Before the Flood
From Guitar World magazines
Guitar Legends (Fall 1992) which is a reprint of
the article originally published in the September 1983
edition of Guitar World.
Thanks to Adrian Gimpel for this HTML
file. It was originally created for his site "SRV
Online". He has since shut down SRV Online and has
offered this and other articles for posting on this site.
From the roadhouses of Austin
comes Stevie Ray Vaughan,
riding his Stratocaster to blues
greatness on Texas Flood.
By Frank Joseph
Presence the ability to make direct, emotional
contact with a listeners heart is that elusive
intangible for which all guitarists strive and few attain.
Stevie Ray Vaughan, Texas blues man, has presence to spare.
His razor-edged guitar impacts emotionally on David
Bowies space-age funk opus, Lets Dance;
simultaneously, Vaughans first LP, Texas Food (Epic),
firmly establishes him in the fertile ranks of Lone Star
Just slightly more than a year ago Vaughan was known only
in bar rooms across Texas, where his band, Double Trouble
drummer Chris Layton and Johnny Winter veteran,
bassist Tommy Shannon plied their special brand of
blues. From that dead-end roadhouse existence, Stevies
gut-wrenching vibrato and intense, machine-gun delivery began
catching the ears of some important people. Two noted
juke-joint prowlers, Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith
Richards, caught Double Trouble at a Dallas club and new the
band up to New York to play at a private party. The Stones
expressed interest in signing Double Trouble to their RS
label, though they never followed through with a contract.
But when Stones roll, they make waves. Noted producer and
talent-hunter Jerry Wexler arranged a move that proved to be,
both literally and figuratively, a giant step for
Stevies guitar-led group.
Jerry had heard us in an Austin club, Vaughan
explains, and he contacted the director of the 1982
Montreux Jazz Festival and got us booked there. The
invitation to appear was a double honor, as Double Trouble
became, on the strength of Wexlers recommendation, the
first act ever to perform at Montreux without a record.
Though Stevie Ray was a bit intimidated by Montreuxs
heavyweight line-up We werent sure how
wed be accepted the searing licks that
emanated from his array of classic Stratocasters won the
international audience over. And any lingering doubts Vaughan
may have had were alleviated by a request from David Bowie.
As soon as we were finished, Stevie says of
his introduction to rocks Man of a Thousand Faces,
someone came backstage and told us David Bowie wanted
to meet us. The English art rocker and Texas blues trio
repaired to the musicians bar at the
casino, Vaughan details, where we talked for
hours. We ended up playing at the bar for several nights, and
Jackson Browne came in and jammed with us.
As it turned out, Bowie was preparing to record an
underlying r&b work, and with some
persistence hired Stevie to play lead on Lets Dance and
in his band for his current world tour. Since the first of
the year Bowie has made a point of informing the music media
that Stevie is the most exciting city blues stylist
Ive heard in years. Going a step further, Bowie
has placed Double Trouble on the bill for his outdoor U.S.
concerts, insuring the widest possible exposure for Vaughan.
Jackson Browne, whose interest wasnt quite so vested
as Bowies, offered Stevie his Down Town studio to
record an album that would win Double Trouble a label deal.
The LP was presented to the legendary producer John Hammond,
Sr., whose greatest discoveries Count Basie, Charlie
Christian, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen
are all groundbreakers in the pantheon of American
popular music. Immensely excited by Vaughans
freshness, Hammond purchased the album, Texas
Flood, and signed Double Trouble to the CBS-distributed label
bearing his name. From his Manhattan office the music
industrys most respected maven remarks, I was so
delighted by Stevies sound its unlike
anyone elses and hes such a marvellous
improviser, never repeating exactly the same thing
twice. In addition, Hammond was impressed by the
bands strong ensemble sense.
That sense is a result of Vaughan and
companys having performed almost nightly since Double
Trouble was formed in May, 1979. In order to preserve the
bands symbiotic intensity, Texas Flood (except for some
of the vocals) was recorded Live in the studio, without
overdubbing or headphones. Vaughans insistence on this
point led to a most unusual occurrence, which underscores the
In the middle of one of the tunes I broke a string
and we had to stop, Vaughan recalls. After I
changed the string we picked up right where we left off
and punched back in at the same time. I dont
know if this has ever been done before. The engineer sort of
looked at us weird, but we got it on the first take.
Stevie laughs, refusing to reveal the songs title,
challenging listeners to guess for themselves.
Hammond personally took the role of executive producer for
Texas Flood. There was a strange balance, and we spent
a lot of time remixing it. he says. It is a job he
obviously relished, however. I cant take too much
credit for Stevie. He came to me, and thats almost
unique in my experience. Only one other person has done that,
Bruce Springsteen, and that s pretty good
Hammond has in his career been intimately involved with
the development of such guitar giants as Eddie Lang, Charlie
Christian and George Benson. Of this rather select group, he
states, They are all on the highest possible plateau,
and Stevies right up there with them. Theres
nothing artificial about his presence its honest
music. Drawing an analogy between two of the celebrated
guitarists and Vaughan, Hammond comments, Charlie came
in and gave Benny [Goodman] new life, and I think
Stevies doing the same for David Bowie. Eddie Lang was
a trailblazer in the Twenties and Thirties, and Stevies
a trailblazer in the Eighties. Hes the true kind of
creative force that one looks for but rarely finds. Hes
truly original, and I automatically compare him to Robert
Johnson because Stevies got that unique passion.
Passion for the blues and the guitars presence is a
family tradition for Vaughan, whose brother Jimmie, the
excellent guitarist for the Fabulous Thunderbirds, was a
strong role model during their childhood in a Dallas suburb.
I wanted to play saxophone, but all I could get were a
few squeaks, remembers Stevie, who first picked up a
guitar in 1963. So, my big brother was playing guitar
and I figured Id try it too.
Loving it from the get-go, Stevie progressed
from a cardboard copy of a Roy Rogers to his
first electric model and amp, a hollow-body Gibson Messenger
and a Silvertone. The Silvertone was soon supplemented by a
Fender Champion 600. Vaughan remarks, I had the right
kind of amps from the beginning.
Within a year, Stevie was exposed to the classic licks of
B.B., Freddie and Albeit King, Albert Collins and other
electric blues masters on the records Jimmy brought
home. As his interest in the guitar inflamed, Stevie
began pestering his brother for lessons. Jimmie showed
me a lot of stuff, the younger Vaughan credits,
but there was a time when he warned, If you ask
me to show you anything again, Ill kick your ass.
Well, I did and he did!
Also at this time, Stevie heard the blistering guitar
instrumental Wham, by Lonnie Mack, whose
supercharged lines and tone heavily influenced Vaughans
mature style. Lonnie was ahead of his time, but at the
same time he was right in there with Albert Collinss
Sixteen years later Vaughan had the thrill of meeting his
guitar hero. Lonnie came into an Austin club where we
were playing. I asked him if he would play, but Lonnie, the
master of the Flying V, said he wouldnt touch anything
but a Gibson [Vaughans arsenal was all vintage Strats],
and so he just got up and sang his ass off. Later he said he
wanted to produce us.
By 1966 Vaughan was trying his first Fender guitar, a
52 Broadcaster he borrowed from his brother Jimmie. Two
years later, at 14 (and now using a black 54 Les Paul
T.V. model, again supplied by his brother), Stevie joined his
first full-time band, Blackbird. Shortly after joining
Blackbird, which had a strong following on the Dallas club
circuit, Stevie purchased a 52 Gold-top Les Paul.
Today a confirmed Fender man, who is the proud
owner of four classic Stratocasters, Vaughan says of the
Gibson solid-bodies: I never dug regular Les Pauls with
that dirty sound, though I liked Jimmies T.V. model
because it was real clear. The 52 sounded good, too,
because it had whistlers [Gibson soapbar pickups]
and not humbuckers, which Id never use. If not
quite a Les Paul fan, Stevie has come to appreciate the
better Gibson hollow-bodies. I had a Barney Kessel that I got
eleven years ago that I really enjoyed until 1975, when it
was ripped off, and now theres my 59 dot-neck
335. Vaughan appreciates the dot-neck 335 because
it sounds and feels pretty. It has a real strong bass
response, and at the same time its real bright.
Concerning the prized neck, he says, All dot-necks are
different; mines not too thin or big around like a log.
But its wide, which is important because I have big
hands, and it fits me real well.
In 1969 Vaughan purchased his first Stratocaster, a
63 maple-neck. He began absorbing Jimi Hendrixs
epochal, blues-rooted guitar explorations, at the same time
frequenting black venues to experience traditional r&b
players first hand. Recalls Stevie, Blackbird, though
basically an r&b band, played all-white clubs. But
between sets Id sneak over to the black places to hear
blues musicians. It got to the point where I was making my
living at white clubs and having my fun at the other
places. Stevies fun was derived from seeing fine
local acts like Big Boy and the Arrows and established
virtuosos like B.B. and Albert King, Albert Collins, Buddy
Guy, Bobby Blue Bland with Wayne Bennet and
Howlin Wolf with Hubert Sumlin the same people
Id go see now if they were still around.
Stevie is quick to cite Magic Sam, Otis Rush and his
brother Jimmie as prime influences, but perhaps more than any
other guitarist, Jimi Hendrix left the most indelible mark on
Vaughans playing. I love Hendrix for so many
reasons, he 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 Im not
sure if he even played the guitar he played
music. Vaughan was not particularly pleased with the
Stratocaster he bought in 1969. It was constantly
giving me trouble and driving me nuts, he says of the
63 maple neck. So, for the remainder of his high school
years, he switched back and forth between the 52
and 54 Les Pauls, and the 52 Broadcaster,
before settling on the Gibson Barney Kessel hollow-body in
Following high school Stevie relocated to Austin, a city
blossoming with music opportunities. On a return gig to
Dallas in 1973 with his new band, the Nightcrawlers, Vaughan
arranged a trade for what would become the most important
guitar he ever owned.
I walked into this guitar store carrying my 63
Strat, he recalls, and I saw this other Strat
hanging in the window. I just had to have it I
hadnt even played it, but I knew by the way it looked
it sounded great and I asked if they wanted to
trade. The new guitar Stevies
prize 59 rosewood Stratocaster became his main
axe from the moment he acquired it.
Though Vaughan calls the Strat my 59,
the guitars true vintage is somewhat unclear. It
was officially put out in 1962, he explains, but
the neck is stamped 59 .When I got it there was a
sticker under the bass pickup that read L.F
.59. So I think Leo Fender put it together with
spare parts and issued it in 62. But it doesnt
really matter to me; all I know is that Ive never found
another one that sounds like it.
One spare part Stevie is especially fond of is the
rosewood neck. The neck is shaped differently from most
others. Its a D-neck, but its oddly shaped
its real, real big, and fits my hand like a
My yellow 64 is very strange, is how
Stevie describes another of his beloved Strats. It was
owned by the lead guitar player for Vanilla Fudge, who
trashed it by putting four humbuckers in it. Charley Wirz [of
Charleys Guitar Shop in Dallas] gave it to me a couple
of years ago, and I had him fix it up and put one stock
treble Fender pickup in it. The body rings like a bell
because its practically hollow the middle was
cut out for the humbuckers and the only pan
thats solid is the edge. Vaughan used his
bell like Strat to record Tell Me,
from Texas Flood.
Stevie left the Nightcrawlers in 1973 to take the guitar
chair in the Cobras, a long-established, Austin-based r&b
band. Two years later, he helped form Triple Threat, with
whom he played as much r&b as I could pull
off. Patterned after an r&b revue, Triple Threat
featured an unusual line-up that included five lead singers,
among them Stevie himself. In early 1978 the band folded, and
with Triple Threat singer Lou Ann Barton he organized Double
Trouble, named after his favorite Otis Rush song.
As may be discerned from Texas Flood, Double Trouble is
decidedly not a power trio in the conventional sense.
Vaughans guitar dominates the sound. Lots of
times Ill play lead and rhythm together. he says.
I play as many different things piano, sax and
harp parts as I can at once. Whatever I can fit,
whenever I need to.
A hallmark of Stevies playing is its broad-ranging,
tasteful versatility. The glass-breaking vibrate, torrid
showers of licks, driving chords and occasional feedback have
managed to please both hard-core blues purists and
high-energy rock fans, a circumstance obviously not lost on
I dont know what kind of music youd call
it, says Stevie of Bowies album, but I
tried to play like Albert King and it seemed to fit.
Vaughans description is a bit too modest. While he
relied more on his King-like, wailing vibrate than on his
arsenal of hot licks, it is very doubtful whether Alben King
and his Flying V could have so seamlessly fit into
Bowies work. Like two of his heroes, Lonnie Mack and
Jimi Hendrix, Vaughan has successfully integrated blues
guitar in music far removed from the styles original
contexts. That is what John Hammond refers to as
The truly killer aspects of Vaughans playing are his
fat tone and full-bodied clarity, which combined constitute
one of the most formidable sounds in guitardom. Stevie Ray
attributes his power to his picking technique, string setup
and equipment. Most people cant bend my
strings, he states matter-of-factly. The gauges
Im using now .013, .016, .019, .028, .038, .O56
are small for me, but if I use em any bigger, I
tear my fingers off. Vaughan also has a habit of
tearing his frets off. The way I play, I go through a
set in a year. So I put 58 Gibson Jumbo Bass frets on
all my necks. To facilitate string-bending Vaughan
tunes his guitar to E flat.
Stevie has over the years searched for me right
combination of amplifiers and speakers. His quest will end
as soon as I get enough money to buy a Dumble. I
cant say enough good things about those amps.
Stevie used Jackson Brownes Mother Dumble to record
Texas Flood. Meanwhile, Vaughan employs a Marshall Combo with
two 12-inch JBLs and two Fender Vibraverbs, no. 5 and
6, with one 15-inch JBL. My amps are backwards,
he laughs. I use the Fenders for distortion and the
Marshall for clarity. He adds, The Marshall is
supposed to be 200 watts, but mines never worked right;
it peaks out at 80.
On stage Stevie uses only one Fender head, as he runs a Y
cord From his guitar to the Marshall and one of the
Vibraverbs, an obscure 50 watt amp which Fender marketed in
the early Sixties. The other Fender serves as a speaker
For Bowies album, Vaughan played through a rented
post-CBS Super Reverb; for the tour, he says, he just
bought two Mesa Boogies. I dont even know what models
they are theyre the small wooden ones. The
reason Im using them is they sound a lot like a Dumble.
But that doesnt mean Im not going to buy a Dumble
as soon as I get the money!
All of Vaughans guitars have stock pickups. He
occasionally employs two devices, an Ibanez Tube Screamer and
Vox Wah Wah Pedal, to beef up his sound. I use the Tube
Screamer because of the tone knob, he says. That
way you can vary the distortion and tonal range. You can turn
it on slightly to get a Guitar Slim tone, which is how I use
it, or wide open so your guitar sounds like it should jump up
and bite you. None of the devices were used for
Lets Dance. The Tube Screamer did its dirty work
on two Texas Flood cuts: the title track and, in conjunction
with the wah-wah, Testify.
Equipment aside, one of the most crucial elements of
Vaughans sound is the way he uses his fingers.
Sometimes I slide em, rubbing the sides of the
strings, he explains. To get a big, fat sound
that punches out I pop the strings with either my second or
third finger. Usually Ill hold the pick but ignore it,
and get my second or third finger under the string, pull it
and let go. Basically, its what modem bass players do
it gives me a real bright, peppier tone. But now I can
get that same tone with my thumb, just by laying into the
string a little harder. Here Vaughan pauses to laugh at
himself. But like my brother Jimmie says, I play like
Im breaking out of jail anyway.