It’s definitely true that Stevie Ray Vaughan is one of my all-time favorite guitarists.
Ironically, I was never really into Stevie while he was alive. Then, shortly after he died, I got hold of a video of him playing a live show and was just totally blown away by his timing, his tone, his feel, his vibrato, his phrasing — everything. Some people are just born to play guitar, and Stevie was definitely one of them.
The VH1 Behind the Music program on Stevie showed some old footage of him playing guitar when he was a little kid— he was so good it made me want to cry.
It’s difficult to emulate SRV’s tone because his hands and soul had so much to do with it. Having said that, in my opinion, if there’s a player whose sound you really admire, you might be able to emulate his tone by investigating the gear he used. For example, if you really want to get a sound similar to Stevie Ray’s, then buying a Les Paul and a high-gain Marshall stack definitely isn’t the way to go, because that’s not even close to what he used. However, you might get close if you buy a Strat—and probably even closer if you buy a vintage Strat [Fender offers an SRV signature model Strat that’s based on his legendary “Number 1” guitar, which was a 1959 body with a 1962 Rosewood neck and a left-hand tremolo unit—GW Ed.]. You’ll get even closer if you get a vintage Strat and a vintage Fender amp, because that’s what he used. I also know that Stevie used an old Ibanez Tube Screamer and a Vox Wah, too.
Another real big factor in Stevie’s killer tone was the gauge of his strings and how hard he used to play. A lot of people try to do the SRV thing using a set of .009s, and you just can’t do what he did with slinky strings like that. Stevie used real heavy strings—.013 (high E) to .058 or even .060 (low E). So, to get even close you need to start with at least a set of .011s.
In addition to using heavy strings, you also really need to attack the guitar if you want to get that big, percussive sound Stevie had. He was a super-aggressive player, and he didn’t really pick from his wrist—he picked with his entire arm! If you watch video footage of him, you’ll see exactly what I mean. Stevie also used a lot of downstrokes and a lot of that “string raking” thing too (more about this technique in a moment), which really added to the unique rhythm and lead sound that he got. Of the newer blues players out there, Kenny Wayne Shepherd definitely has that heavy string, high action, percussive attack thing happening—and he does it really well, in my opinion.
Like all great players, Stevie’s style contained a bunch of cool nuances—some of which are really hard to nail. Take the intro riff to “Scuttle Buttin’ ” [Couldn’t Stand the Weather] for example. I’ve been messing around with it for years but I still can’t play it with Stevie’s feel. There’s a weird slide he does near the beginning that I just can’t get exactly right, no matter how hard I try. I can play the riff note-for-note, but there’s that little nuance that I just can’t get, and I’ve been chasing it for a long time.
As I just mentioned, SRV often used a technique called string raking, which is a relatively easy way to spice up your lead playing. As you’re about to discover, it’s kind of like percussive sweep picking. FIGURE 1 shows a simple C minor blues lick that starts with a string rake. To play this, mute the A, D and G strings by lightly resting your left-hand index finger across them, then quickly rake your pick across them using a single, smooth downstroke that ends with the half-step bend at the 10th fret on the B string. Adding this simple move to the lick definitely adds extra emotion, attitude and emphasis to the lick—try playing it without the rake and you’ll hear what I mean.
Another SRV move that definitely adds both bite and a nice bluesy tension to a solo is to bend certain notes just a tad so they end up sitting right between two notes. FIGURE 2 is an A minor run that features this technique. As you can see, the second-to-last note you play, the C note at the 5th fret on the G string, is bent up a quarter step so that it sits right between C and C#. Great blues players do this kind of thing all the time, and Stevie was especially good at it—hell, he’d even add a quarter note bend to notes he’d already bent up by one or even two steps. FIGURE 3 is a Stevie Ray style, bluesy, E minor lick that utilizes both of the techniques we’ve just discussed—string raking and quarter-tone bends.
Being able to shake a note in a way that compliments both the song and the mood of the solo is a highly expressive art that Stevie Ray Vaughan definitely perfected. I especially love his vibrato because it is so damned wide and muscular. Unfortunately, this technique is almost as difficult to describe as it is to do. So, to learn more about this, I recommend that you listen closely to his albums and also watch videos of him in action, zoning in on what he does with his left hand. Check out SRV’s Live at the El Mocambo video—it’s a jaw-dropping experience and, if you watch closely, you’ll learn a lot.