I recall the time when I started playing guitar and what I remember is that I began by playing songs from the bands I admired most like Metallica, Nirvana and Blink-182. After a while I withdrew from playing songs from these bands because I wanted to be able to improvise with no restrictions on my guitar. Around this time blues guitar really started to call my attention. I remember one night going through a Stevie Ray Vaughan video on YouTube and I thought to myself Wow, I have to be able to play like this guy.' Luckily, some time after that night, I met a great blues guitar instructor that got me into Stevie Ray Vaughan's style. In this article I will pass on some of the knowledge I have attained along the way.
First I want to show you some of the things involved in Stevie Ray Vaughn's signature style.
One of the guys Stevie Ray Vaughan looked up to was Albert King. It will be good for us to learn some Albert King licks before we dig into Stevie Ray Vaughn's style. Here is an example: Notice the use of the bending technique.
A lot of what makes up Stevie Ray Vaughan's unique style is the juice he gets out of every note. He is very good at infusing as much feeling as possible into every note. We are going to talk about how you can develop this technique into your own playing in a second, but first lets look at a vibrato technique that will allow you to be highly expressive.
Bend the string up using all three fingers; your ring, middle and index fingers so that you have more authority over the string you are bending. When the bend has reached it's target note (in this case the E-note), add a medium-width vibrato to it. While you are doing the vibrato, hit the string over and over making sure to keep the string bent. With some practice you should be able to do this pretty quickly.
Left Hand Muting Technique
Stevie Ray Vaughn's style oozes lots of power and that's what we're going to talk about next. To be able to play like him, your left hand muting technique should be very good. If you were to play only one note as loud as you can, it will still sound thin in comparison to when Stevie Ray Vaughn plays the same note as loudly as he can. If you want to be able to strike your strings very hard, you have to practice muting them with your left hand. Here is an example of how to do this:
Take for instance this D-note from above, if you hit the G-string by itself you will miss out on the power that comes from hitting all the strings at once. In the measure on the right hand side you will see the same note with all other strings muted. Hit all the strings and notice that only the G-string will produce a tone and ring out while all the other strings will sound dead. Use your thumb to mute the three low strings (e, a and d) and the front part of the fingers that press down on the strings to mute the first two strings (the b and the high e). It will take a bit of practice to get all the strings to sound clean, but here are some exercises to get you started:
In the next video you see me playing a lick in the style of Stevie Ray Vaughan with this technique where you hit all the strings at once.
The above lick from the Am pentatonic scale is a great place to start exploring some signature SRV-licks. I left out the rhythm on purpose because there are lots of different ways' to play this. Stevie would use a lot of rubato' or floating rhythm' in his playing so the best way to get his sense of rhythm is by listening to his songs. The Bb-note he uses on the first string (6th fret) is used as an out-of-key passing tone, adding some cool ornamentation to this lick. The blue-note is also used on the third string (8th fret).
Stevie Ray Vaughn is known for playing long lines with lots of notes. He does this by expanding licks diagonally across the neck. In this second lick you'll notice that we connected lick 1 to an expanded pattern on the lower strings.
Stevie Ray Vaughn's tone has a lot to do with maintaining a hard grip. Get aggressive with your fingers and hold the strings down rigidly. The same goes for your right hand, there are times that you need to pick very softly, but I've found that many intermediate players play with a weak attack, so practice gripping the guitar and attacking those strings (make sure that you maintain the proper left-hand muting technique to prevent unwanted string noise). As far as equipment goes, you can use any Fender tube-amplifier. For overdriven tones, just use a tube screamer pedal, like the Boss Bluesdriver. When you talk about Stevie Ray Vaughan, the saying Tone is in your fingers' holds a lot of weight.
Blues came from people that were not so fortunate with not a lot to lose so there's a lot of aggression and sexuality in the Blues. If your are playing blues guitar, but you lack that feel', try listening to the dynamics Stevie Ray Vaughn uses in his playing. See if you can attack the strings with as much energy as he does. In blues guitar playing, dynamics are crucial. If you always play every note with the same amount of attack, you might fall into the trap of not sounding as good as you might like.
Nobody says that you should have to be able to copy the raw feeling that Stevie Ray Vaughn exudes in his playing. In my opinion, the world doesn't need another SRV-copycat, but his style has so many dynamics to it that you're going to discover a lot of good things to spice up your own guitar playing.
About the author:
Antony Reynaert is a blues guitarist and teacher based in Belguim. On his website you will find more usefull blues guitar resources to learn from, such as his free blues guitar ebook.