10 Lessons You Can Learn From Stevie Ray Vaughan
It is difficult to overstate the impact that Stevie Ray Vaughan had on the blues. He is one of the most famous blues musicians of all time, and is celebrated for revitalising the genre in the 1980s and in turn, inspiring a new generation of blues guitarists.
Whilst Vaughan was both a gifted singer and songwriter, he is best remembered for his guitar playing. He is without question one of the most gifted blues guitarists ever, possessing a unique intensity and style.
Although Vaughan’s playing may be inimitable, by looking at his approach and the techniques he utilised, as well as his gear and set up, we can capture some of that Stevie Ray magic in our own playing.
Without further ado then, here are 10 key lessons you can learn from Stevie Ray Vaughan that will make you a better blues guitarist:
1.) Master The Minor Pentatonic
Stevie Ray Vaughan was a master of the minor pentatonic scale. It was his go-to scale and defined the sound of all of his lead playing. This might sound obvious, as Vaughan certainly wasn’t unique in relying on the minor pentatonic scale. It is the most commonly used scale in blues and rock music, and has been used by a whole range of notable bluesmen.
But Vaughan really took this to the next level. He almost solely used the scale to construct his licks and solos. And whilst he occasionally mixed it with the major pentatonic scale, his sound is really based around the minor scale. And this is significant. So many aspiring blues players try and ‘break out’ of the minor pentatonic scale shapes almost as soon as they learn them. Yet in my opinion, this is a mistake. You can get so much mileage out of the minor pentatonic scale; a point that is really proven by Vaughan’s playing.
That is not to say you shouldn’t aim to expand your musical vocabulary. But don’t forget the importance of the pentatonic scales shapes. You can sound truly amazing and craft beautiful blues solos using nothing but the minor pentatonic scale. So before you rush onto more complex and exotic scales, spend time really getting to grips with your pentatonic scales. Learn them back to front, all over the neck of your guitar and in all of the different keys. Improvise using the scale and try and create as many different licks and feels as you can.
This will dramatically improve your blues lead playing and provide you with an amazing foundation. Then once you have really got it nailed, you can move on to explore different scales and techniques to add greater variety to your playing.
2.) Dig In
A big part of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tone came from his very heavy pick attack. Whenever you see a clip of Vaughan playing, look closely at his right hand. He doesn’t pick the strings with his hand; he uses his whole arm to strike his strings with force. This was a key part of his playing style and it had a real impact on his tone.
Crucially, his heavy pick attack added a particular bite and aggression to his sound. It pushed his cranked amp into breakup and produced a warm and organic sounding crunch. If you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan then, don’t be afraid to dig in with your picking hand.
If you pair it with an amp on the edge of break up, it will totally change how your guitar sounds. Learn from Stevie Ray Vaughan and go heavy when you want a bit of extra crunch or to stand out in the mix. Then just back off with the pressure when you want to clean your tone up.
3.) Play In The Pocket
Part of what made Stevie Ray Vaughan such a brilliant guitarist was his killer sense of timing.Vaughan had an amazing ability to play right ‘in the pocket’. He didn’t just play in time; he created the groove and feel through his playing.
You can hear this in all of his songs, but I think it is particularly evident on some of his instrumentals. Tracks like ‘Rude Mood‘, ‘Scuttle Buttin” and ‘Testify‘ are just 3 songs that really highlight Vaughan’s ability to create a groove.
If you want to cultivate the same skill, you need to develop a strong sense of timing. And this can be quite tricky to do if you are predominantly practicing and playing by yourself. So make sure that you are consistently making efforts to develop this part of your playing. Play along to a metronome or a drum machine, improvise over backing tracks and play along with your favourite songs.
Do all of this, and also incorporate specific exercises into your practice routine to improve your sense of timing. If you’re stuck for ideas, I outlined 7 different exercises that I regularly use to improve my timing in this article here.
Although these exercises aren’t the most stimulating, they will really help you to ‘play in the pocket’. And that is crucial if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan.
4.) Shuffle Like A Texan
Stevie Ray Vaughan used his brilliant sense of timing and rhythmic skills to develop what is now often referred to as the ‘Texas Shuffle’ – a very specific form of the blues shuffle. He uses this a lot in his playing, but it appears most memorably in ‘‘Pride and Joy‘.
To play a blues shuffle in this way is not easy at all. If you haven’t yet got to grips with the shuffle, or if you need a bit of a refresher, I would recommend starting with the series of articles that I recently wrote on the subject:
- Understanding Blues Rhythms & The Blues Shuffle
- How To Master The Blues Shuffle Rhythm
- The Basic Forms Of The Blues Shuffle
- 6 Ways To Play A Better Blues Shuffle
In these articles I run through the rhythms used in the shuffle, the various forms of the shuffle, and how to properly play a blues shuffle. Once you have that under your fingers, you can tackle Vaughan’s complex Texan shuffle. And the best place to start here is with the shuffle pattern used in Pride and Joy:
In the Eb tuning that Vaughan uses for the original, this is what the guitar part in this passage sounds like:
This is really quite an advanced shuffle pattern. Here Vaughan is playing 2 different parts with his fretting hand. The first is the walking bass line that he is playing on the lower strings. The second is the rhythmic stabs that he makes on his treble strings. He also alters the dynamics across these 2 different sections, placing emphasis on the rhythmic stabs by accenting them more heavily.
It is not easy to get to grips with this shuffle, but it is definitely worth learning. Not only is it very enjoyable to play when you do get it right, but it will also really develop your blues rhythm playing skills.
5.) Channel Your Inner Albert King
Albert King had a profound influence on Stevie Ray Vaughan. He quite literally created the techniques that Vaughan later popularised. Albert King changed the way blues guitarists bent strings. And he was the first guitarist to hit big 2 tone bends.
It is important to know this, because I think most new and aspiring blues guitarists discover Stevie Ray Vaughan before Albert King. They hear Vaughan and are blown away by his licks and playing style, without being aware that Albert King was the one who pioneered those techniques.
That was certainly my experience. I discovered and fell in love with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s playing long before I had even heard of Albert King. But without Albert King, there wouldn’t be Stevie Ray Vaughan – or at least not as we now know him. So if you want to fully appreciate Vaughan’s playing, I would urge you to start listening more to Albert King.
There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, Albert King’s music is brilliant and will make an excellent addition to your blues playlist. Secondly, I think it is important to learn from and pay attention to the musicians that influence(d) the players that we want to emulate. And lastly, in some ways it is actually easier to observe the techniques that Vaughan uses by listening to Albert King.
Compared with Vaughan, King’s playing is slower and more sparse. So you can listen to King’s bending style and phrasing (which is very similar to Vaughan’s) at a slower pace. You can learn King’s techniques at that tempo (and they will sound amazing!) and then work up to the faster pace typical to Stevie Ray Vaughan songs.
6.) Repeat Yourself
Stevie Ray Vaughan uses a lot of repetition in his soloing. This is a very effective but often under-utilised technique in blues guitar playing. It can be implemented in a whole variety of different ways, but there are 2 ways to use it that I think work particularly well:
The first of these is to create a theme or motif in your soloing. If you continually return to the same phrase within a solo, you can draw the listener back to that phrase. That in itself is powerful. But you can enhance this by slightly altering the motif every now and again. This is a technique used a lot by B.B. King. Just listen to the intro and main solo (starting at the 1.57 mark) for the song ‘Guess Who‘. King keeps returning to the same melodic idea, but he changes and alters it in each of the solos. This keeps things interesting and helps King to get a huge amount of mileage from just a handful of notes.
The second way to utilise repetition is to use it to build tension. If you keep repeating a phrase, you can build a strong sense of tension in your solos. And the more you repeat a phrase – within reason – the more the tension builds. This tension is then resolved as soon as you move onto a different phrase. When done properly, this provides a moment of euphoria for the listener that is very powerful. And this is particularly the case if you add to the tension by applying vibrato or altering the way you play the note.
This is a technique that Stevie Ray Vaughan utilises a lot. You can hear some element of repetition in most of his solos, especially when you start to listen out for it. But some great examples of guitar solos where he heavily uses repetition are as follows:
- ‘Tightrope‘ (Starting at the 1.17 minute mark)
- ‘Change It'(Starting at the 1.20 minute mark)
- ‘Pride and Joy‘ (Starting at the 1.37 minute mark)
Far from making your solos sound stale or uninteresting, you can use repetition in a similar way to brilliant effect. In my opinion, this is one of the best lessons you can learn from Stevie Ray Vaughan.
7.) Speed Up
Generally speaking, speed is not one of the essential skills that you need to develop to be a killer bluesman. If you think about many of the most famous blues guitarists of all time, very few of them play fast. Their focus instead is on note placement, vibrato and the quality of their touch and feel. Very rarely do they execute fast licks or speedy runs up and down the neck. This is definitely true of the ‘Three Kings’ and also of most of the early American bluesmen. Even in the British blues and rock scene of the 1960s and ’70s, it was only really Rory Gallagher and Jimmy Page who played very fast.
Conversely, Stevie Ray Vaughan often plays fast, and uses speed to add intensity and power to his playing. It is a key part of his soloing style. So if you want to learn from Stevie Ray Vaughan and emulate his playing, you need to be able to execute licks at speed. And crucially, you need to be able to do this with precision. Although Vaughan is fast, he is never sloppy. His playing is always precise and he retains the clarity of all of his notes.
There are a lot of different exercises that you can work on to get faster, and I will cover these in more detail in a future article. But one simple exercise to get quicker is to play chromatically up and down your neck in time with a metronome, as follows:
At 80 BPM, this is what this exercise sounds like:
The idea here is to play 4 notes for each click of the metronome. Don’t use any hammer ons or pull offs; pick each note individually. Work your way up the neck by moving up 1 fret every time you reach the high or low E string. So, in the example above, after playing the 2nd fret on the low E, you would move up 1 fret, and start the pattern again from the 3rd fret. Go all the way up the neck until you hit the 15th fret. Then work your way back down the neck to the beginning.
Start at a tempo that is comfortable. You should be able to play all the way up and down the neck, keeping time with the metronome and playing all of the notes with precision. Once you can do that, up the tempo by 1 beat. Repeat the exercise until again you can play up and down the neck in time. Include this exercise in your practice routine and over the course of weeks and months you will totally transform the tempo at which you can play.
8.) Nail The Texas Tone
The ‘Lone Star State’ has given rise to some of the best blues tones ever recorded. Players like Freddie King, Albert Collins and Billy Gibbons are just some of the notable Texas bluesmen to craft a killer tone. Yet Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar tone is so popular that it has almost become synonymous with Texas blues. If someone says that they want a ‘Texas blues tone’, it is generally safe to assume that they are referring to an SRV style sound.
Recreating Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tone is no simple task. He played high quality gear and adopted a unique and challenging set up (more on this below). But you can certainly get close by implementing key parts of Vaughan’s rig. Grab a Fender Stratocaster and pair that with a vintage style Fender tube amp. Then as a final and critical step, add an Ibanez Tube Screamer into the mix. When combined with a Fender Strat and Fender amp, it creates a very specific, Texas blues style sound. Learn from Stevie Ray Vaughan, it will make your tone sound thicker, warmer and beefier.
9.) Take Action
If you don’t want to dramatically change your rig or spend money on new gear, there are 3 quick changes you can make to your set up to capture a bit of that Stevie Ray magic. For in addition to the gear that Vaughan used, he also adopted a unique set up that had a profound impact on his tone and playing style.
Vaughan famously used 0.13 gauge strings on his Strat. These are very heavy, and much heavier than almost all other famous electric blues guitarists. He also set the action of these strings high.
This actually affects playability. It makes it harder to fret the notes, to bend the strings and to apply vibrato. But setting the guitar up in this way does have a positive affect on tone. As I discussed in more detail here, thick guitar strings have better resonance and sustain. Setting a high action on your guitar increases this further, as it gives the strings space to vibrate fully.
To help with the increased tension (and to better accommodate his vocal range), Vaughan then tuned down to Eb. And the combination of these 3 things added weight to his tone and gave it a real warmth.
So if you are looking to beef your tone up and increase your sustain, try setting your guitar up in a similar way. Just be conservative with any changes that you make. Slowly increase the action and increase your string gauge. The last thing you want to do is make drastic changes that prevent you from being able to play properly.
10.) Double Up
Stevie Ray Vaughan adds a lot of double stops into his solos. It is one of the techniques that he utilises most frequently, and like many of the others outlined here it adds a certain intensity and power to his lead work..
You can hear double stops all over his playing – from the intro in ‘Pride and Joy‘ to the solo in ‘Empty Arms‘ (starting at the 1.39 minute mark). One song where Vaughan utilises this technique to great effect however, is in his beautiful instrumental ‘Lenny‘. Have a look at this section from the song, which starts at the 1.30 minute mark:
In the Eb tuning that Vaughan originally played the song in, this is what this particular passage sounds like on the guitar:
You can hear how effective and interesting this passage becomes, just because Vaughan is using double stops. Try including them more in your playing to mix things up and keep your soloing interesting and varied.