5 GUITAR LESSONS WE CAN LEARN FROM SRV

Five SRV lessons header

It is difficult to overstate the impact that Stevie Ray Vaughan had on the blues. He is one of the most famous blues musicians of all time, and is celebrated for revitalising the genre in the 1980s and in turn, inspiring a new generation of blues guitarists.

Whilst Vaughan was both a gifted singer and songwriter, he is best remembered for his guitar playing. He is without question one of the most gifted blues guitarists ever, possessing a unique intensity and style.

Although Vaughan’s playing may be inimitable, by looking at his approach and the techniques he utilised, we can capture some of that Stevie Ray magic in our own playing.

Without further ado then, here are 5 key lessons you can learn from Stevie Ray Vaughan that will make you a better blues guitarist:

1. MASTER THE MINOR PENTATONIC SCALE

Stevie Ray Vaughan was a master of the minor pentatonic scale. It was his go-to scale and defined the sound of all of his lead playing. This might sound obvious, as Vaughan certainly isn’t unique in relying on the minor pentatonic scale. It is the most commonly used scale in blues and rock music, and has been used by a whole range of notable bluesmen.

But Vaughan really took this to the next level. He almost solely used the scale to construct his licks and solos. And whilst he does mix it with the major pentatonic scale, his sound is firmly based around the minor pentatonic scale. And this is significant. So many aspiring blues players try to ‘break out’ of the minor pentatonic scale shapes almost as soon as they learn them. Yet in my opinion, this is a mistake. You can get so much mileage out of the minor pentatonic scale; a point that Vaughan proves in his playing.

That is not to say you shouldn’t aim to expand your musical vocabulary. But don’t forget the importance of the pentatonic scales shapes. You can sound truly amazing and craft beautiful blues solos using nothing but the minor pentatonic scale. So before you rush on to more complex and exotic scales, spend time getting to grips with your pentatonic scales.

As a reminder, this is what the 5 minor pentatonic scale shapes look like in the key of A:

The five minor pentatonic scale positions or shapes
The five minor pentatonic scale shapes

The above diagram shows the 5 shapes of the minor pentatonic scale, along with the suggested fingerings to play those scale. The tonic notes are highlighted in light blue and in this case are the notes of A.

If you don’t know these shapes already, then I would recommend learning them back to front, all over the neck of your guitar and in a variety of different keys. Improvise using the scale and try to create as many different licks and feels as you can.

This will dramatically improve your blues lead playing and will provide you with an amazing foundation. Once you have really got it nailed, you can then move on to explore different scales and techniques to add greater variety to your playing.

2. CHANNEL YOUR INNER ALBERT KING

Albert King had a profoundinfluence on Stevie Ray Vaughan. In fact he first utilised many of the techniques that Vaughan later popularised. Albert King changed the way blues guitarists bent strings. And he was the first guitarist to hit big 2 tone bends.

It is important to recognise this, because I think many new and aspiring blues guitarists discover Stevie Ray Vaughan before Albert King. They hear Vaughan and are blown away by his licks and playing style, without being aware that Albert King was the one who pioneered many of those techniques. So if you want to fully appreciate Vaughan’s playing, I would urge you to start listening  to Albert King.

There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, Albert King’s music is brilliant and will make an excellent addition to your blues playlist. Secondly, I think it is important to learn from and pay attention to the musicians that influence(d) the players that we want to emulate.

Lastly, in some ways it is actually easier to observe the techniques that Vaughan uses by listening to Albert King. Compared with Vaughan, King’s playing is slower and more sparse. This enables you to listen to King’s bending style and phrasing (which is very similar to Vaughan’s) at a slower pace. You can learn King’s techniques at that tempo (and they will sound amazing!) and then work up to the faster pace typical in Stevie Ray Vaughan songs.

If there is one element of King’s playing which you can use to instantly create an Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan vibe in your solos, it is the Albert King box. This is what it looks like in the key of A:

The Albert King Blues Box
The Albert King Blues Box

The 8th fret on both the B string and the E strings, as well as the 10th fret on the E string all lend themselves very well to string bending. As such, you can create a whole range of different licks and ideas in this single compact box shape.

Try hitting a variety of bends at different pitches and stacking them together one after the other. This is the approach that Albert King uses in a whole range of his songs. And you can hear Vaughan use it to great effect on tracks like ‘Texas Flood’ and ‘Change It’. 

Stevie Ray Vaughan playing in the Albert King box.
Stevie Ray Vaughan using the Albert King box (looks like it anyway!)

3. USE REPEAT PHRASES

Stevie Ray Vaughan uses a lot of repetition in his soloing. This is a very effective but often under-utilised technique in blues guitar playing. It can be implemented in a whole variety of different ways, but there are 2 ways to use it that I think work particularly well:

The first of these is to create a theme or motif in your soloing. If you continually return to the same phrase within a solo, you can draw the listener back to that phrase. That in itself is powerful. But you can enhance this by slightly altering the motif every now and again.

This is a technique used a lot by B.B. King. Just listen to the intro and main solo (starting at the 1.57 mark) for the song ‘Guess Who‘. King keeps returning to the same melodic idea, but he changes and alters it in each of the solos. This keeps things interesting and helps King to get a huge amount of mileage from just a handful of notes.

The second way to utilise repetition is to use it to build tension. If you keep repeating a phrase, you can build a strong sense of tension in your solos.  And the more you repeat a phrase – within reason –  the more the tension builds. This tension is then resolved as soon as you move onto a different phrase. When done properly, this provides a moment of euphoria for the listener that is very powerful. And this is particularly the case if you add to the tension by applying vibrato or altering the way you play the note.

This is a technique that Stevie Ray Vaughan utilises a lot. You can hear some element of repetition in most of his solos, especially when you start to listen out for it. But some great examples of guitar solos where he heavily uses repetition are as follows:

Far from making your solos sound stale or uninteresting, you can use repetition in a similar way to brilliant effect. In my opinion, this is one of the best lessons you can learn from Stevie Ray Vaughan.

4. PLAY FASTER

Generally speaking, speed is not one of the essential skills that you need to develop to be a killer blues player. If you think about many of the most famous blues guitarists of all time, very few of them play fast. Their focus instead is on note placement, vibrato and the quality of their touch and feel. Very rarely do they execute fast licks or speedy runs up and down the neck. This is definitely true of the ‘Three Kings’ and also of most of the early American bluesmen.

Conversely, Stevie Ray Vaughan often plays fast. He uses speed to add intensity and power to his playing and it is a key part of his soloing style. So if you want to learn from Stevie Ray Vaughan and emulate his playing, you need to be able to execute licks at speed. And crucially, you need to be able to do this with precision. Although Vaughan is fast, he is never sloppy. His playing is always precise and he retains clarity in all of his phrases.

There are a lot of different exercises that you can work on to get faster, and I will cover these in more detail in a future article. But one simple exercise to get quicker is to play chromatically up and down your neck in time with a metronome, as follows:

Finger dexterity exercises
Finger speed and dexterity exercise

The idea here is to play 4 notes for each click of the metronome. Don’t use any hammer ons or pull offs; pick each note individually. Work your way up the neck by moving up 1 fret every time you reach the high or low E string. So, in the example above, after playing the 2nd fret on the low E, you would move up 1 fret, and start the pattern again from the 3rd fret. Go all the way up the neck until you hit the 15th fret. Then work your way back down the neck to the beginning.

Start at a tempo that is comfortable. You should be able to play all the way up and down the neck, keeping time with the metronome and playing all of the notes with precision. Once you can do that, up the tempo by 1 beat. Repeat the exercise until again you can play up and down the neck in time. Include this exercise in your practice routine and over the course of weeks and months you will totally transform the tempo at which you can play.

USE HIGHER ACTION

Stevie Ray Vaughan has one of the most celebrated guitar tones of all time. Much of this tone came from the core elements of his setup –  a Fender Stratocaster, an Ibanez Tube Screamer pedal and  amps like the Fender Vibroverb and Dumble Steel String Singer. His powerful playing style of course also contributed to his tone in a significant way.

There are, however, three quick changes you can make to your setup to capture a bit of that Stevie Ray magic. And this is because, in addition to the gear that Vaughan used, he also adopted a unique set up that had a profound impact on his tone and playing style.

Firstly, for the majority of his career, Vaughan used heavy gauge guitar strings on his Stratocaster. At times he went as heavy as 0.13 on his high E string! For most guitarists, playing strings this heavy will negatively impact playability. As such, I wouldn’t recommend going all the way up to 0.13s. However if you are currently playing quite light guitar strings, then moving to a heavier gauge could help to add some sustain and weight to your tone – both of which are important elements of Vaughan’s guitar tone. The heavier strings will also allow you to dig in and use a heavier pick attack, which is key in helping you dial in those SRV tones.

In addition to his heavy gauge strings, Vaughan also set his guitar with a high action. In the words of his guitar tech Rene Martinez: “I used to adjust the screws down at the bridge to raise the height (of the strings), and I would run out of thread – I couldn’t make the strings any higher.”

A lot of guitarists pay little attention to their action. But actually, raising the action on your guitar will improve your tone. You want your guitar to sing and for the notes to really ring out.  And it is difficult for this to happen if your strings are too close to your frets. They need space to vibrate and resonate properly. Give them this extra space and all of your notes will resonate more. You’ll increase your sustain and you’ll get a better tone.

This actually affects playability. It makes it harder to fret the notes, to bend the strings and to apply vibrato. But setting the guitar up in this way does have a positive effect on tone. Setting a high action on your guitar gives your strings space to vibrate fully.  And this can result in a fuller and more resonant tone.

Try a higher action!

To help with the increased tension and high playing action (as well as to better accommodate his vocal range), Vaughan tuned his guitar down to E flat (Eb). And the combination of these 3 things added weight to his tone and gave it a real warmth.

So if you are looking to beef your tone up and increase your sustain, try setting your guitar up in a similar way. Just be conservative with any changes that you make. Slowly increase the action and increase your string gauge. The last thing you want to do is make drastic changes that prevent you from being able to play properly.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Well there we have it, 5 of the key lessons that you can learn from Stevie Ray Vaughan.

To play like Stevie Ray Vaughan is an immensely challenging task. As John Mayer summarised it so well when he inducted Vaughan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:

‘There is an intensity about Stevie’s guitar playing that only he could achieve, still to this day. It’s a rage without anger, it’s devotional, it’s religious. He seamlessly melded the supernatural vibe of Jimi Hendrix, the intensity of Albert King, the best of British, Texas and Chicago Blues and the class and sharp shooter precision of his older brother Jimmie. Stevie is the ultimate guitar hero.’

Yet whilst Vaughan may have had almost ‘supernatural’ talents, there are elements of his playing, tone and approach from which you can learn a huge amount. Combine this with intensity and passion, and you will be able to recreate a bit of that Stevie Ray magic in your own playing.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Strings Direct Circular
Aidan Bricker
The Happy Bluesman www.happybluesman.com @happybluesman
Join the Happy Bluesman Blues Club

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