Fretprints: Stevie Ray Vaughan

The Blues Man’s Jazzy Side
Fretprints: Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan: Bbadventure/Wikimedia Commons.

Stevie Ray Vaughan is the uncontested blues champion of the new age. Though he’s been gone more than 30 years, his music still reverberates and much continues to be written about his stamp on the blues form and the renaissance he created; his reappraisals of Albert, B.B., and Freddie King, Hubert Sumlin, Lonnie Mack, Buddy Guy, and Jimi Hendrix, are so highly touted they often overshadow his other musical accomplishments.

One defining aspect of Stevie’s musicianship was his breadth. He saw the blues in everything, imparting its feel to unlikely settings from David Bowie and Don Johnson to Teena Marie and James Brown; SRV’s priority was “taking the color out of the blues.” It’s also felt in his assimilation and manipulation of sounds and techniques associated with the jazz world, particularly the groove and soul-jazz facets of the genre found in lofty departures that struck some as anomalous to the mainstream Texas, Chicago, and British blues styles with which they are comfortable. Precious little has addressed the jazz side of the SRV equation and that’s understandable; few writers have the musical background or acumen to follow his forays onto that path.

During a one-on-one hang with Stevie at the Chateau Marmont in 1985, amidst much guitar passing and impassioned discussion, he underscored the less-obvious (but no less important) jazz influences in his style. In sharing licks and trading stories, he emphasized that he had no formal training and that his “books” were B.B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, along with jazz players Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, and Grant Green. He especially expressed a natural admiration for soul-jazz groove masters and proclaimed their legacy was part of his.

Blues is groove music and groove is chill music. Where bebop and free jazz convey energizing, agitating forces, blues, funk, and groove jazz tend to relaxation. In that setting, the groove is everything – creating it, getting into it, and deepening it. The groove factor is undeniable in jazz-inspired instrumental pieces from Stevie’s repertoire and at least one jazz-tinged tune on each studio album.

“Lenny” was an opening salvo – the track that suggested there was more to SRV than reworked blues. This phrase depicts the integral chord sounds that shaped the composition in context; Emaj13 and A6 clearly have their genesis in the harmonic language of jazz, and SRV skillfully adapted the sonorities to a cycling vamp, like the I-IV cadence in countless blues tunes. The chords were decorated in the theme with Hendrix-inspired fills as in measure 2 and shimmering whammy-bar vibrato throughout. As with many blues-tinged jazz players, his improvisations freely applied a mixture of melody forms. The introductory phrases in 4-5 set the solo’s mood with sweeter major-pentatonic recalling the pastoral impression developed by the theme, while the licks in 6-7 produce contrast with more-urgent blues-scale melody expanded with double-stop textures. Notice how Stevie alters his minor-pentatonic/blues lines to include the sixth C# in 7-8, essentially replacing the D with C#. The major-minor polarity of blues is reinforced with his toggling of G and G# in 9. The closing passage is an SRV staple with characteristic ornaments embellishing the E blues sound. Check out his use of F (not F#) in these figures, which lends a more sophisticated sound to the phrase.

Stevie spoke in glowing terms about Burrell, Montgomery, and Green, but made a less-common reference to being motivated early on by the spirit of Django Reinhardt.

“To me, Django and Jimi were doing the same thing in many ways; Django on acoustic with fast runs and picking, and Jimi on electric with feedback, effects and whammy bar,” he said. “Both were pioneers and wrote the book on a new style.”

This view embodies SRV’s universal approach to music and underscores his openness to sonic diversity, emblazoned in his jazz works.

Stevie’s jazz journey began on his 1983 debut album, Texas Flood, with the ballad “Lenny.” Representing the first projection of his jazz persona, its deceptively simple theme is an elegant statement revolving around two sonorities of jazz origin that establish a hypnotic cycling pattern (the essence of groove music) decorated with Hendrix-inspired fills. It’s contrasted by a floating amorphous progression made of parallel major-6th chords. SRV’s improvisations boiled the entire piece down to a vamp of a repeated I-IV groove, an ideal receptacle for melodic ideas that fluctuated between major, minor pentatonic, modal, and blues sounds often in the same phrase. The track was played on a Strat that had been a gift from then-wife, Lenora, a.k.a. Lenny; a rust-tinted natural-finish ’64 with maple fretboard, it was found by guitar tech Byron Barr in an Oak Cliff pawnshop and inspired the namesake piece, which Stevie composed the night he received it. He prized the instrument for its “King Tone” – his term for the bell-like crystalline Strat timbres produced in the pickup selector’s in-between positions. He used its vibrato bar to generate a subtle effect throughout the chord changes, lending an exotic quasi-Hawaiian impression. Perhaps the most memorable non-studio version is on Live at El Mocambo.

“Riviera Paradise,” from his final studio album, In Step, marked a reset after years of substance abuse and a move away from efforts to replicate the excitement of a live show. Compositions were deeper, performances more thoughtful. Alongside tracks like “Crossfire,” “Tightrope” and “House is Rockin’” was the compelling “Riviera Paradise.”

Similar in tone and mood to “Lenny,” “Paradise” is a more-evolved instrumental, building on refinements beyond “Lenny” and bookending SRV’s jazz-based compositions. Like “Lenny,” it relies on a relaxed ballad-like groove that feels more like a meditation than a structured piece.

“Stang’s Swang” captured the atmosphere of classic ’60s soul-jazz and groove sounds absorbed during extended listening with brother Jimmie. SRV’s guitar/sax main theme is a bluesy line that epitomizes the style, reminiscent of the interplay of Kenny Burrell and Stanley Turrentine on Midnight Blue. Also notable is the heavily accented closing part of the theme with its cycle-of-fourths progression; C13-F9-Bb13-Eb9-Ab13, changes endemic to the jazz language. Stevie’s solo is a grooving masterpiece. He stays centered in Gm pentatonic/blues and the minor mode throughout; occasionally working a repeated motif as in measures 6-8. Note the jazz-oriented rhythmic placement of his phrases and the deliberate exploiting of syncopation in stressing weak beats, particularly evident in 12-13. The cycling progression in 14-16 further deepens the jazz ethos with idiomatic voicings often found in the playing of Wes Montgomery, George Benson, and Kenny Burrell.

“It was a chance to turn off the lights in my little isolation room and pray through my guitar,” Stevie said. And though he had been tinkering with the music since his Couldn’t Stand the Weather sessions in early ’84, it remained unfinished until ’89. A first-take performance captured seconds before the tape ran out, it reflects his increasing facility and interest in jazz harmony. Like many jazz recordings, future attempts to play the tune proved inferior.

“We tried it again another day and it sounded like Muzak,” he added. “I was determined the first take would be the one, even though (drummer) Chris was tuning his drums and (bassist) Tommy was figuring out his parts while we were recording.”

The parallel chords suggesting freer tonalities of post-bop are elaborations of Stevie’s moves in “Lenny” taken to greater heights, distinguished by minor 9th and 13th chords in a similar fluid progression, accordingly decorated with whammy-bar colorations. The solo-guitar intro pays homage to Burrell’s chord style while his fills in octaves deepen and widen the jazz effect, played appropriately with a Wes-approved thumb attack. Stevie solos over the progression rather than a two-chord vamp, revealing his melodic take on the chord changes and inevitably finding the blues in an uncharacteristic harmonic landscape. He again used the “Lenny” Strat. For a great example, see Live from Austin.

“Stang’s Swang” (Couldn’t Stand the Weather) marked a contrast to SRV’s traditional blues and rock pieces. This original reveled in the mood of ’60s soul-jazz with a solid swing groove, tight ensemble figures, and allusions to gospel, R&B and bluesy jazz, and tunes like Nat Adderley’s “Work Song.” Nods to Green and Burrell are undeniable in SRV’s idiomatic harmonic/melodic gestures. At the outset, his rake-picked articulations embellish and lend a funky touch to a bluesy soul-jazz theme that splits the difference between modal and bop music. Also notable are his punctuating chords and evocative cycling changes in the final progression.

“There’s a lot of finesse to be learned in jazz,” he said. “I’m not yet as knowledgeable in chords and theory to do it the way I’d like to.”

The track, however, suggests the opposite. In concert, he used his #1 Strat for the piece, but on record the jazz impression was multiplied by his Gibson Johnny Smith archtop with floating pickups to create the period-correct hollowbody tone. See Live in Honolulu.

“Riviera Paradise” painted a soundscape that symbolized redemption and inner peace. In concert SRV dedicated the tune to “everyone who’s suffering.” Though imbued with a similar tranquil balladic feeling, the chords and melodic twists reveal considerable refinements past the early imaginings of “Lenny.” This example illustrates his application of jazz harmonies in the unaccompanied intro to the piece. He adopts a strategy akin to Kenny Burrell in creating a rubato chord-melody prelude to the band arrangement. It puts in motion a fluid modulatory set of changes suggesting no particular key center in measures 1-4. Note the use of the vibrato bar to color the chords in the proceedings and a reference to the floating progressions in “Lenny” in the parallel major-6th forms in 5-6. Stevie spells out different tensions of Cmaj7 in 7, where he voice-leads a simple seventh chord into more extended and dissonant territory, finally cadencing on B7b9 to set up the theme in E minor. SRV’s theme in this piece is based on an Em9-A13 progression – the emblematic ii-V pattern of jazz. Notice the sophisticated use of a Gmaj7 arpeggio melody in 8 to play off the extension in Em9. These aspects all point to SRV’s successful integration of jazz into his blues mosaic.

“Gone Home,” on Soul to Soul, was titled “Goin’ Home” on tenor saxophonist Eddie Harris’ Mean Greens. Harris was a leader in the soul-jazz/hard-bop genres and composer of modern standards like “Cold Duck Time,” “Compared to What,” and “Freedom Jazz Dance,” and was clearly an inspiration on Stevie, who transformed the piece into a suitable groove vehicle, subjecting it to a comparable funky organ-combo treatment, and on this outing got his groove with a Strat pushing 650 watts of amp power. In a recent conversation, brother Jimmie Vaughan recalled how he and Stevie loved the music of organ players Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Groove Holmes, and Jimmy McGriff, who usually had great guitar players with them like Burrell, Montgomery, Green, and George Benson.

“Everything was about groove; we didn’t ever think of it as something separate, it was just cool music,” he said.

In live renditions, SRV stretched into more-adventurous jazz with diminished sounds and Wes octaves. On the recording (and often onstage) Stevie played “Gone Home” on the white Strat copy made for him by Charley Wirz and fitted with three Danelectro lipstick pickups. See Live at Montreux.

“Chitlins Con Carne” on the posthumously released The Sky is Crying closes a blues/jazz circle. This Burrell composition from Midnight Blue was a longstanding favorite of Stevie’s formative years, discovered in his brother’s record collection as a teen, and covered during the Soul to Soul sessions. SRV personalized it by playing the theme melody in octaves, a la Wes rather than Kenny’s baritone-register approach. Throughout, he applied licks and emulated phrasing associated with Kenny’s improvisations.

“Growing up, Stevie and I shared a room with twin beds, a guitar and amp, and my little record player,” Jimmie recalled. “Instead of doing schoolwork, we listened to all the greats – B.B. King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam… and Kenny Burrell. He was our hero; he was the bluest of the jazz players and I still think he’s one of the greatest guitarists who ever lived. I had all the albums and we listened to them every day. That’s where Stevie’s jazz influence came from. When Kenny played in town, we’d go every time we could; we caught him often at the Hollywood Hyatt. We listened to him a lot and so did a lot of other blues guitar players, like B.B. King, Otis Rush and Buddy Guy.”

Today, Stevie’s legacy remains unrivaled and unparalleled. Though a number of superb blues guitarists have surfaced and made inroads in reinterpreting the great American art form since ’90, no one explored as many corners of the genre. He was the consummate bluesman who transcended its cliches and confines, personified its feeling and spirit, and redefined its eternal soulfulness.

Wolf Marshall is the founder and original editor-in-chief of GuitarOne magazine. A respected author and columnist, he has been influential in contemporary music education since the early 1980s. His books include 101 Must-Know Rock Licks, B.B. King: the Definitive Collection, and Best of Jazz Guitar, and a list credits can be found at

This article originally appeared in VG’s July 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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