“WITH THE BLUES, YOU EITHER LIKE IT OR YOU DON’T,” SAYS
Jimmie Vaughan. “It seems like a lot of guys show up to the
blues jam because they don’t want to stay home that night. But
you have to believe in the music for it to sound right.” It’s not
as if Vaughan needs to convince anyone of his dedication to
the blues. The 59-year old guitarist’s recorded output speaks
for itself, with seven classic discs with the Fabulous Thunderbirds
beginning in 1979 to his 1990 collaboration with his
brother Stevie (the Nile Rodgers produced Family Style) to a
successful solo career with five albums under his belt. There
are also numerous examples of Vaughan’s handiwork on albums
by artists such as Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and Don Henley.
Although he has hit the road steadily-yet-sparingly over the
past few years, Vaughan, who has resided in Austin, Texas, since
1970, has had his hands full raising his six year-old twin girls.
On his latest album, his first solo effort in nine years, Blues,
Ballads, And Favorites [Shout! Factory], Vaughan tackles some
of his personal fave R&B and blues tunes from his heroes such
as Little Richard, Jimmy Reed, and Roscoe Gordon. “A friend
of mine told me once, ‘If I were your manager, I would put you
in the studio and tell you to record every blues song you’ve ever
heard,’” says Vaughan. “Obviously, that’s a bit extreme, but that
spirit is behind this album.” But Vaughan found out that while
it’s one thing to love a song, tracking it yourself can be a whole
other ball of wax.
Was it tough tracking songs that you have
always held in such high regard?
Oh yeah. I found out pretty quickly
that you couldn’t just go and do any tune
you like. So many of those songs are so
high in my personal top 40, I had convinced
myself that the world can probably
get by without another crappy version
from me. But I had to get over that hurdle
and just do them anyway, and it
turned out to be fine. That’s what making
music is all about for me—the back
and forth with yourself and the, “Can I
do this or can’t I do this,” challenge. I
found that most of the time if you just
do something it will usually work out—
but you have to fight with yourself.
You covered Jimmy Reed on Blues, Ballads,
and Favorites as well as on the 2007 album On
the Jimmy Reed Highway with Omar Dykes.
What did listening to Reed do for you musically?
When I started out playing guitar, all
I wanted to do was play that Jimmy Reed
groove—it just feels real good. Then I
made it my business to figure out the guitar
interplay between Reed and his
co-guitarist Eddie Taylor. I tell you what,
it sounds real easy when you first hear
it, but listen closely and the way they lock and form that deep groove is not easy. It’s a
whole other thing.
How does a blues guitarist move away from
their influences and find their own voice?
I always tell the story about the dream I
had. I was in a room with all of my favorite
guitar players: Buddy Guy, Albert King, B.B.,
you name it. We were having a jam, passing
the guitar around the room, and when my
turn came up, I had nothing to play. What
was I going to play? I can’t play Albert or
B.B. licks! It’s like, what’s stupid Jimmie
going to do? I think it’s really important to
ask yourself, what you want to hear. Then
try and play that. If you keep asking your
self that, after while you’ll probably start to
get some answers. It’s a process, but the
great thing is, you can work on it every day.
You often use a capo to change keys while playing
in open position. Was using the capo a way to
lead yourself down a different path?
Yeah. I enjoyed figuring out a way to make
it work and, ultimately, to be able to express
my own thing. It made me phrase differently
and it forced me to not just copy. Gulf Coast
players such as Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown
and Guitar Slim used a capo, and so did
Albert Collins and Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
I don’t use a capo exclusively, but I have used
it a lot, even going back to the Thunderbirds.
It gives you open strings and pull offs with
the open notes ringing all around you—kind
of like your own little universe of sound.
What did you use to track Blues, Ballads, and
I mostly used a couple of different Fender
Jimmie Vaughan Strats, though occasionally
I also used my old Fender Coronado. I’ve
always liked the Coronado because you show
up to a gig and no one else has one. I’ve been
using flatwounds on my Strats for about two
years now—either Fender or D’Addario .010-
Why did you go to flatwounds?
I was listening to classic blues and R&B
records from the ’50s, and they all used flatwounds
on that stuff and that’s why it sounds
good. Someone at Fender told me that when
you bought a ’55 Strat new, it came with flatwounds
because those were the only electric
strings available. I throw away the wound
third string, however, and replace it with a
plain third so I can bend it—although the
wound third is good for jazz. With flats, I like
the way the ring of the wound strings balances
with the sound of the unwound strings.
There is a pure kind of brightness with the
wound strings, but with a nice thump as well.
What did you use for amps?
Reissue Fender Bassmans and my Matchless
Clubman head through a 4x10 Matchless
cabinet. I dig old amps, but they’re just not
practical. They need to be worked on all the
time, and if you haul them around to gigs
they get beat up or someone will steal them.
I just bought an amp from a local guy here
in Austin named John Grammatico. It’s his
take on a Fender Bassman and it’s amazing.
Do you use all of the Stratocaster’s pickup
I use the bridge or neck pickup mostly.
The tone control on my Strats is wired to the bridge pickup and I’ll use it once in a
while to vary the texture. I view the bridge
pickup with the tone control all the way up
as a steel guitar sound and when I dial the
tone back a bit, the bridge pickup sounds a
little more like a Telecaster to my ears. I’ve
also discovered that my overall sound is better
if my guitar’s volume is backed off just
a little bit all the time.
Do you experiment with gear very much?
Well, you’re always trying to get that extra
thing to put you over the top so you feel
good, right? Instead of gear, I’ve found out
that a cool pair of shoes works just as good.
I do anything I can that makes me feel like
“All right let’s get to the gig!” I don’t get
high anymore so I have to manufacture the
feeling myself. With my guitars, though,
sometimes I’ll swap pickups around—move
the bridge pickup to the neck position or
vice-versa—just looking for something a little
different. I always assumed everyone did
that kind of stuff to guitars. I also do my
own setups. I like my action pretty high. It’s
tougher to play, but it allows the strings to
vibrate more for a bigger sound. I go through
frets a lot, too, and I re-fret my guitars
myself—but I’ll sometimes take them to a
guy who gets me out of trouble [laughs].
You’ve stated that Nile Rodgers was adamant
that you start singing when you recorded Family
Style 20 years ago. How did singing affect your
Singing is the best thing that ever happened
to me. It made me understand what
I like musically and what I truly like to play.
A song is more expressive to you if you sing
it, whether you can sing or not. When I walk
off the stage now, I really feel that I got it all
out. Besides, it always seemed like singers
want to play songs the guitar player doesn’t,
so if you sing and play, it’s perfect—you
can do anything you want. Plus, there are a
million guitar players out there. If you don’t
sing, you better have a van, because that’s
the only way you’re going to get a gig!