"When I play with a pick and without a capo, I have a tendency to go right over to B.B. King's or Buddy Guy's house. I can't help it. But when I use the capo, I think I sound more like me." Jimmie Vaughan's wicked tone secrets

American blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan on stage at Bishopstock Blues Festival, UK, 2000. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images)
(Image credit: David Redfern/Getty Images)

Back in 1998, Guitar Player caught up with Jimmie Vaughan following the recording of his maverick solo album Out There. The following interview originally appeared in the July 1998 issue of Guitar Player.

To hardcore fans, Jimmie Vaughan is a virtual deity -- a living legend with a guitar style so deep that it defies description. Since emerging in the Fabulous Thunderbirds 23 years ago, Vaughan has walked the long walk and earned the respect of blues superstars such as B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Eric Clapton. He has spun his signature licks in dives and stadiums, shared a bill with Jimi Hendrix, and toured the world with Clapton, ZZ Top, and the Rolling Stones. Not bad for a guy who traded high school for an endless stream of roadhouse gigs.

During his tenure with the T-Birds, Vaughan developed a wicked guitar style that would eventually evolve into using a capo and plucking the strings – some call it digging – with his forefinger. After all but disappearing from public view following brother Stevie Ray's death on August 27, 1990 (soon after the two had united for the highly acclaimed Family Style), Vaughan re-emerged in 1995 with his first solo album, Strange Pleasure. To the delight of worshippers of all things Vaughan, Jimmie was squarely on the scene again.

His latest release, Out There, is a swampfest of greasy grooves and maverick guitar playing, and underscores the Texan's knack for pulling rabbits out of some very old blues hats. During a recent conversation with Vaughan, he offered GP readers some insights into how he does what he does onstage and in the studio.

Out There really has a classic, old-school vibe. How did you get that blend of funk and finesse?

I like fat tones, and I try to use the best of the old and the best of the new. The whole album was recorded digitally. All that stuff about having to use tape – that's all bullshit to me. You just have to use the right limiters and mic preamps. If you put this album on any kind of stereo and turn it up, it sounds badass – at least to me. It's a bit out of tune, which gives it that little edge and dissonance. We didn't deliberately get out of tune, though.

You made a big instrumental change by having an organ play the bass parts.

Well, it was just a teenage fantasy. I've always loved the organ trio stuff. And I've always loved the Hammond B-3. The sound of it just rips your guts out. It's all wood and tubes, and it's got so much feeling. I wanted to have that behind me because I knew it would make me want to play guitar.

It sure makes the guitars stand out.

Yeah, because you can hear the bass drum go "boom." You can hear the whole drum kit, because there's no bass guitar covering up everything. You hear bass from the organ, but it's more of a hmmm – it doesn't have the attack of a bass guitar.

Has your recording process changed much since the Thunderbirds?

No, it really hasn't. Back with the Thunderbirds we got our sound by using the room. Instead of recording the signal and putting an effect on it to make it sound good, we moved the microphones away from the amps and the drums. There's almost no reverb or echo or anything on this record. For the most part, it was mixed by just setting the fader levels.

That's really how I get a good guitar tone. It's the room. Now I'm giving away all my little secrets. It's also the amp and the guitar, of course, but you record everything where there's enough room for the sound to breathe. You don't put the mic right up on the speaker. This is the same way I've recorded every record I've made -- the ones that sounded good, anyway [laughs]. You can go too far with that room sound, though. It can sound like you're out in the street or something.

Do you cut rhythm tracks with the whole band?

That's exactly what we do. I overdub a lot of my guitar parts, but I'll go in and play with the band because everybody gets excited and we start playing off each other. Then, I'll come back and sing it and play it, and fix whatever we have to. In the old days, you'd just do the song 20 times and pick the best take -- which is a very good idea. I'd like to do that again someday.

Were you the only guitar player on the record?

Yeah, except for "Feel Like a King." That's Nile Rodgers playing rhythm guitar. He wrote and produced that song.

Your voice sounds especially warm and rich on this record. In fact, the signal seems like it was pushed into overload.

Yeah, we're not past distorting the shit out of something if it sounds good. You want everything to sound like it's fixin' to explode. Just almost, though, not already exploded. [Laughs.]

Have you found any particular mics that work best for your voice?

No. I just set up a bunch of mics and sing into 'em until it sounds right. Whichever one sounds best, that's the one we go for. It's pretty difficult for me because I'm just a guitar player who's learning to sing.

You're being humble. In "Lost in You," there are moments where you almost sound like Al Green.

Well, thank you. Maybe the chord changes sort of remind you of that. Al Green is a phenomenal singer. He's like Mister Vocal, and I'm sort of urping it out. I'm getting more confident, though. The singing on this record is a lot better for me than it was on Strange Pleasure. Likewise, on Family Style -- which was the first time I ever sang -- it was pretty close to horrible, but it was fun.

"Tick Tock" was pretty tingling.

But, see, I only talked on that. Stevie sang that one. I always wanted to sing, but I was scared. Then I got backed into a corner and I had to do it. I can't sing like Bobby Blue Bland, Buddy Guy, or B.B. King, but if I sing like me, then it's okay.

Getting back to guitar -- once you've cut your rhythm tracks, do you move your amp to another room for overdubs?

No, it's the same room. We just set up a close mic and a room mic, and we can get any kind of sound by turning up the level of one mic or the other.

Does a close-mic position work better for rhythm parts?

Yeah. But there's only "Out There," "Kinky Woman," and "The New Ironic Twist" where I play a little rhythm thing in the background. Mostly, it's just lead stuff. I sort of think of my guitar as a saxophone, and I play it that way.

You started using a capo some time ago. How does it affect your playing?

I started doing that on the third Thunderbirds album. I wouldn't do it all the time, but I started using it more and more. See, I'm always in E, and I've got all those open strings. It just makes me think different. It's bluesier to me. When I play with a pick and without a capo, I have a tendency to go right over to B.B. King's or Buddy Guy's house. I can't help it because that's the way I learned. But when I use the capo, I think I sound more like me.

So you're moving the capo around a lot.

I just put it where it sounds right. On "Astral Projection Blues," the song starts with the capo in F and ends up with it in G. I actually move it right in the middle. You can almost hear it go "clunk."

You employ it a lot differently from, say, Albert Collins -- who used an Fm tuning and regularly capoed at the seventh fret.

He was completely on his own planet. Mine is sort of that Houston, Gulf Coast style of Guitar Slim, Gatemouth Brown, and Johnny Watson. Another guy who uses a capo is Lonnie Mack.

Your playing seems to get wilder all the time.

I like wild. Wild is good.

How did your style evolve?

Well, I've been at it for a long time, and I've copied all my heroes. When I first started, it was B.B. King and Buddy Guy. I was just a student, and I tried to learn what they were doing because I couldn't believe the sounds they were getting. I bought every B.B. King record I could get, and I'd sit there and learn the intro, the solos, the ending, and all his little licks in between. You know, I'd just play along with it and try to copy what he was doing. Same thing with Eric Clapton.

What made you choose a Strat?

It was just the whole Fender thing because I use Teles too. When I was a kid, I used to ride the bus downtown on Saturdays and just look in the window at Stratocasters, Telecasters, and Gibson SGs. I'd think, "I'll never be able to have one." I don't know how it happened, but, over the years, I just became aware of what I wanted to hear, and I tried to get that. I've narrowed it down to what works and what doesn't work, and what works is getting that fat tone on a Fender guitar – which is not necessarily known for that.

So, how do you get that sound?

It's not really any trick. You just turn the amp up and use your fingers to get a good guitar sound. I like the treble pickup because it has a pure tone without a lot of overtones. It almost sounds like a steel guitar, you know? That's what my tone is -- it's always the treble pickup. But you can say different things tonewise by where you pick. For example, depending on where I pick the string – closer to the bridge or farther away from the bridge – and whether I use a pick or a finger is sort of like my three pickups. We're gettin' pretty deep now. [Laughs.]

You've always gone for maple fretboards.

I don't think it makes any difference. I mean, Stevie used maple and rosewood, but he got the same sound. I think it's just whatever you like. I just always liked to look at the maple. It's cool. It looks like Gene Vincent. You know that famous picture of the Blue Caps with all the Mary Kay guitars? ["Mary Kay" is a common term for the white-blond, translucent finish used on some ash-bodied Fenders.] I look at that picture and go "Man, look at that!" It's just what I got used to, because my first Strat was a '58 maple-neck.

Have you experimented with different pickups?

Yeah, a little bit. But I always ended up back with the stock pickups. See, I like my guitars to be pretty much stock -- there's nothing on my guitars that's not pretty regular. You're going to think I'm kidding, but I used my Fender Tex Mex Strat on this record. The only difference is that its treble pickup is a little hotter than standard. I guess they put more winding on it, but I don't know. They all come that way. I used my old Strat on "Kinky Woman" -- my old white one -- and I used a '54 reissue Strat on "Astral Projection Blues." But the rest of it is the Tex Mex.


Vaughan's manager, Mark Proct, tells us that Jimmie alternates between combos and heads, and switches regularly among various Fender, Kendrick, and Matchless amps at gigs.

A call to Kendrick confirmed that, along with the Black Gold 35, Vaughan has two 50-watt Austin Gusher combos. One is equipped with four Kendrick Blackframe 10s, and the other has a Kendrick Brownframe 12 and a Kendrick Greenframe 12. Both amps are fitted with Groove Tubes E34LS output tubes. Vaughan reportedly uses a Kendrick ABC box for switching between multiple amps.

Matchless relates that Vaughan has at least one of every model, including a 4x10 version of the C-30, which they no longer make.

How do you adjust your pickups?

I don't know if this is good advice for anybody else, but I raise up my treble side and lower the bass side. It just seems more balanced that way -- you know, the ratio of the volume between the treble strings and the bass strings. But I really just want the treble to just blow the shit out of it. Now, if you get the pickup too close it'll start making a beating sound. One thing I do that I don't think nobody else does is raise my action up real high. I don't necessarily use big strings, but I have the action up pretty high so that my strings really ring. I know Fenders were designed to play really easy, but I like it when you've got something to hold on to.

Your guitars feel like they're strung with .010s or .011s.

That's about right. Some guitars feel tighter than others. I go to it guitar by guitar, but usually I end up with just a regular set of .010s. If I go on tour and start playing hard every night, I'll move up to .011s because I'm getting stronger.

Do you prefer any particular brand?

I use D'Addario.

Do you always keep your trem bridge flat against the body?

Yeah, and I've got all the springs on. That's the way my Tex Mex and old white are set up. I don't really even use the thing. I like it, though, and occasionally I might do something with it.

How important is a guitar's weight to you?

I like 'em kind of light. Some people say that heavy guitars have more sustain, but I can't tell. You know when a guitar sings through you -- through its back? I like it when you hold the guitar, and it sort of breathes through itself.

What amps did you use on the new record?

I used an old Fender Pro that I borrowed from [Austin musician] Denny Freeman, and an old Silvertone with one 10" speaker -- just a cheap, garage-looking thing. I also used my Matchless, the one with four 10s. When I go out on a gig, I use two piggyback models. I think they're Chieftains -- the ones with two 12s in each cabinet. I used a Bassman on a couple of things. As long as it has tubes and it's a Fender-type amp, you can't beat it. I've used a pair of Fender reissue Bassmans for gigs, and I've used them on records from Family Style on.

The July 1998 issue of Guitar Player…

This interview originally appeared in the July 1998 issue of Guitar Player (Image credit: Future)

There's a photo of you using a Fender Super Reverb with the Thunderbirds, and from the back of the amp you can see that it has mismatched speakers. Was that something you did intentionally?

I think it was just what we had. The Jensen speakers sounded the best to me, but when we couldn't get those, we probably ended up with EVs. They were real durable. In the Matchless amps, I've got stock Celestions. They're the perfect speakers for that amp.

Are there other new amplifiers that you like?

I just bought three Kendricks. I got a 4x10, a 2x12, and one of their Black Gold 35s. Man, the Black Golds sound fabulous! If you can get a better guitar tone than that, I want to hear it. There really are some good amps now. There was a time when you had your old Fender, and that was it. Now, between Fender, Matchless, and Kendrick, a guy can get anything.

Are any effects added to your amp sound in the studio?

Nothing. I just get a good tone from the amp. There's always an exception to the rule, though. I'm not going to say that I'll never do this or never do that, but effects usually don't sound good with the room sound. The room mic is the effect, if you can call it that. On all my favorite old records, no matter how they had the band and the guitar miked, when the guy stepped away from the vocal mic to play his guitar, they would turn up his vocal mic. That's what makes it get all crazy-sounding. When B.B. King's playing and singing, you hear his guitar coming through the vocal mic, which has a little distance on it. When he steps away, they turn it up, and bam!

You've pretty much avoided effects pedals.

Well, I had an Ibanez Tube Screamer when I was in the Thunderbirds. I also had some kind of tremolo gizmo that made the pitch go up and down, and I ran my guitar through a Leslie on Butt Rockin'. But I just decided that the guitar was enough of a gadget. I have nothing against effects, but I just want to play the guitar. I'm not trying to be a purist or anything, it's just what I like.

You have a very identifiable guitar sound. Are you completely satisfied with it?

No, I'm never satisfied. What keeps you sounding good is when you're always trying to keep it fresh. The best advice I could give anybody is just to play, play, play. The more you play, the better you're going to get because you'll get bored with yourself, and then you'll learn new ways to express yourself.

Has the guitar ever been a struggle for you?

Truthfully, it has always come pretty natural. I don't want to say it was easy, but it seemed the perfect thing for me. I'd be in sad shape if I didn't have this.

This interview originally appeared in the July 1998 issue of Guitar Player…

Art Thompson
Senior Editor

Art Thompson is Senior Editor of Guitar Player magazine. He has authored stories with numerous guitar greats including B.B. King, Prince and Scotty Moore and interviewed gear innovators such as Paul Reed Smith, Randall Smith and Gary Kramer. He also wrote the first book on vintage effects pedals, Stompbox. Art's busy performance schedule with three stylistically diverse groups provides ample opportunity to test-drive new guitars, amps and effects, many of which are featured in the pages of GP.