Most biographies of Jimmie Vaughan rightfully mention his powerful yet restrained Stratocaster playing. Most also mention, of course, his brother Stevie Ray, with whom Jimmie recorded one album before SRV was taken from us. What’s perhaps slightly less prominently mentioned is that Jimmie is also a bit of a style icon: his classic band The Fabulous Thunderbirds helped to usher in a blues revival while also popularising ‘retro cool.’ The slicked back hair, the hot rods, the vintage threads – Jimmie is his own man who cuts an imposingly cool figure across the guitar landscape. So what would it be like to talk with a man who has opened for Jimi Hendrix, stood on stage with the likes of Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy, opened for Bob Dylan and pretty much summarised a whole lifestyle which is soundtracked by hot 50s Stratocasters, scented by sun-warmed leather interiors and wrapped in mid-century sunglasses? Well it turns out that although he gives off an air of the ultimate baddass, Jimmie Vaughan is a dude who’s so cool and friendly that you instantly become cool by association. And you’ll want to go and pick up your guitar.
Let’s start with the guitar you’re most associated with, the Fender Stratocater. What was your initial attraction to the Strat?
When I first started playing I had a Gibson with one pickup and no cutaways. I forget what model it was but it was a little bitty three-quarter guitar. And all the guys that I liked had a Stratocaster or a Telecaster so that’s what I wanted. They had the wildest sounds. And then the local people that I looked up to played Stratocasters. Then I saw Buddy Guy playing a Stratocaster, and then Jimi Hendrix. Everybody played Stratocasters, so thats’ what I had to have. My first one was a ’58.
Were they hard to get a hold of then?
No, they weren’t at all! When I bought mine in 1968 it was ten years old and there was a whole row of ‘em. There was like 20 of them and they said ‘What colour do you want?’ (Laughs). And they were used, y’know, they were just used guitars. So I paid $175 for my first Strat, a ’58 blonde neck.
Buddy Guy tells a great story about his ‘50s Strat falling off the roof of a moving car and still being perfectly in tune.
Hahaha. Yeah, I think I’ve heard that! Y’know, one night I had a little bit too much to drink and I left my Stratocaster on the car and drove away out of the gig. I woke up the next morning and thought ‘Uh… where’s my guitar?’ I went back to the club and it was still laying in the case in the parking lot. I brought it home. I don’t know if anybody ran over it or not. When I first got it they were all over the place and you could buy ‘em for 200 bucks all day. They were sort of like an old Ford or something where you could just change the parts. They were cool. They float too, y’know?
How’d you find that out?
Oh well! (Laughs). Somebody told me they did. I haven’t tried it myself. But they’re solid wood, so they’re like boat paddles.
It’s amazing how little the design has changed. You can buy modern high-tech versions but you can still buy a Strat made to the same specs as in the 50s.
Yeah, and that’s what people want. I mean, that’s what I always wanted. I remember for a while there you couldn’t buy the old style ones. You could buy new ones with updated stuff, racing stripes and weird pickups, but that’s not what we wanted. We wanted an old guitar like in the pictures of Buddy Holly and all them guys.
Well you want a Strat that fights you back a bit too.
Sure! There’s really not anything to not like about it. They’re pretty durable and you can actually fight with them if you have to. You can swing them! And the great thing about them is they look cool and they really sound good and you can get a lot of different sounds out of them. Almost any kind of a sound that you can get out of another kind of guitar, you can get it out of a Strat. And they had that look… you can’t tell whether it’s a ray gun or a rocket ship, y’know what I mean?
And it’s not just other guitar sounds – you’re great at being able to make a Strat sound like an organ as well.
Well the first guy I heard do that, I don’t know if he was the first, but it was Buddy Guy. If you listen to Hoodoo Man Blues on Delmark Records, it was an album he did with Junior Wells, and Buddy Guy was playing through a Leslie on there. He’s great.
So what amplifiers are you using?
I like the Fender Bassman. The reissues are great. There are a lot of great boutique amps out these days too. There’s a guy here in town that makes Bassman-like amps called Grammatico. They’re really good. I use those now. They’re tube, Bassman-style amplifiers right down to the …everything!