-hand vibrato – parallel to the frets – that was at the root of the soulful, singing feel of his playing, and by a powerful, bright tone, with moderate distortion.
Vaughan’s guitar tone was the result of many different factors. First of all, there was his love of Stratocasters, which he usually played through two black-face Fender Super Reverbs, with the Ibanez Tube Screamer and the Vox wah-wah as his main effects, even as he also experimented with others.
Vaughan’s favourite guitar was a beaten-up Strat which he called “Number One,” or “my first wife,” and declared it to be from 1959. However, the various parts of the Strat were from different years, with the body from 1963, the neck from 1962, and the pickups from 1959. Fender created an Artist Signature SRV Stratocaster based on Number One. Vaughan named his second favourite guitar, a 1959 Stratocaster, “Lenny,” after his wife Lenora.
At the heart of Vaughan’s tone were his large, powerful hands, which he used to hit heavy gauge strings very hard, using a pick of medium thickness, usually a Fender .73mm. His favoured string set-up was a composite of different sets, with thicknesses of 13, 15, 19 plain, 28, 38, and 58. It made the middle four strings easier to bend, allowing him to play with his characteristic up-and-down vibrato.
Moreover, Vaughan tended to tune his strings half a step lower, to Eb, which not only gave him a slightly deeper tone, but also reduced string tension; again, enabling strong bending and vibrato.
Finally, Vaughan’s action was higher than usual, which meant that when he hit the strings hard with the thicker end of his picks, it would create a cleaner, bell-like tone with more sustain, which was ideally suited to the aggressive, rock-like feel of his playing.
All of these elements made Vaughan a consummate guitar player, who updated the blues for the late 20th century. The relentless intensity and creativity of his playing floored audiences wherever he performed during the seven years that he spent at the top. His studio albums also continued to be successful.
Building on the momentum of the releases of Let’s Dance and Texas Flood, his second album, Couldn’t Stand the Weather, was released in May 1984. It has been called “a major turning point in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s development,” because of his improved song writing and vocal skills. It has to date sold two million copies.
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s third studio album, Soul to Soul was recorded at the Dallas Sound Lab in the spring of 1985, with keyboardist Reese Wynans added to the band. Released in September 1985, Soul to Soul sold well enough, but by Vaughan’s own admission, it suffered from a lack of focus and song writing inspiration, in part due to drugs and alcohol abuse.
The same problems marred Live Alive, a record compiled from live performances in Montreux, Austin, and Dallas, and released in November 1986. Two months before the release, the Vaughan juggernaut came to a halt when he collapsed on tour in Germany. Vaughan spent time in a rehab clinic in Atlanta, and once more in Austin. He managed to kick his drugs and alcohol addictions.
Vaughan was on the road again by November of 1986. Because of divorce proceedings from his wife Lenora ‘Lenny’ Bailey, he could not move forwards with his recording career for two years. His fourth studio album, released in June 1989, was called In Step, because, commented Vaughan, “I’m finally in step with life, in step with myself, in step with my music.”
Critical reaction to the album was enthusiastic, with Allmusic calling it “a triumph,” adding, “Vaughan found his own songwriting voice, blending blues, soul, and rock in unique ways, and writing with startling emotional honesty.”
The song “Crossfire” went to number one in the US rock charts, and the album sold well over two million copies. It also earned Vaughan and Double Trouble a Grammy Award in the category Best Contemporary Blues Recording.
Vaughan continued with his relentless touring schedule, and in 1990 worked on an album with his brother Jimmie, called Family Life. It was produced by Nile Rodgers, and recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, The Dallas Sound Lab, and Skyline Studios in New York City.
Released at the end of September, Family Life reached number 7 in the US, and earned the Vaughan brothers two Grammy Awards: 1)Best Contemporary Blues Recording for the album, and 2)Best Rock Instrumental Performance for the track “D/FW.”
Stevie Ray Vaughan was no longer around to witness the acclaim for Family Life. His shocking death on August 27th, 1990, stopped the promise of much more to come in its tracks.
Yet even as Vaughan ran out of time far too early, his victories live on. He remains as relevant a guitar player today as he was during his life. Countless guitarists have recorded songs in his memory, among them Eric Johnson, Tommy Emmanuel, Buddy Guy, and Steve Vai. Vaughan also has been a strong influence on an entire new generation of blues guitarists.
John Mayer put Stevie Ray Vaughan’s achievement very succinctly, “He took the spirit and style of every blues guitarist who ever lived and put it into one modern-day language.” In so doing, Vaughan became, perhaps, not quite “the messiah,” but certainly “the leading light in American blues.”