‘I can’t stand him mate – he’s just a total Jimi Hendrix rip off. He has no originality and no licks of his own. His music is so boring to listen to…’
So stated my local barber on a damp and dreary Saturday afternoon in London. Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys were playing over the speakers, and the barber himself was sporting a huge tattoo of Hendrix’s face on his forearm. Evidently he didn’t feel quite the same love for Stevie Ray – the virtuoso blues guitarist famous for songs like Pride and Joy and Texas Flood.
I didn’t challenge him on it. Other than this one moment of madness – I’d rank the chat amongst one of the best I’ve had in a barber’s chair, and I certainly didn’t want to compromise the quality of my haircut by getting into a heated discussion about Stevie Ray Vaughan’s originality.
The conversation stuck with me though. Stevie is one of my all-time favourite musicians, and perhaps the guitarist who first got me hooked on the blues (even if I’ve been thwarted in all of my attempts to learn Scuttle Buttin’…) Earlier that morning, I had planned a post-haircut writing session and had been debating how to get this blog off the ground. So I thought the topic would make a fitting start.
Jimi Hendrix and SRV – A Flawed Comparison
The comparison between Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan isn’t exactly new. Vaughan was compared with Hendrix for most of his career and famously covered two of Jimi Hendrix’s best known songs – Voodoo Child (Slight Return) and Little Wing.
When questioned on the comparison (as he often was), Vaughan was characteristically modest:
There’s only one Jimi Hendrix and there’ll never be another one. I just do my best… to carry his music on
Aside from showing himself to be both humble and very respectful – Vaughan perfectly captures the flaws inherent in the comparison. To compare Jimi Hendrix to any guitarist before or since, is ill judged.
Jimi Hendrix is lauded by many as the greatest guitarist of all time. In my opinion this is not because of his technical ability or song writing, despite both being exceptional. Rather it is because of the immense and lasting impact he had on the world of music.
Jimi Hendrix – The Destroyer of Gods
When Jimi Hendrix touched down in London in 1966, he arrived as an outsider in a music scene that was both cutting edge and well established. Cream, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles (amongst others) had achieved worldwide acclaim. The London music scene was like nothing that had ever come before. It also wasn’t in short supply of virtuosic guitarists. Jeff Beck was an established and well-known player, and such was Eric Clapton’s prowess, that fans worshipped him as a divine being – the street graffiti famously reading, CLAPTON IS GOD.
Having been in London for only a week, Jimi Hendrix attended a Cream gig and put in a request to jam with the band. Given both Cream and Eric Clapton’s notoriety, the request was pretty audacious. What followed, changed the landscape of music irreversibly. Hendrix launched into one of Clapton’s favourite songs – a rendition of Killing Floor, by Howlin’ Wolf – and totally outplayed Clapton.
The effect on Cream, on Clapton and on the audience, were profound. In challenging and beating Clapton, Hendrix overthrew God. He single handedly destroyed the established world order and ushered in a new age for music. That moment was so impactful, that every guitar player since, has been unable to match it. After all – once God has been destroyed, what is left for everyone else?
Psychedelic Blues-Rock vs Texas Blues
Even though comparisons between Jimi Hendrix and any other player are flawed, I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the key differences between Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix, as well as those similarities that unify them.
The first – and perhaps the biggest difference between Hendrix and Vaughan, is their style of blues. Hendrix’s playing is heavy and is categorised more as rock than it is as blues. Within his particular style of rock, there are also heavy influences of funk, soul and psychedelic music. The album Electric Ladyland is evidence of this eclectic mix, as are the final recordings of Hendrix, taken from the live shows of his newly formed ‘Band of Gypsys’.
Vaughan by contrast, plays a much ‘straighter’ kind of blues. Unlike Hendrix, he didn’t look to the British blues scene for inspiration. Growing up in Dallas, he was heavily influenced by the legends of the Lone Star state; Albert King, Buddy Guy and Albert Collins.
His music is more recognisable as blues – and specifically Texas Blues (which he played a huge role in establishing). There is little, if any deviation from this style.
This is reflected in the sounds of the two players. Hendrix was a big fan of experimenting with different effects – some of his most iconic solos see him use heavy amounts of fuzz, octave effects and wah-wah. Aside from using the latter on his version of Voodoo Child (Slight Return), Vaughan was much more sparing in his use of different tones and effects. Throughout his career he used only a couple of different effects pedals, and his beautiful and very distinctive tone remains almost the same from song to song.
SRV: The ‘Sharpshooter’
I would also suggest (perhaps controversially) that Vaughan is a more precise player than Hendrix. In fact this precision is one of the defining characteristics of Vaughan’s style. His playing is always controlled, even when it aggressive and intense. I can’t recall any moments where he is imprecise or sloppy.
You can’t say the same of Hendrix. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way – there is a real rawness to Hendrix’s playing and it is part of what makes it so impactful. It is, as one commentator wrote, ‘the perfect kind of sloppy’. This is particularly the case in his live performances, where he becomes so totally immersed in his playing, that his soloing is like a stream of consciousness. Parts of it are clear and controlled, whilst others are totally wild and almost nonsensical. This (almost) instrumental version of Red House, performed in Stockholm in 1969 is a clear indication of his style (as is the rest of that set – even though he’s not using his customary Fender Stratocaster).
The comparison is clearest when you listen to their different versions of Voodoo Child (Slight Return). Both versions showcase phenomenal playing, but Hendrix’s version has a certain rawness to it that Vaughan’s version does not. Whether you favour precision or otherwise is a thing of personal preference. For me at least though, this is a real difference between their playing and style of music.
Sex, Drugs and the ’27 Club’
Given that Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan were playing in different decades and in different countries from one another, it is not surprising that there are both vast and innumerable differences between them. What is more surprising perhaps, is just how much they had in common.
Both men had difficult childhoods. Hendrix’s mother gave birth to him when she was just 17 and she went on to leave home a few years later. After that, Hendrix saw her only sporadically before she died 16 years later. Although to the outside world, Vaughan had a more stable family unit, his father was in fact an alcoholic and a violent drunk. His life growing up was equally turbulent.
In adult life, both men struggled with substance abuse. Following his father’s example – Vaughan started abusing alcohol when he was just 7 or 8 years old. When he grew up, the lifestyle and pressures of touring led him to harder drugs and he soon became addicted to cocaine. So the story goes, his morning pick me up consisted of a glass of whiskey with cocaine dissolved into it.
Combined with a relentless touring schedule, this eventually resulted in Vaughan having a physical and mental breakdown, in Germany in 1986. Whilst in hospital there and before being checking himself into rehab, doctors told him that his state of health was so poor, he had the ‘Stomach of a 65 year old man’ and would be dead within years if he continued.
If Vaughan’s drug of choice was cocaine, then Hendrix’s was psychedelics and in particular, LSD. In the words of his peers:
He had this tolerance, which was remarkable for his physical size. One would not believe that he could take so much of those expanders and be conscious
It undoubtedly had a huge impact on his music and live performances. Unlike Vaughan, sadly Hendrix was not able to overcome his addictions. If we are to believe the official reports (I’ll save the alternative theories for another day) these addictions finally overcame him in 1970. He became a member of the infamous ’27 Club’ and a symbol of the ‘live fast, die young’ lifestyle.
Sobriety and the Supernatural
Conversely, in the last years of his life, Vaughan became a spokesperson for sobriety. He talked at length in interviews about his addictions and encouraged his fans and struggling musicians to approach him on the subject. The lasting impact of this was profound – a point highlighted by John Mayer when Stevie was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015:
Stevie had incredible courage. He fought to overcome the demons of drug and alcohol addiction and when he did, he returned to the stage an even better guitar player for it. The only reason that I know exactly what sobriety meant to Stevie…is because he had the courage to talk openly about it on stage.
For both Vaughan and Hendrix, drugs offered a release from the pressures of fame and notoriety. Off stage, Vaughan and Hendrix were shy and reserved characters. They were humble, softly spoken and evidently slightly uncomfortable with the status assigned to them. This was perhaps best illustrated when Hendrix was asked if he was the best guitar player in the world. He responded, ‘how about the best one sitting in this chair?’
That both men were modest and reserved off stage, makes their on stage performances all the more incredible. It is this which ultimately unifies them and why comparisons between them abound. For both, the guitar allowed them to transcend the limits of the physical and channel a power through their playing. To watch a performance by Hendrix or Vaughan is to watch someone transformed by the guitar into something almost supernatural. It illustrates the immense possibilities that guitar playing offers and is truly inspirational.
The Ultimate Guitar Hero
If his originality is ever again brought into question in my presence, I hope I’ll be better equipped to argue in support of Stevie Ray Vaughan. I watched a lot of footage for the research of this article and it only enforced my love for him. Beyond the amazing music he produced, he comes across as a humble, kind and gentle man. His untimely death was a great tragedy.
Thankfully, his work lives on and continues to inspire the next generation of blues guitarists. On this point, John Mayer summarised it perfectly when he inducted Vaughan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:
‘There is an intensity about Stevie’s guitar playing that only he could achieve, still to this day. It’s a rage without anger, it’s devotional, it’s religious. He seamlessly melded the supernatural vibe of Jimi Hendrix, the intensity of Albert King, the best of British, Texas and Chicago Blues and the class and sharp shooter precision of his older brother Jimmie. Stevie is the ultimate guitar hero.’
I’ll remember that one next time I’m in the barber’s chair.
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Gregory, Hugh (2003). Roadhouse Blues: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Texas R&B, The Famous People – SRV, Rolling stone Article, Biography.com, Wikipedia, Youtube, Youtube – Jimi Interview, Youtube – Stevie Interview, Youtube – Stevie Influences, Youtube – Stevie on Jimi comparison, Youtube – Clapton and Jimi, Youtube – Jimi and LSD
Feature Image of Stevie Ray Vaughan – ©RTBusacca / MediaPunch (Taken from Alamy)