Before the Flood
From Guitar World magazine’s “Guitar Legends” (Fall 1992) which is a reprint of the article originally published in the September 1983 edition of Guitar World.

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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 listener’s 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 Bowie’s space-age funk opus, Let’s Dance; simultaneously, Vaughan’s first LP, Texas Food (Epic), firmly establishes him in the fertile ranks of Lone Star blues masters.

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, Stevie’s 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 Stevie’s 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 Wexler’s recommendation, the first act ever to perform at Montreux without a record.

Though Stevie Ray was a bit intimidated by Montreux’s heavyweight line-up — “We weren’t sure how we’d 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 rock’s 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 musician’s 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 Let’s 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 I’ve 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 wasn’t quite so vested as Bowie’s, 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 Vaughan’s “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 industry’s most respected maven remarks, “I was so delighted by Stevie’s sound — it’s unlike anyone else’s — and he’s such a marvellous improviser, never repeating exactly the same thing twice.” In addition, Hammond was impressed by the band’s “strong ensemble sense.”

That “sense” is a result of Vaughan and company’s having performed almost nightly since Double Trouble was formed in May, 1979. In order to preserve the band’s symbiotic intensity, Texas Flood (except for some of the vocals) was recorded Live in the studio, without overdubbing or headphones. Vaughan’s insistence on this point led to a most unusual occurrence, which underscores the trio’s precision.

“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 don’t 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 song’s 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 can’t take too much credit for Stevie. He came to me, and that’s almost unique in my experience. Only one other person has done that, Bruce Springsteen, and that’ s pretty good company.”

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 Stevie’s right up there with them. There’s nothing artificial about his presence — it’s 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 Stevie’s doing the same for David Bowie. Eddie Lang was a trailblazer in the Twenties and Thirties, and Stevie’s a trailblazer in the Eighties. He’s the true kind of creative force that one looks for but rarely finds. He’s truly original, and I automatically compare him to Robert Johnson because Stevie’s got that unique passion.”

Passion for the blues and the guitar’s 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 I’d 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, I’ll 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 Vaughan’s mature style. “Lonnie was ahead of his time, but at the same time he was right in there with Albert Collins’s Cool Sounds.”

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 wouldn’t touch anything but a Gibson [Vaughan’s 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 Jimmie’s T.V. model because it was real clear. The ‘52 sounded good, too, because it had whistlers [Gibson “soapbar” pickups] and not humbuckers, which I’d 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 there’s 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 it’s real bright.” Concerning the prized neck, he says, “All dot-necks are different; mine’s not too thin or big around like a log. But it’s 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 Hendrix’s 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 I’d 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.” Stevie’s 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 I’d 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 Vaughan’s 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 I’m 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 1972.

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 hadn’t 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 — Stevie’s prize ‘59 rosewood Stratocaster — became his main axe from the moment he acquired it.

Though Vaughan calls the Strat “my ‘59,” the guitar’s 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 doesn’t really matter to me; all I know is that I’ve 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. It’s a D-neck, but it’s oddly shaped — it’s real, real big, and fits my hand like a glove.”

“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 Charley’s 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 it’s practically hollow — the middle was cut out for the humbuckers — and the only pan that’s 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. Vaughan’s guitar dominates the sound. “Lots of times I’ll 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 Stevie’s 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 David Bowie.

“I don’t know what kind of music you’d call it,” says Stevie of Bowie’s album, “but I tried to play like Albert King and it seemed to fit.”

Vaughan’s 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 Bowie’s work. Like two of his heroes, Lonnie Mack and Jimi Hendrix, Vaughan has successfully integrated blues guitar in music far removed from the style’s original contexts. That is what John Hammond refers to as Stevie’s ”freshness.”

The truly killer aspects of Vaughan’s 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 can’t bend my strings,” he states matter-of-factly. “The gauges I’m 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 can’t say enough good things about those amps.” Stevie used Jackson Browne’s Mother Dumble to record Texas Flood. Meanwhile, Vaughan employs a Marshall Combo with two 12-inch JBL’s 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 mine’s 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 cabinet.

For Bowie’s album, Vaughan played through a rented post-CBS Super Reverb; for the tour, he says, he “just bought two Mesa Boogies. I don’t even know what models they are — they’re the small wooden ones. The reason I’m using them is they sound a lot like a Dumble. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to buy a Dumble as soon as I get the money!”

All of Vaughan’s 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 Let’s Dance. The Tube Screamer did it’s 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 Vaughan’s 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 I’ll hold the pick but ignore it, and get my second or third finger under the string, pull it and let go. Basically, it’s 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 I’m breaking out of jail anyway.”

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