Classic interview: In the summer of 1988 Stevie Ray Vaughan had just completed an intensive tour of Europe when Tom Nolan sat down to talk to him for a remarkably frank discussion about his roots, overcoming trouble and finding redemption. It would be his first and only Guitarist magazine cover feature during his lifetime…
What are you looking forward to after this current round of tour dates?
“I’m looking forward to taking about 10 days off to go to Spain and Italy, and then back to the States. We’re going to do a few dates in the States, and then I’ll go ahead and pinpoint some of the ideas I already."
How long does recording an album take you nowadays?
“Well, they’ve all taken different lengths. The first one took two days; basically we had 28 years to get our first record together [laughs], the second one six months, the third six months, and the live album… actually I had wanted to bring a crowd to the studio, but it made more sense to bring the studio to the crowd, and because of that we ended up doing a lot of the songs off the other records.
"However, we did three gigs, and for some of it Jimmie [Vaughan – Stevie’s brother and a feted guitarist in his own right] was with us as well. We had horns on some and we did several things that we had never done before, then we went back in and chose from what were the best performances.
"But since then there’s been a lot of changes going on; changes in my life as well as other people in the band, and we’re trying to take things at a more sensible pace.
"You know, this record will be the first one that I’ve ever done sober, completely sober, so things are a lot different now and there’s a lot more to see and look at and be thankful for.”
Can you tell me how those changes in your life happened?
“Yeah, it would help me to talk about it anyway. I’m an alcoholic. I didn’t know that for a long time; I had a suspicion for a few years but I didn’t realise that that’s really what it was down to.
"My father was an alcoholic and what I didn’t know, that I do now, is that some of the disease of alcoholism is actually hereditary. And growing up in a family that’s actually dysfunctional because of alcoholism is a lot of it. I started drinking when I was about six and through the years the more pressures and the more things that I have become involved with, it ended up where I started using drink and other drugs to keep me going.
“Part of it had to do with the better bands that I got into. For some reason it seemed as if they got higher, and it seems like they had been subject to the same kind of myths that I had: that to play that kind of music and be successful at it, or to be creative or hip, you had to be high.
"The truth is that’s bullshit, and the real matter is that if you’re good at what you like and you care about what you’re doing, then you’ll be good.
“Now, I finally hit bottom when I collapsed about September 1986, over here in Europe – in Germany was where it really came to a head. I could no longer carry on the schedule that we had. You see as long as I kept going, anaesthetising my feelings, and doing things that would give me enough energy to keep going… every time we would come along and make the best of a bad situation because of over-booking, we would just go [grits teeth], ‘Okay, we can do it’, and play right through it.
"If I’d had the time to stop and think about it, I would have seen that was going to lead to nowhere real quick. However the way it looked at the time to me was that I’d accepted that I was going to have to do this for the rest of my life.”
You mean drinking?
“Drinking and other things, mainly cocaine, because that was… I don’t know… somehow along the line I got the idea that it was safer than other drugs, and that’s a lie. It’s one of the more distorting drugs, it can really lead to problems, as I found out the hard way.
"At any rate it came to head, I collapsed, I got to a point where I was completely wrecked in my thinking, in my heart and physically. Most of my values were gone. Some of them I could still hang on to, however some of them were really distorted, really bad.
“I finally gave up fighting this whole deal and then it dawned on me that now I can get some help. I went to Dr Victor Bloom here in London, and he put me in the hospital to observe my stomach – because I’d torn my stomach up real bad – and to detox.
"He suggested a chain of treatment centres called Charter, and it was great because there was someone I could talk to who was willing to just be helpful.
“The treatment centre gave me the tools to live without using these things, and also to have more inspiration, more kind of faith in life and in myself. And it also gave me the tools to not need to get loaded.
"I have a choice now, instead of ‘I do this because I have to’, I have a choice, which is that I choose to be healthier, and I choose to grow spiritually, and I choose to not use any kind of drugs or alcohol, because I know what kind of thinking goes on in my head when I do.
"If I was to have a drink, I wouldn’t just have a drink, I would have a lot of drinks, and it might be that I would die, because the disease of alcohol is very progressive. Now I wake up in the morning and it’s neat, real neat.
"We’ve been waiting a long time, and people have been real nice about this whole deal, and real understanding. Okay, what else shall we talk about? [laughs].”
I’d like to talk about the Texas blues scene, and how it developed for you as a youngster. Your elder brother Jimmie was a couple of years older…
“Yeah, three and a half years older – he started playing when he was in Junior High, when I couldn’t have been more than eight. When he was at school he had decided to go for football, because that’s what all the girls go after – football players.
"Then he realised that the football players were a lot bigger than him, and he figured it out that he wasn’t Superman when his collar-bone got broken.
“A friend of my father’s brought over a guitar and handed it to him and said, "Hey play this, it won’t hurt you", that’s what he said, and Jimmie started playing right away.
"It was amazing to watch him do it. He had three strings on the guitar and I went to school and came home and he’d made up three songs. I’m serious! And that’s the way his playing has been all along.
"With that kind of an influence as your big brother it’s real easy to get into playing. I saw how much fun he was having with it, and I saw how dedicated he was to it, and it gave me a lot of inspiration.
"When he would leave, partially because he was big brother and you’re not supposed to touch big brother’s stuff, and partly because he told me not to touch his guitar… ahh, I did.
“Eventually he got an electric guitar and I got the one that he’d had. Then he got another electric guitar and I got his hand me-down, and soon after I was playing gigs around.
He started playing and within a few months he was in a band that could play, a few months later he was in a band with all the hot guys around, and a few months later he was in the hottest band in Texas: I mean, boom, boom, boom.
"By the time he was 15 he was the hottest guitar player in Texas. From then on everybody was trying to figure out how Jimmie Vaughan would do it – me too, I was too.
“The bands I was playing in weren’t so good. I remember the first time I was ever on stage with a band, we were in a talent show that Jimmie was in as well, in another band. Now in this talent contest we were about halfway through the song when we realised that nobody knew any more than the first part of the song! So that gig didn’t go over too well. We did not win!
"I guess that I started clubs at about 13 or 14, way too young to be in them, but that’s the way it goes."
Are these clubs at home?
“Yeah, around Texas – Dallas and Fort Worth. In fact the first week that I had an actual club gig where they drank and everything – I mean a real club – we played an eight day week.
"Four of the nights was at one club until closing time, which was 2am, and then the other three nights was 12 till 4am at another club in another part of town – both these clubs had the same owners. That was when I met Tommy Shannon.”
He had been in Johnny Winter’s band hadn’t he?
“Yeah, it was the night he quit to go to California with another band. That was my first club gig. We made $600 for the eight days and we were an 11-piece band – that’s like a dollar an hour, or a night, or something ridiculous."
Were these clubs black clubs?
“Yes some of them were black clubs, it was quite strange. For a while I was playing at the Cellar, in Dallas, and you would play a set for an hour, there was continuous music as there were three bands, or two bands depending what was going on.
"Each band would play for exactly one hour and as the last band hit their last chord the next band would come on the other side of the set, plug into the same gear and hit it. That meant that you would play for an hour then get two hours off. At that club they would not let black people in. We did not like the policy but it was one of the only gigs you could get where you could play the music you wanted to play.
"What we would do was play a set for an hour, then go get into the car and go over to the other side of town and go sit in. We would have two hours so we would be back in time to play our next set and then we would take off and go over again.”
How old were you then?
“14; we were playing from 10 at night until six in the morning – we were also trying to go to school and that doesn’t work real well.”
How did your mother and father react to all this?
“Well, things were real strange at home in the first place, but it didn’t go over real big. Jimmie had left when he was 15 because of the same things – we both knew what we wanted to do.
"After I moved out I stayed around Dallas for a few months playing around the clubs. The band I was in at the time was called Blackbird.”
Were you playing blues music at that stage or more of a pop thing?
“Blues music and rock music. Rock ’n’ roll, rock, blues, but all blues influenced, some of it by the original blues guys, some of it by the English blues. Some of it was influenced by Hendrix – he also took everything he heard, that excited him, and put it into his music.”
Do you practise specific licks and runs, or do you simply play a lot?
“I just play a lot, but lately not as much as I would like to. The way you have to travel now, the way that regulations have changed on planes – certainly in the States – they got to where they wouldn’t let you on with something that was longer that a certain length, so we had to take the neck off the guitar. So when we’d get to the next town I’d have to give it back to Rene [Martinez, Stevie’s guitar tech] and he’d go put it back together.
"And now that we’re doing so many gigs and everything there just isn’t time. I really have been wanting to sit down in my room and play, because that’s what started it, that’s like going back to square one.
"And it’s fun, it’s fun to sit around, even if it gets frustrating. I’m starting to remember that some of the biggest doors that have been opened in my life have sometimes been the hardest things to do.”
How did you get around those things?
“I kept listening, kept going to see people, sitting in with people, listening to records. If I wanted to learn somebody’s stuff, like with Clapton, when I wanted to learn how he was getting some of his sounds – which were real neat – I learned how to make the sounds with my mouth and then copied that with my guitar.
"I’d get it to where I could sing it and then do it on the guitar at the same time, and if it didn’t sound like it should to me, then I’d do it again. It was kind of like scat singing or something.
"With Hendrix’s music I kept listening and kept trying and trying, and some of the things I just stumbled onto when I’d be playing and things would kind of come to me. How to describe it I don’t know… it had to do with confidence levels and the excitement of playing, trying new things and originality.”
Did you ever get to see Hendrix live?
“Not live. My brother opened up for him and they’d go around together, trading ideas… and wah wah pedals! But I just kept trying it.
"That’s one thing that I don’t understand. I get asked a lot of times by people, how do I have enough gall to do Voodoo Chile, and my answer to that is, wait a minute, it seems to me that all the pressure about whether it’s sacrilegious to do Hendrix’s music or not comes from other people not from him. I think he would probably hope that other people would take his music further.”
How about your guitars – are you still playing your ‘First Wife’?
“Yeah, my first wife is a ’59 Stratocaster [it’s actually a ’63 body, a ’62 neck and ’59 pickups] although now I have a different neck on it, because I’d worn the other one to a point where every time I refretted it I’d have to fill in the holes.”
Is it a custom-made neck?
“No, it’s the neck off another Stratocaster, but it’s the same size neck. I use the big necks, the V necks, and I use bass frets, jumbo. That Stratocaster is the most versatile. I can pretty much get any sound out of it, and I use stock pickups.”
You don’t use any special wirings?
“Not really. There’s something I’ve been trying for a while, I call it ‘Something Extra’,and I’ve got it in my First Wife. What it does is if there’s a problem with lights and buzz, I turn it on, and sometimes it causes the buzz to go away. It’s on a push-pull switch and it changes the tone very barely, but I’ve learned to work with that tone.
"I can’t say what it is because we’re trying to see what we can do with it. It’s a very simple idea, too.”
Do you have any unusual guitars in your collection?
“Well there’s one that I’m carrying with me which is made by Charlie Wirz, the E flat model that you saw, which is basically a Stratocaster with Danelectro lipstick pickups in it. Whether he changed the wires in those pickups I’m not sure, he never told anyone [sadly, Charlie Wirz passed away in 1985].
"I love that guitar, it sounds like a Stratocaster but it’s just a little bit different. Those pickups seem to work real well in a Stratocaster body, I like it a whole lot. I’ve also got a guitar that Billy Gibbons had made for me, that’s a Hamiltone model.”
Do you have any acoustics?
“I’ve got a Gibson 335, that’s a semiacoustic, but I don’t really do too much acoustic stuff. I’ve got a ’28 Dobro and I sometimes play some slide, but not very often. I go through phases where I feel comfortable about it. It’s funny, I’ll get into doing it again and get real confident with it, and then something happens…”
How about your amps. You used to use two Vibroverbs
“Yeah, I used to use two Fender Vibroverbs, two Super Reverbs and a Dumble. I had used Marshall amps years ago and I had a real clean one. It was a first or second series head – I’m not sure overdriven Fender.
"I liked the Dumble a whole lot when I first got it, but the first one I had built, which is the best sounding one, is messed up right now – that’s the one that’s out on stage right now. But every one I’ve had since then, they’ve all sounded worse in different ways I don’t know what it is.
"My favourite rig lately has been an old Marshall Major, the PA top with four inputs. I was looking for one, I found the head, plugged it in, turned clear. If you bear down on the strings and hit hard it will bark at you like it’s supposed to, but it doesn’t break up.
"The problem with taking the amps to a shop is that sometimes they come back sounding like another amp. So right now my favourite thing is to use the old Marshall Major head, and my best Dumble, with two 4x12 cabinets and a Leslie – if I can keep speakers in the Leslie. A Leslie has one 10-inch or 12-inch depending on which model it is and running it with a 200-watt head it goes ‘help’.”
Your band has been together a good few years now
“Yeah, Tommy [Shannon, bass] and I have been together off and on since 1969, although he’s only been with this band since a couple of years before Texas Flood, and Chris [Layton, drums] and I have been together going on 13 years.
"It’s been real neat, we have gone through a lot of changes, some of them I’ve told you about, but those guys they’ve been really supportive. We’ve gone through a lot together and nowadays we are coming out of it. We’re learning more between each other, it’s as if we’re about to wake up again.”
What are your goals both in the short term and the long term?
“I’ve put my life back together but it’s all a growing process and that’s neat, too, because if you stop growing what good is it musically? So that is what I’m looking forward to – growing.
"In some ways I have been in a bit of a stagnant place for a while for whatever reasons. I felt stagnant in my life and it showed. It’s strange how it came about… it took my sobering up to see it.
“That’s one of the things musicians who are going through this same thing have to look forward to. In a different sense it will seem like a real hard hump to get over. However it’s really a blessing in disguise, it can be done. It’s a challenge, it’s kind of like starting over in a way; I’ve got a bit of a boost because I learned quite a bit before having to start over."
"Along with Chris, Reese [Wynans, keyboard player] and Tommy I’m planning on doing a record – probably September, October, somewhere around then. They have been writing songs as well and we will see what we can use. I’ve also got some ideas and things that I really want to do which I’ve got to finish up.
“Then I’ve got a project that I want to do with my brother Jimmie. We have been thinking about this for a long time, but it has ended up being like ships in the night. We just see each other every once in a while because they are either making a record or are on tour… or we are.
"Every time we start planning it, one of us has to go out and do something else. More than likely, it seems that it won’t make any sense if it’s Jimmie Vaughan and Double Trouble or Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Thunderbirds, so it will be whoever feels right for the song.
"We both know how to play a lot and we can both play well together. I learned a lot from him and he tells me he’s learned a lot from me; it’s kind of hard for a little brother see a big brother do that. We are both looking forward to trying this thing.
“I would also like to do another revue; something like the last one that we did with Jimmie and me on guitar, Tommy on bass, Chris and George Raines on drums, Doctor John was on keyboards, the late John Hammond was in the show. The show was a real blast, we played Carnegie Hall.
"There are a lot of people that I would like to work with but right now I am trying to take things one thing at a time, and the next record project will be with the band. I am really trying to take my time and focus on that. There are a lot of things that I get sidetracked with but it’s coming and it feels good. It is so encouraging, it really is.”
Do you still love playing?
“Yes. There were times when this was more apparent in the way it sounds, but this has always been the way. There’s no sense in going out there and not giving it what you’ve got, and I’ve had to do that when I did not feel up to par.
"It’s funny because sometimes that’s when you can hear yourself, by playing, and you can make yourself feel better. That’s happened many times."
Well they call music a therapy…
“Yes; well, I’m sure glad about that.”