Stevie Ray Vaughn: a precautionary tale

I was shattered the day Stevie Ray Vaughn died in 1990 about as much as any fan could have been. He was breaking into his own as a complete artist and was finally getting the recognition for this apart from being able to melt the strings off his guitar with a level of soul and power which put blues cats to shame and scared the living daylights out of shredders. Apart from that Stevie Ray Vaughn had overcome years of substance abuse to fully clean himself up and become a great example to others who suffered the same afflictions, even heard saying”If I can do it anyone can.” Then he tragically died.

I use “precautionary” tale not as a warning against substance abuse but rather a warning about originality. Stevie Ray Vaughn was an original, no doubting that, he took his influences, and within the finite framework of the blues he played carved out his own niche and expanded the art form, even past his 60’s and 70’s blues rock predecessors, also known, many of them, as Guitar Gods. Was he derivative? Yes, but in no more or less than Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, or scads of others who aimed in the same direction that Vaughn did.

I played in Austin a couple of times and had the great honor of playing at Antone’s once. When a friend of mine mentioned the show coming up they asked “so what SRV song are you going to do since you are playing at Antone’s?” My answer, one which required little thought, was this, “none.” I also added “why would I do that?” They seemed a bit miffed and I assured them I did not mean that in a derogatory way, I happen to get a kick out Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar playing and think a great many things about him, which I will reserve until later. But here is the skinny on the SRV death cult phenomenon.

When Stevie Ray Vaughn died the focus on his life and his accomplishments was tasteful and obviously the executors of his properties, his recordings and performances, used great taste and restraint in releasing only select material for a starved public consumption. It can never be said that the SRV camp overdid his passing by flooding the market with, what had to have been, tons of live and studio recordings. It was sparse, and while though not comparable to all his best, it was still well worth listening too. The same can be said for his live video performances. This is not the case for the death cult and again this is not Stevie Ray Vaughn’s fault, and neither is the following paragraph.

It used to be when I saw a guy in a freaking Zorro hat with conches or any resemblance to the SRV brim, a beat up strat, and an Ibanez tube screamer I would lose my mind and this would happen, enough times to note, to the point that I would dismiss them upon site with “oh here goes another one.” And of course here would come the same attempt at something unoriginal, trying to sound like someone they were never going to be. And any of you that idolize SRV let me clue you in to something: You will never be Stevie Ray Vaughn. And I would add: do not ever feel like you have to be.

I witnessed Stevie Ray Vaughn firsthand the last time he played a big festival in Memphis, TN. I can remember it like yesterday, it had that kind of “this is big” kind of impression on me. Was he the greatest player ever? He was that night. Have I witnessed others that great before? On other nights, yes. But that particular night, in Memphis, TN, in the spring of 1990 he lit the stage up with a guitar on full tilt, kicked you in your face and made you go “whew.” And he kept doing time and time again. I have never witnessed something quite that intense since then.

What I have learned from the witnessing since then is to be yourself because you will never be him. Not in another 5 generations of guitar players will you be Stevie Ray Vaughn and don’t try. Should you copy his licks? Yes. Should you learn his songs? Yes. But you should never copy him or anyone else if you have plans on ever rising above a wannabe. Seek what he sought. And as always:

Go practice your guitar!