Stratocaster lover Jimmie Vaughan has always dressed every bit as bold and sharp as his tone. Here, he plays the Strat that launched the Jimmie Vaughan signature model line, in concert with the Fabulous Thunderbirds at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey, in April 1986. “I don’t think they’ve ever come up with anything better than that,” he says of the iconic model. Photo by Ebet Roberts
One of the things I love about your playing is that it has this kinda slow, almost sticky, behind-the-beat thing. You can obviously play fast when you want to, but it seems like you rarely want to. Is that slow, grooving approach a stylistic or emotional decision?
When I started playing, I wanted to be fast. I mean, there were a lot of fast guitar players. So I learned all the pull-offs and the diddle-diddle-diddle and all the different things you could do, and after I figured it out, I realized, well, it’s just exercise. It’s just a trick. Anybody can learn how to do that if they want to. It’s not magic. So I started listening to sax players and other musicians that I enjoyed—what they emphasized—and I decided I wanted to play something that means something. I want to have that as a goal, as opposed to just doodling around.
That was also one of the first things that intrigued me about blues and jazz guitar. I used to put on a Freddie King album, and I thought, “How does Freddie King know what he’s going to play on the solo? How does he know? Where does he come up with that?” I was so intrigued I began asking myself, “what is that all about?” I’d listen to Lonnie Mack, and it was like, man, he’s playing riffs every verse. And he’s topping himself as he comes back and does the head at the end. So all that stuff was fascinating, and I would also listen to sax players or steel-guitar players or anybody that was trying to play music—as opposed to just diddlin’ around. It seems like there’s a lot of diddling going on in guitar. I just thought there was enough guys doing that already, and it didn’t really do anything for me.I’m talking about a goal. We want to have a goal. We’re trying to get there, and we never get there, and every once in a while we get lucky. That’s what it feels like.
And that’s one of the things that keeps us playing—those times when we get lucky.
Right. [Laughs.] Exactly.
It took you many years to step up to the microphone as a singer. What’s your relationship like with your voice?
When I was a kid, I had Muddy Waters records, and all these great singers, and when I sang, it sounded like a dumb little kid. So I didn’t sing for a long time, and then when we did Family Style, I was scared to sing. Nile Rodgers said, “Stevie’s gonna sing a couple of songs.” Then he looked at me and said, “Which songs are you gonna sing?” And I was like, “Uhhhh.” I didn’t have an answer, and so I had to either sing or go home, which was basically how I felt. So I said, “Well, I’m gonna have to sing now.” Most everybody can sing, and the goal is just to be your own voice. Express yourself. It’s not as scary and lofty as thinking about Brook Benton or Sam Cooke or Muddy Waters or some of these amazing singers that we’ve had.
So anyway, I just decided that I really needed to sing, and I wanted to, secretly, so I just had to go for it. It was more like jumping in the deep end and not knowing how to swim. You’re gonna float up to the top or swallow a bunch of water. It was a combination of desire, and I also had to do it.
A lot of times when you’re in the studio, you don’t really know the song that much. You’ve done it at rehearsal two or three times. But it happens both ways. My voice on “Be My Lovey Dovey” is not an overdub. But the other ones I sang a scratch vocal and then re-sang it.
When you left the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the band was still riding a wave from the hits “Tuff Enuff” and “Wrap It Up.” Why did you leave?
I really didn’t intend on leaving. I was just…. When I was a little kid, somebody would come over to the house and my father would say, “Jim, go get your guitar and come out here and play a song for Mr. So-and-So.” And so I’d play a little bit, and then Stevie, four years younger than me, he started coming to play, too. He would bring his toy guitar, which was one of those cowboy things, not a real guitar.
And then, over the years, we would play a song together on the acoustic, and the guest would go, “You boys are pretty good. Maybe someday you can make a record together.” And so it had always been planted in our heads that we were gonna make a record together someday. So Tony Martell from Epic Records called Stevie after Stevie had won his first Grammy. I can’t remember what record it was.
Was that for In Step?
I think that was it. That was his first big record, I think. Anyway, he did that record, and then Tony Martell said, “You guys should make a record together. We would really be into that.” So we started talking about it, and then we finally did it, and then Stevie got killed right before it came out. Then we had this situation. I said, “We can’t put a record out now.” Because, you know, it was all so new and fresh and unbelievable and crazy and weird, and what do you do? Epic said, “Well, I think it’s better to put it out than not put it out.” And I was like, “okay, okay.” But I said, “I’m not gonna go play any gigs, I can’t do that. It’s too weird.”
The whole thing.… We made the record, and then three months later, before it came out, Stevie got killed up there in Wisconsin. And I was up there with him. He called me and said, “You gotta come up here. Buddy Guy’s gonna be here. Eric’s gonna be here. And we’re all gonna play.” And he said, “You come up, too.” So I went up there, and he gets killed. Then, I couldn’t go out in public. It was too weird, because everybody wants to tell me how sorry they were that Stevie was dead, and I didn’t know how to … I just didn’t know what to do. So I just had to go hide for a while. It was so tragic and sad that I just didn’t know what to do.
There wasn’t anything I could do, and you know, Stevie, when I was a kid, it was my job to get Stevie to the bus stop and get him to school and get him home, because I was his big brother. And so, it felt like I didn’t do good. Even though there wasn’t anything I could have done about it. It just fucked everything up. I didn’t know how to act or what to do. I just had to go grieve. And plus, then the record came out, and then everybody wanted to hear the record because the story of … you know what I mean.
Yeah, I know. It’s really, really a lot to process.
I didn’t know how to handle it all.
You know what I probably figured out? About a year or so ago, the Grammy museum had that display [Pride & Joy: The Texas Blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan], and they brought it to Texas, and they had all of Stevie’s guitars, or a lot of them. And I was involved. I got his stuff. Then, it occurred to me: I’m not gonna get over this. I’m pissed off, and maybe that’s the way it’s gonna stay. Because when something terrible happens, you have a desire to deal with it, and you try to figure out how to deal with it, because you have to go on living. I had relatives, I had my mother, and my kids. After it happened, people were looking at me to see how I was going to act, you know? If you can handle it, or not handle it, it’s gonna affect them. It was all that kind of grown-up stuff. The thing is, Stevie never got to have a family or kids. And you know he’s a fabulous musician, but he was my little brother, so I’m thinking about my little brother.
In a nutshell, to answer your question about leaving the T-birds, I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t want to go out on the road and ride in a van and answer questions. People would want.… You’d go to the grocery store and you buy some coffee. And, of course, you’re happy that you can go buy coffee, and you’re not dead. But while you’re over buying coffee, somebody comes up and they go, “Oh my god!!” and they start crying. In the grocery store! Because they all remember that day when Stevie got killed, but they … they didn’t really deal with it. So when they would see me, or if they would realize it’s me, it would bring it up, and they would start crying. So here’s two of us crying in the grocery store. That kind of weird stuff that you can’t really control or explain. I guess what it is, is just the normal time it takes to grieve about someone that you care about. And also, I’m sure there’s some survivor’s guilt … all that stuff.I don’t know how to explain it. I’m happy to be here. I have a wonderful life, and I get to play guitar every day.
Jimmie Vaughan taught a spontaneous masterclass in old-school tone and phrasing during a May 17, 2019, performance at the famed Dingwall’s in London. This video compiles some highlights, including, at 3:56, an exquisitely trebly tremolo-infused solo on Slim Harpo’s “Baby Scratch My Back,” followed by some chicken pickin’, as a nod to Harpo’s original version.