Joanne Shaw Taylor on the blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan

Joanne Shaw Taylor

My introduction to Stevie came when my dad played me the Live At The El Mocambo DVD. I cycled straight over to the local Our Price. The blues section was just this tiny little rack at the back and Texas Flood was the only Stevie CD they had. It’s a really important album for me because it took me from being a Solihull school girl to the ridiculous notion that I could be a blues artist. I went from the Spice Girls and NSYNC to Stevie Ray Vaughan overnight!

I still get very nostalgic about it. Growing up in Solihull in the 90s, it opened up a whole new world. I was already playing guitar, but in a very disciplined classical world. Stevie was the perfect gateway blues artist for my generation – this wild Texan cowboy with such a cool image. A skinny, muscly guy with massive hands, big chest tattoo and cowboy hat, looking cool in a kimono.

I became obsessed pretty quick. He died young at 35 and he’d only done four studio albums, I think, in his lifetime, but I just soaked up everything. He met David Bowie at Montreux Jazz Festival, which is how he got the Let’s Dance gig. But Jackson Browne was also there and offered him three days’ studio time. So the band flew out to LA and recorded 10 songs in two or three days, and that was pretty much what became Texas Flood. It’s done very live with minimal overdubs, and that made an impression on me. It’s all about feel and capturing a good performance.

Texas Flood has a lot of what I’d call pop songs. They’re quite catchy, so it was an easy route into the blues. Pride And Joy was the first Stevie song I tried to learn on the guitar. He does this raking rhythm, very signature to him, where he’s only playing one string, but he’s hitting all of them while muted to get a really thick rhythm sound. Pride And Joy is a great example of that. The instrumental Rude Mood also showcases how catchy his guitar playing could be.
The bad thing about Stevie Ray Vaughan for me is that I sat in my bedroom for 12 hours a day trying to copy him. I’d literally spend hours trying to learn one lick. Now, whenever I play a Stratocaster I just do a bad Stevie Ray Vaughan impression, falling back into those bad habits I had when I was 14!

His playing was just flawless, incredibly smooth. Apart from his dalliances into jazz, he stuck to the minor pentatonic scale. He’s a very traditional blues guitarist in that sense. He did a lot with not much to work with, but his phrasing was just fantastic. He never overplayed, but never ran out of ideas. It’s that thing of: if it doesn’t need to be said, why say it? But there’s no part of the conversation that’s missing and I think that’s a lesson to us all.

The main thing with Stevie is tone. He tuned down to E flat and he played really thick strings, they were basically like telegraph wire, which gives a huge tone. Typically, players with heavier strings are jazz guitarists who don’t bend the strings, but he was bending them up three, four notes higher than most. He was just a monster guitar player.

Felix Rowe

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