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Classic guitar interview: Stevie Ray Vaughan, September 1988

Onstage in 1984 in San Francisco
Onstage in 1984 in San Francisco
(Image credit: Clayton Call/Retna Ltd/Retna Ltd/Corbis)

Spurred on by an older brother who was the best guitarist in Texas, he went on to become one of the best in the world. MusicRadar users even voted him the best blues guitarist of all time. Here, in this interview from September 1988, Stevie Ray Vaughan is candid and insightful...

How long does it usually take you to record an album?

"Well, they've all taken different lengths. The first one took 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 was with us as well (Brother Jimmie Vaughan from the Fabulous Thunderbirds). We had horns on some and we did several things that we had never done before, then we went back and chose the best performances. But since then there's been a lot of changes; changes in my life as well as other people in the band, and we're trying to take things at a more sensible pace."

Can you say how those changes 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. 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.

"I finally hit bottom when I collapsed about September 1986, in Germany. 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...

"You see 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. Somewhere down 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 a 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 onto, 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 it up real bad - and to detox. He suggested a chain of treatment centres called Charter, and it was great because there was someone 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 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 just 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. People have been real nice about this whole deal, and real understanding. Okay, what else shall we talk about? (laughs)".

We'd like to talk about the Texas blues scene. Your elder brother Jimmie was a couple of years older, wasn't he?

"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 brought over a guitar and handed it to him and said, "Hey, play this, it won't hurt you," 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 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. Eventually he got an electric guitar and I got the one he'd had. Then he got another electric guitar and I got his hand-me-down.

"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. 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. I guess that I started playing in 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?

"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 black clubs?

"Yes, some of them were black clubs - it was quite strange. For a while I was playing at the Cellar, in Dallas. 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 music you wanted to play."

How old were you then?

"I was 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?

"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, 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 took everything he heard 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 than 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 (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. 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 these problems?

"I kept listening, kept going to see people, kept sitting in with people, kept 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 kept trying, and some of the things I just stumbled onto when I'd be playing and things would 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?

"No. My brother opened for him and they'd go around together, trading ideas, wah-wah pedals. That's one thing 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, it's a '59 Stratocaster, 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 of another Stratocaster, but it's the same size neck. I use the big necks, the V necks, and I use bass frets, jumbo bass frets. I have a little bit of a problem with that, because I don't know why, but it seems to cause a bit more of a rattle.

"Of course, part of that could be from tuning down to E flat as well - my action is pretty high too. Anyway, I mainly use Stratocasters. I like a lot of different kinds of guitars, but for what I do it seems that a Stratocaster is the most versatile. I can pretty much get any sound out of it, and I use stock pickups."

Do you have any unusual guitars?

"Well, there's one that I'm carrying with me that 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.

"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'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 semi-acoustic, 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."

You used to use two Vibroverbs amps.

"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. I'm not sure. I liked the Dumble a whole lot when I first got it, 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 found the head, plugged it in, turned it up, and it sounded... right. I use that head with the Dumble cabinet with four EV speakers in it.

"Then I use my other Dumble heads with another cabinet, and run a Leslie cabinet with that, and it sounds strong and 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 amps to a shop is that 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 for 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. Those guys have been really supportive. We've gone through a lot, 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, short and 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 am looking forward to - growing. In some ways, 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 and there are plenty of people who have done it. 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.

"I've got a project, which I want to do with my brother Jimmie - to do an album with him. We have been thinking about this for a long time, but it has ended up being like ships in the night. Every time we start planning it, one of us has to go out and do something else."

Do you still love playing? When you hold your guitar do you still feel good?

"Yes. It's funny because sometimes that's when you can heal yourself, by playing, and you can make yourself feel better. That has happened many times."