Play Like the Kings of Texas Blues Rock: SRV, Billy Gibbons, Johnny Winter and More

Stevie Ray Vaughan, Billy Gibbons, Johnny Winter, Jimmie Vaughan and Eric Johnson are the kings of Texas blues rock. Learn their stylistic techniques and tones in this complete lesson with tablature.
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When it comes to Texas blues-guitar legends, T-Bone Walkers, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Pee Wee Craytons, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and Freddie King are the fathers of the genre. Their lineage continued via the harder-edged Texas blues-rock of five torch-carriers: Johnny Winter, Billy Gibbons, Jimmie Vaughan, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eric Johnson.

When traditional blues took a back seat to rock and roll during the early ’60s, its audience waned. Ironically, it took a small but savvy group of English art school students named Clapton, Beck, and Page—and an American named Jimi—hot-rodding the music of the Texas forefathers, along with their Chicago and Mississippi Delta counterparts, to awaken the interest of a new generation of listeners and students. (Fact: All of this month’s subjects have been confirmed Clapton, Beck, Page, and Hendrix fans.)

The first wave of Texas-based blues rock was led by Johnny Winter, whose electrifying style integrated the sound of traditional Texas, Chicago, and Delta blues into the flourishing late-’60s psychedelic rock scene. Winters’ phenomenal success, which culminated in a return to a traditional blues format a decade later, opened the door for both heavy blues-rockers like ZZ Top with Billy Gibbons, and updated traditional outfits such as the Fabulous Thunderbirds featuring Jimmie Vaughan.

Vaughan, in turn, inspired his little brother to pick up a guitar, and Stevie Ray Vaughan went on to single-handedly spearhead a national blues revival in the ’80s before his death in 1990. And Eric Johnson was the state’s best-kept secret for years, but now that the cat’s long out of the bag, it’s safe to say that his soulful and toneful style represents the state of the art in the evolution of Texas blues-rock guitar.

Johnny Winter put it all in perspective in the March, 1994 issue of GP: “I guess it goes in a circle. You learn stuff from people, and then, if you do it long enough and do it right, people start learning from you. But I don’t like that I’m getting this old! So many of my friends, the people I learned from, aren’t here now. I like having the older guys to look up to. I’d rather be a student than a teacher!”

Nearly 20 years later, Winter remains active as one of Texas blues-rock’s elder statesmen and, whether he likes it or not, teachers. In addition to his sensational style, we’ll examine Billy Gibbons’ inimitable plank-spanking, Jimmie Vaughan’s no-nonsense approach, brother Stevie Ray’s ferocity, and Eric Johnson’s future blues. Take your time and bring these licks to life. First, you’ve gotta...

1. CREATE A SENSATION
If you had to distill the essence of Johnny Winter down to a handful of licks, these would certainly rank high on the list. The recurring 4-5-b7-b5-4-b3 (D-E-G-Eb-D-C) triplet-based motif shown in Ex. 1a, which functions equally well over the I, IV, and V chords in any 12-bar A blues (A7, D7, and E7), can be traced back to an ensemble horn riff from T-Bone Walker’s “Everytime,” but I’ll always think of it as a J. Winter lick. Hammer-on the second eighth-note in beat one, pull off to the second note of beat two, and then repeat the entire six-note lick on beats three and four. (Tip: Try adapting the motif to straight sixteenth-notes or sixteenth-note triplets.)

The pair of high-velocity runs in Examples 1b and 1c are actually one in the same, but beginning on different beats. Both work over a static A, A7, or Am7 vamp, as well as over any measure of a 12-bar A blues. (Tip: Be sure to play each lick at least twice.)

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Winter’s dazzling triplets in bar 1 of Ex. 1d utilize accents in threes for the first half of bar 1 before switching to twos during beats three and four. In Bar 3, we continue accenting in twos and drop the same fingering down to third position, first on the B and G strings, and then on the G and D strings. (Tip: Play it over bars 5-8 in a 12-bar G blues.) Ex. 1e follows suit rhythmically, but uses a different motif that features a rest at the end of every other triplet in bar 1, and adds a quintessential J.W. turnaround played over cool, chromatic 7th chords.

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Winter Gear: White Gibson Les Paul/SG Custom, 1966 Fender Mustang, Gibson Les Paul goldtop with P-90s, Epiphone Wilshire, three circa-1959 Gibson Firebirds, and Erlewine Lazer guitars; Tweed Fender Bassman, Fender Super Reverb and Twin Reverb, 100-watt Marshalls (with Ampeg SVT 8x10 speaker cabinets), Ampeg V-4, and MusicMan HD410 amps; MXR Phase Shifter and MXR Chorus. Winter uses a plastic Gibson thumbpick.

2. ROCK & ROWWWWWWLL!!!
Recalling the Winter of ’73, Ex. 2a depicts a howling low-register I-chord riff in the key of A, the lineage of which can be traced directly back to Lightnin’ Hopkins, one of Winter’s main influences. The first two beats in both measures are identical, and the variations that occur on beats three and four create a nice example of call-and-response phrasing. Recognize those moves on the last two beats of bar 2? That’s right—it’s a cool, low-register variation on Ex. 1a.

You’ll find several key Winter-isms in Ex. 2b’s two-bar I-chord run, which spotlights a mixture of A blues scale (A, C, D, Eb, E, G) and A Dorian elements (B, the 9, and F#, the 6), and fits snugly into Ex. 2a’s groove. Ex. 2c’s sheet of notes is played over the IV-I (D7-A7) changes in the same groove and can be divided into two discrete phrases. Bars 1 and 2, which utilize a pure A blues scale, are highlighted by Winter’s signature entrance, his ability to turn a simple descending blues scale into a killer line, and yet another rephrasing of the motif from Ex. 1a, while bars 3 and 4 shift to a countrified A pentatonic major run that coincides with the return to the I chord.

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3. MAKE A BIG NOISE
As the only lead instrument in his little old power trio from Texas, the honorable Reverend Billy F. Gibbons has forged a 40+ year career by fomenting waves of massive riffage designed to fill up airspace and get your blood pumping. Ex. 3a shows a ZZ-style hot-rodded version of John Lee Hooker’s classic boogie figure, a staple in the Top’s oeuvre. The riff adheres to the downbeat-followed-by-six-upbeats rule of boogie, but here we’re also decorating the tonic A5 chords on the first beat of bar 1 and the last beat of bar 2 with quarter-bent b3’s (C’s) in the bass.

Ex. 3b is an arena-rock chugger that injects a pair of sixteenth-notes into an otherwise straight-eighth-note root-b7-root-b7-root-b7-b3-root single-note riff. Note that the eighth-note on beat one is tied from the and of beat four during every repeat. Oblique bends played against a pedal E characterize the ultra-cool V-I run in Ex. 3c. Hold each melodic bend as shown, noting the shift from 4/8 to 3/8 grouping, and then inaudibly release it in half-step increments starting on bar 2, beat two. The spirits of T-Bone Walker and Pee Wee Crayton, both of which were huge influences on B.G., are alive and well in the greasy micro-bent major-sixth intervals in Ex. 3d. The pairing of the b5 (Gb) and #9 (Eb) creates sustained rhythmic and harmonic tension by implying a 3-against-4 C diminished chord over the tonic C5. Stanky!

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Gibbons Gear: Sunburst 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard (a.k.a. Pearly Gates, commemorated in 2009 by Gibson with a run of 350 exact replicas), 1955 Les Paul goldtop with P-90s, 1958 Fender Stratocaster (gifted by Jimi Hendrix in 1969), custom Dean ML Standards, 1959 Gretsch Jupiter Thunderbird made for Bo Diddley, Gretsch Billy-Bo, and various Fender Telecasters. Assorted Marshalls (including a mid-’60s 16-watt 2x12 combo loaded with early Celestion greenback 20s), Crate V50 2x12 combo (loaded with Tone Tubby hemp speakers), Jake Stack Rio Grande, Legend 50, assorted Vox and Fender amps (including a Champ and a blond piggyback Bassman), plus a modified Scholz Rockman. Vox Cry Baby wah, Jake Stack Bisarktone, Bixonic Expandoras, Roland Chorus and Dimension D, Lexicon Digital Reverb, MXR Pitch Transposer, and Peavey graphic EQs.

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4. GRUNT, GROWL, & GRIND

Of course, Gibbons’ squonky tones emanate directly from his hands, but he’s also been known to enhance his picking with a five-peso Mexican coin. In lieu of that, grab a U.S. nickel or quarter and dig into Ex. 4a’s short A-blues based run, and then apply your best pinched/pick harmonics to the dragged quarter-note triplets in Ex. 4b. Gibbons also has a fondness for starting phrases on beat two, as shown in Ex. 4c, which features an oblique b7 bend answered by a gnarly blues lick and milked micro-bend. Pair it with Ex. 4d’s Albert-King-meets-Les Paul moves and observe the shades of Beck throughout!

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5. ALWAYS PLAY THE PERFECT PART
Like the Cornell Dupree of Texas Blues (come to think of it, C.D. hailed from Fort Worth), Jimmie Vaughan has always had a knack for playing the right thing at the right time. Vaughan’s style oozes class, taste, and finesse (though he’s not without a wild side), and the two-bar I-chord (C) lick illustrated in Ex. 5a, played over a frisky even-eighth-note groove, offers ample proof via spot-on pre-bends and sure-footed phrasing. Follow it up with the four-bar IV-I (F7-C7) in Ex. 5b to hear how Vaughan ties together bars 2–7 in this 12-bar blues.

J.V. Gear: 1957, 1958, and 1962 Fender Stratocasters, 3/4-size Gibson ES-125T, assorted Fender Stratocasters, custom Charley Wirz Strat-style with Danelectro lipstick-tube pickups, various Silvertones and Harmonys, and a Fender double-neck 8-string lap steel. Fender Twin Reverbs and Super Reverbs. ADA Stereo Tapped Delay and Leslie rotary speaker cabinet. Vaughan often employs a capo.

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6. NURTURE YOUR OWN

“My brother Jimmie was one of the biggest influences on my playing. He really was the reason why I started to play, watching him and seeing what could be done,” Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954-1990) told GP in August, 1983. It’s not hard to imagine SRV adopting and hot-rodding his big brother’s licks, like Ex. 6. Reminiscent of Freddie King (one of J.V.’s faves), this is a capo-friendly open-string outing that covers the IV-I changes in bars 4-6 of a 12-bar shuffle in E and confirms that the torch was indeed passed. Highlights include a grace-slide to the 9 (B) in bar 1, the eighth-rest that kicks off the second phrase in bar 2, and the rhythmic mix of triplets and sixteenth-notes in bar 3. And check it out—you can play the whole thing with one finger!

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7. LISTEN TO YOUR BIG BROTHER

“At first, he taught me a couple of things, and then he taught me how to teach myself—and that’s the right way.” (SRV on Jimmie Vaughan, October, 1984 GP.) Not unlike Ex. 6a, Ex. 7a illustrates the kind of open-position finger-twister SRV would lay over a variety of medium-tempo Texas shuffles. This two-bar lick snakes through every note in a one-octave E pentatonic minor scale (E, G, A, B, D), plus its #9 (8va G). Beats one and two in bar 1 rhythmically mirror beats three and four, while bar 2 comprises an unbroken string of eighth-note triplets. (Tip: Tune down 1/2 step and be sure to catch that grace-note release on beat four of bar 2.) Brother Jimmie’s rhythm guitar expertise combined with the stuff he was copping from Jimi Hendrix albums undoubtedly seeded SRV’s penchant for furious rhythmic excursions like the ones he laid down on his third-generation Earl King/Jimi cover dubbed “Come On Pt. III.”

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Ex. 7b provides a one-bar open-position pickup and twelfth-position I-chord figure in E, complete with chromatic tritones outlining D#7-E7, while Ex. 7c adds slides, lowers the tritones a half-step to cover the IV chord (A7), reprises bar 2 of Ex. 7b, and wraps up with a Jimi-inspired cry of love in bar 3.

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SRV Gear: 1959 Fender Stratocaster (“Number One”), 1964 Fender Stratocaster (“Lenny”), 1962 Fender Stratocaster with Danelectro lipstick-tube pickups (“Charley”), 1958 dot-neck Gibson ES-335, Gibson Johnny Smith, and Danelectro doubleneck. Fender Vibroverb (1x15), Fender Super Reverb, Fender Harvard, Marshall 100-watt Super PA and 200-watt Major, and 150-watt Dumble Steel String Singer. Vox Cry Baby, Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer, and Fender Vibratone speaker cabinet.

8. REVITALIZE THE BLUES

Stevie Ray Vaughan arrived on the national blues-rock scene with an impact that hadn’t been felt since Johnny Winter was “discovered” 15 years earlier by Rolling Stone magazine and Scene owner Steve Paul. Suddenly, blues guitar was everywhere, and SRV was leading the revival, infusing traditional styles with radical new energy. Bar 1 of Ex. 8a illustrates an important and unique lick in SRV’s vocabulary—one that replaces T-Bone Walker’s signature 9 with a b9. Unlike most pentatonic minor licks, this I-chord (A7) lick transposes very nicely to both the IV and V chords—just move it to the 10th fret to cover D7 and the 12th fret for E7. Bars 2 and 3 reveal yet another homage to Jimi. SRV also brought jazzy Grant Green/Kenny Burrell-style Hammond-organ-style licks to the blues-rock party.

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Ex. 8b begins with a measure of triplet-based, hybrid-picked oblique double-stops followed by a one-bar rhythm figure. Injecting a rhythm figure into every other bar of your solo guarantees a big sound, and this power-trio-approved strategy creates a conversational, call-and-response flow as well as a sense of structure. The muscular triple-stop bends in Ex. 8c attest to SRV’s raw power, and will work anywhere in a 12-bar E blues. (Fact: Vaughan used heavy-gauge strings with a .012 on top.) Rhythmically speaking, Ex. 8d is a breeze, but the hard part is gradually releasing the 4 to 5 (F# to G#) bend and re-bending back to the 5. Practice this move until it sounds smooth, uninterrupted, and natural.

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9. OPEN WIDE
When it comes down to it, Austin-born Eric Johnson continues to represent the ultimate in Texas blues-rock. Though he shares many common influences with his predecessors and contemporaries, one key trait that sets Johnson apart from the crowd is his frequent use of wide intervals and nearly supernatural arpeggios. Ex. 9a depicts a characteristic Am7 move that spans over two octaves within seven frets. Kick it off with a third-finger slide from D—the only non-chord tone in the lot—and the remaining fingering will fall neatly into place. The B note targeted at the end of the three-octave-plus F arpeggio in Ex. 9b gives this run its distinctive Lydian flavor. The classical-style ascending diatonic arpeggios in Ex. 9c outline the IIm, I/III, IV, and V chords before resolving to a tonic high C. (Tip: This makes a great surprise turnaround when dropped into bar 12 in your next blues jam in G.)

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Johnson Gear (Take a deep breath): 1954, 1957, 1958, and 1961 Fender Stratocasters, Fender Eric Johnson Signature Stratocasters, 1964 Gibson SG Standard, ES-335, 1958 ES-175, Custom Shop 1959 Les Paul, Firebird I, and Flying V, and Vincent Bell Coral Electric Sitar. 1968 50-watt Marshall Tremolo head modified with 6L6 power tubes, various Marshall 50- and 100-watt plexi heads, 1966 blackface Fender Twin Reverbs, blackface Fender Deluxe and Vibroverb, Dumble custom, vintage Marshall 4x12 cabs loaded with 25-watt greenback Celestions, and an angled-top Marshall 4x12 loaded with 30-watt G12H Celestions. Late-’60s Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face and Vox Cry Baby wah, T.C. Electronic Stereo Chorus/Flanger, ’80s BK Butler Tube Driver with Yugoslavian 12AX7, MXR Flanger/Doubler, Lexicon MPX500, Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man, Line 6 Echo Pro, Korg DRV3000, and T.C. Electronic 2290 Digital Delay.

10. PURSUE PERFECT TONES
Johnson has employed all of the above in his never-ending quest for the perfect tone, and given the sweet violin-like character of his trademark lead sound, he’s certainly on to something. Ex. 10a presents a prime example of Johnson’s intervallic designs applied to a slow-blues format à la Hendrix’s “Red House” in B.

We’re coming out of the IV (E9) change in bar 6 and crossing two bars of the I chord (B7) in bars 7 and 8 as we head for the V chord (F#7) in bar 9. The choice of notes in the pickup is key—the first four outline a B minor scale fragment, but as we repeat this move, the D is raised to D# to coincide with the I chord on the downbeat of bar 1, setting the events of the first measure into motion. Using a jazzy, syncopated rhythmic motif, Johnson alternates between broken minor- and major-sixth intervals to create ascending inversions of a fragmented B triad on beats one and two. On beat three, he jumps to the fourth and second strings, reversing the quality of the sixths (major before minor) to imply a bII chord (Cmaj7, in this case) typically found in bar 3 of a “Stormy Monday”-style progression. In bar 2 we lock back into the I chord with a blazing run that spans 12 frets and culminates in a high B bend and release to A over our target V chord.

Finally, Johnson’s busy turnaround in Ex. 10b flies as high and proud as the Texas flag—a fitting finale to our EJ analysis and this entire Texas blues-rock experience. The pickup and first beat in bar 1 are derived from the ninth-position C# blues scale, an ingenious substitution as this functions as the relative B pentatonic major scale with an added b3 (D). On beat two, we switch to F# pentatonic major for two eighths and segue directly to a six-note descending chromatic run that cleverly targets the V chord’s defining b7 (E). The emphasis on key chord tones extends to the IV chord run in bar 2, where D’s and G#’s define the E7 tonality. The I-V progression in bars 3 and 4 features contrasting stop-and-go phrasing, a micro-bent #9 (D), and a cool, descending B7sus4 arpeggio that targets a heavily vibrated b3 (D). Wrap it up with the grace-hammered b3-3 and 5 that lead into a single F#7#9 V-chord punctuation. The next chorus is yours, so take it away! g

Jesse Gress is the author of Guitar Licks of the Texas Blues-Rock Heroes (Backbeat).

Recommended Listening: The Progressive Blues Experiment, Johnny Winter, Second Winter, Johnny Winter And, Johnny Winter And-Live, Still Alive And Well, Roadwork and Together-Live (with Edgar Winter), Nothing But The Blues, White Hot & Blue, Third Degree, I’m A Bluesman, Roots, and, with Muddy Waters, Hard Again, I’m Ready, and King Bee.

Recommended Listening: ZZ Top’s First Album, Rio Grande Mud, Tres Hombres, Fandango, Tejas, Deguello, Eliminator, Afterburner, Recycler, XXX, Mescalero, Chrome, Smoke & BBQ: The ZZ Top CD Box Set, and La Futura.

Recommended Listening: The Fabulous Thunderbirds: Hot Stuff – The Greatest Hits, Family Style (with Stevie Ray Vaughan), Strange Pleasures, Out There, Do You Get the Blues, Plays Blues, Ballads & Favorites, and Plays More Blues, Ballads & Favorites.

Recommended Listening: Texas Flood, Couldn’t Stand the Weather, Soul to Soul, In Step, Family Style (with Jimmie Vaughan), and In the Beginning, and Live at Montreux: 1982 & 1985.

Recommended Listening: Seven Worlds, Tones, Ah Via Musicom, Venus Isle, Souvenir, Live From Austin, TX, Bloom, and Up Close.

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