“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 Favorites?
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- gauge sets.
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 positions?
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 guitar playing?
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!