Fabulous Thunderbirds records really changed my life, Jimmie’s rhythmic and solistic approach, so raw and essential, is a major step in my understanding of the guitar player’s role inside a band.
July, 16th, 2010
I’m near the hotel where Jimmie and his band stay, I went to the concert yesterday, his manager, Bill Sullivan, rings me back and tells me that Vaughan is waiting for me.
I get in and he walks with a smile wearing boots and glasses, asks me if I mind to wait for him to get coffee, he’s already nice. We sit down, he takes off the glasses, we’re ready to go.
Hi Jimmie, thank you for meeting me in your day-off, is great to see you for a chat.
I’d like to start with asking you how you developed your style, I know many of your influences, but the sum of them wouldn’t make Jimmie Vaughan, there must be something else.
You’re right, I spoke many times about Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Freddie, Albert and B.B. King, and so many others; what you probably don’t imagine is that I listen to everything, from Joe Maphis to Merle Travis, I never made distinctions of any kind.
There’s only two kind of music, the one you like and the one you don’t, it’s all about choosing.
What surprised me, driving through Mississippi is that there’s almost nothing, but The Blues is all around you.
I have a book here with me in the hotel, Billy Gibbons gave it to me, it’s a photography book about Blues, there’s just… folks, you know. Not more than that, but so charming. When I was a kid I started school in Jackson, Mississippi, Blues is everywhere, in the streets, the people.
About your rhythmical approach, one of your strong points, I heard several players from Texas and you seem to have a common background, a “twangy” distinctive sound. How did you develop your style?
In my first band I had no lead parts, just rhythm, the band leader and guitar solo player, Johnny Peoples, he told me what to do and how to do it, he must be right!
You always kept in mind that lesson, Hendrix used to say than many players can play a solo, but not too many can play rhythm guitar well.
Right, my role in a band like the T-Birds was extremely important, I had to fill the spaces left empty by the bass and drums, I had to figure out how to do that, I never liked players that play all the time (he mimics a player raising the eyes to the sky with a silly face, very inspired) I like to say less but in an interesting way.
Some of the T-Birds’ tracks feature an incredible guitar playing, you worked on the bass strings and the treble side in a separate way, upstrokes played open strings, on “Sugar Coated Love” it was just you and the drums, that kind of rhythm really changed my perception of what a guitar can do, I heard Stevie playing something similar on “Change It”.
It’s true, being younger than me he listened to me a lot, if you have a guitar I’ll show you what I played.
I’m sorry I don’t… (I’d like to kill myself while I say that)
I noticed that onstage you never play while singing, like B.B.King does.
I started singing live after my 40s, I don’t have too much confidence in doing both things at the same time and my band allows me to be really free.
They play great, what do you look for in your band?
They have to play it right! They have to be inside what they play, I’m not interested in prima donnas, I look for guys like me, happy to be part of something. The result has to be more than the sum of the parts. A few years ago I met Les Paul, my wife worked at Gibson and we were introduced, then I went to a show of his.
Not too long after I was playing at B.B.King’s club in New York and who comes in? Les Paul! He sat there all night listening and at the end of the show he congratulated for the set list, I was playing there looking around once in a while and he was there, Les Paul!
I really liked the first part of the show yesterday, when you were singing, there was a great intensity. Not to say about Lou Ann Barton, she’s fantastic and perfectly tuned with you when you sing together, live and on CD.
Thank you! We’ve been knowing each other for a long time, in studio we sang for the band playing live but we overdubbed everything at the end. I wanted vocals to be perfect, I’m very happy with the result.
When I went to Austin, in 2002, I was surprised that no one played Blues anymore, considering the importance of what you did with the T-Birds, Stevie with the Double Trouble, Antone’s and all the rest.
When I came to Austin no one played Blues too! It’s always been like this, we started because no one else did that. What do you do if no one plays the music you like? You play it! Today like in the past.
Let’s talk about the new album, I listened to it and I really liked it, I found the spirit of the early T-Birds, if it wasn’t for the chairs, we would dance most of the night.
That’s the idea, I think of music as something to entertain people; my parents listened to dance music, Western Swing, I listened a lot of it and I’m probably playing that in my shows. Many people see the Blues as a sad music, it has so many faces and most of them are intense, not necessarily sad.
I really like the choices you made, from Blues to R’n’R, from R’n’B to Surf, no boundaries.
As I said, I make no distinctions of any kind, there’s only what I like. I never classified anything, I’m not a music critic, as a child I never thought of giving names, I just liked it. To me there’s no Blues or R’n’R, it’s a big family, you change the approach to the music you play, you know what I mean?
This record is made almost of covers, how do you choose the songs?
When I like a song I “have to” play it! I listen to it and I think “I must play this song, no matter what.” I like to take other people’ songs and make their mine, I always did. Most of the tunes we never played them, we met at the studio the day before recording, we arranged parts and recorded it, it’s all very spontaneous.
Is the band I saw yesterday the same of the album?
Most of it. The baritone sax changed and Bill Willis, the organ player, died in February. I put the song he sang as last tune on the cd, a tribute to him and a real closure. Band is great, Billy Pittman has been playing with me for years, George Rains is one of the best blues drummers around, Greg Piccolo was the leader of Roomful Of Blues and needs no introduction, great sax player and singer, but the whole band is great.
When you left the T-Birds something was missing, in my opinion, I never found it again, they still are an amazing band, what was your role at the time?
When it was about covering tunes I used to say “Let’s do this one”, I always brought ideas and it was okay with the others. There’s always someone that start things in a band, it’s very natural. I have material at least for half of a new album, more covers I’d like to work on when I get home.
Let’s talk about your soloing approach.
You know, when I was a kid, I couldn’t understand “How did they know what to play!” I was impressed by the fact they could put all those notes one after the other, how did they know the right order? It drove me crazy! It wasn’t about the licks, it was the overall picture that amazed me.
So you tried to learn how to speak with notes.
Yes, I listened to the intros, the guitar solo and the outros of every single song (Jimmie mimics the movement of the needle on the LP with an almost crazy face), trying to understand every little secret, a long and hard work.
It looks like you learned pretty well! Your solo on “The Crawl” is something I always take as an example with my students, it’s kind of perfect for the notes you picked up, some of them think I’m crazy because it’s so short and not impossible to play.
You know the story about you jamming with B.B. King, Freddie King, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, you pick them. At some point one of them turns to you and says “It’s your turn”. Scary, uh? (laughs). What can you play after them? The answer is simple and complicated at the same time: play what you want to hear.
And I realized I would play some of their licks, I would copy for sure. In the end we all copy the others, no one wakes up one day with something totally new, it’s about making yours elements already existing. I took that as a rule, I try to listen to myself while I play, like from the outside, to play something I’d really like to listen to, we need not much more than that.
A teacher of mine use to tell me to sing something what I had in mind, and then look for it on the guitar.
Right, I always say that, if I can’t hum it, I probably cannot play it.
Your playing has always been raw and essential but listening to your phrasing today makes me think of someone trying to get his clothes off, slowly, to be finally naked with his music, no frills.
Interesting, I don’t know if it’s true. You see, if I listen to myself today, and how I played 30 years ago, it feels like nothing has changed, it’s always me, even if I try to learn something new every day, I hope I’ll never stop.
Like in real life, we all grow up.
Isn’t it what we do? We grow up, we change as human beings, and so our playing. It’s not about this or that scale to me, there’s life, I play life, it must come from the head or the heart, I think it’s the same, but there has to be a connection to what I am. Everyone play for the love they had, or they don’t have. Who doesn’t play for girls? I still play for them, I’d rather play for an audience of dancing girls having fun than for a bunch of players watching your hands!
Like the joke “How many guitar players are needed to change a light bulb?”
Eleven. One to do that and ten to say “I can do that, too.”
You look comfortable on stage, was it always like that?
Not at all, I learnt with years, at the beginning I looked at myself, at my body and thought “Who the hell am I?” (laughs), I wasn’t happy, nonetheless on stage, then you grow up and realize so many things, today I’m pretty sure of myself even if I can do better. The problem is I’m almost 60, when I’ll realize all of that, I’ll be dead!
You started playing without a pick recently, or you always did that? Does that affect your way of playing?
I’ve been doing this for a long time, I like how fingers sound, I use the thumb with downstrokes or the index as a bass player.
You got a giant sound like this, I can almost tell when you use the fingers without looking at you. What about capo?
The first to understand how powerful it is was my hero Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, he used the mobile capo to always have open strings, you end playing like if you were always in E in the first position, phrasing is more fluid because of the hammer-ons and pull-offs played by the left hand, the right hand can “slide” quickly from one string to another.
Brown started to be heard better inside the band, his sound became bigger, he wanted the presence and fluidity of a saxophone, he widened his space in front of the band. After him, almost every texan blues player in the Gulf area imitated that, from Johnny "Guitar" Watson to Guitar Slim, Albert Collins and many more. Today is a big part of my sound, I couldn’t get it without it.
Not forgetting that people will read this on Laster, which is a guitar website, let’s talk about gear.
From what I saw, you’re a big fan of maple necks.
I like the colour, the first guitar I got had this white neck, since then I realized I like to be seen on stage with maple necks!
So it’s not about the sound?
Do you really can tell the difference between maple and rosewood? I don’t, if I fiddle with the amp a little I can always get a sound I like, it’s not about the wood. I like to try to get the real sound of the guitar.
I saw you now bring on stage your mexican Fender signature, I must say that if I didn’t see you, it sounded like your old white strat.
You see? It’s what I said, your sound is in your hands and in your head, give me a guitar and I’ll try to get my sound out of it, not someone else’s. My old ’62 Stratocaster is at home resting, I’m not bringing it anymore. I bought it in 1971 or ’72, it had a rosewood broken neck, I put on the one you see on pictures, it’s a great guitar. Before that one, I think in ’69, I purchased a sunburst made at the end of the 50s.
You work a lot with the guitar’s volume, it sounded like you never opened it completely.
I try not to, only as a mistake! When you’re in the middle of a solo you might lose control, I like the sound of the amp pretty loud, but with the guitar’s volume rolled off, I find it more interesting.
Right, you get really nice sounds that way. Only Strat or Telecaster too?
I love Teles, I’m, a Fender guy!
Which string gauge do you use?
It depends on the guitar, I use flatwound jazz strings and I believe every guitar asks for a gauge, I never use a standard set, I experiment. Sometimes the high string is a .010, sometimes a .011, but I have to relate to the guitar, did you know they make .010,5 too? I don’t have any favourite brand, I recently played with some austrian Vienna-made strings (it could be Thomastik-Infeld). I really liked them. But mine are not standard sets, I make them up.
Did you know that Leo Kottke tunes his guitars from one to two whole steps below standard, according to the guitar’s voice because he thinks every guitar has a unique timbre in a certain spot.
Interesting, and then it’s always like that?
I think so.
I understand that, I see it in the same way, even if I stay in standard tuning.
I read somewhere that you said: “There’s only one thing better than a Fender Twin. Two Fender Twins” is that yours?
(laughs) No, but when I was a kid my father used to say “What’s better than one? Two!”
You know what they say? If you don’t have a story, make up a good one!
I saw two Fender Bassman on stage, are those the Reissue models?
Yes, I brought them from the Usa. I like their sound and I can make them sound how I like it, having two of them on stage doesn’t really change the sound but “widens” it, sometimes I don’t even have the guitar in the monitors, it depends on the situation.
How do you setup the equalization on stage?
With these I usually turn up to 10 the Middle and Presence controls, the rest… as I need it.
Like in the kitchen?
Yes, like salt and pepper, it’s not a rule but your taste helps you to add enough!
What about the volume? It sound like the sound is breaking up, but never completely.
Right, I look for that spot I really like, yesterday night the Master was at about 6. It’s weird because, when I play, it always sounds too distorted to me, so I low down the volume from the guitar, but if I listen to the recording after the show it’s never too much. Weird uh? I never understood how it happens.
Other amplifiers you like?
I like Matchless, but if you know well tube amps history you know that everything is a copy of a Fender, one way or another, so what’s the point in playing a copy?
This is what I call a commercial!
Bring me something that plays better and I’ll change, no problem. What I learnt is that if an amp doesn’t sound good with all the controls flat, there’s no hope it’s sounding better after an hour of fiddling with it.
I never saw you with a pedal, did you ever use one?
Not too often, long ago I used a Tremolo, don’t know the name, today is just a matter of choice, you can find almost anything. I have Tremolo on the amp very often, so I don’t need much other than the guitar and the cable.
What are you listening to lately?
Louis Armstrong, Gene Ammons, Horace Silver.
Young Blues players that impressed you lately?
One of them is Gary Clark Jr. He use to come to Antone’s with his father when he was a kid, another one is Nick Curran, I like his singing, both of them really play it right.
We never saw you in Rome, would you like to come and play?
I never had a chance, when I’m in Europe I’m always running and every friend who came told me great things about the place. I swear I didn’t make it on purpose, no one brought me there! I’d love to come and bring with me my twin daughters, they’re 6 years old, I’d like to bring the family if I came.
He shows me the pictures on his iPhone, when he turns it on as a background photo there’s him and Stevie in the late 70s, he opens and enlarge it with his fingers, they’re so young and I realize that is still a huge pain today thinking of his little brother.
I explain to him that it’s not just to respect his pain that I didn’t ask about Stevie, to me they are two giants on the same level but really different. He looks at me with a sad face and says: “He’s gone for 20 years now. Today you turn on the TV and you can see all of this young kids playing like him, it’s incredible.”
Who knows, maybe one day, when you feel like you want to, you can tell us about him. He smiles and I realize there must be a chance, but for today I’m good like this.
Jimmie is so nice and friendly that he’d go on and talk, but I must go back to Rome because I have a gig the same night, before leaving I ask if I can buy a copy of his latest release on double limited edition vinyl, he says something about the guy who sells stuff but we are saying hello and it ends there.
I leave the hotel headed to the car when I hear someone call my name in the parking lot “Daniele, come back, I have the album for you!” He gives me the LP saying is a gift but he wants to sign it first, not with a pen but with a pencil, it’s better. “To Daniele, Play What You Want To Hear!” Jimmie Vaughan
Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce to you Jimmie Vaughan, a true gentleman with a big texan heart.
NdR: A very special thank from the Laster team to Mike Sponza, whose contribution was essential for this interview to be realized.