Stevie Ray Vaughan’s 20 greatest guitar moments, ranked

One of the last true guitar heroes, SRV reinvigorated the blues for a new generation of players with his phenomenal style. Here are 20 of his finest moments.

Stevie Ray Vaughn

Image: Kirk West / Getty Images

When you purchase through affiliate links on Guitar.com, you may contribute to our site through commissions. Learn more

Back in 1983, Bowie’s Let’s Dance single hit the airwaves. Stinging, badass blues-guitar licks leapt out of the mix, demanding to be heard. Against the slick contemporary backdrop of the Nile Rodgers-masterminded production, the sounds were fresh and exhilarating, yet seemed to come from another time altogether. Eric Clapton recalled that when he heard the song on the radio: “I stopped my car and said, ‘I have to know who this guitar player is today. Not tomorrow, but today.’”

Stevie Ray Vaughan had made a lasting first impression. Over the seven years between his debut and his tragic death in a helicopter crash on 27 August 1990, he was prolific, creating four studio albums with his band Double Trouble, a collaborative album with his brother Jimmie and a rich archive of live and studio recordings and film, guest appearances and more.

30 years on, his effect on the course of guitar has been profound and enduring: most recently, Alan Paul and Andy Aledort’s book Texas Flood has uncovered fresh and comprehensive insight into his life and music and is a must-read for fans. Here, in tribute to SRV’s legacy, are 20 guitar highlights from his too-brief but extraordinary career.

Stevie Ray Vaughn
Image: Jacques M. Chenet / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images

20. Testify

Testify was originally an Isley Brothers gospel track featuring pre-Experience Jimi Hendrix underpinning the brothers’ unchained vocals with tasteful R&B guitar. Stevie Ray’s version on his 1983 debut Texas Flood channelled its irrepressible, taut energy through his six strings, first bringing his mastery of Hendrix’s inventive chord work to the fore before launching into the Jimi trickbag with untamed ferocity in the instrumental’s progressively more intense solos. As with the whole of his debut album, his varied use of effects and cycling through the pickup selector switch to vary his tone is instinctive.

Did you know?

Testify is one of the few tunes on Texas Flood that isn’t a complete ‘live’ take. SRV broke a string during this recording; rather than lose what they had, the band seamlessly dropped back in together instead.

19. Superstition

Though the band were plagued by Steve Ray and Tommy Shannon’s substance abuse during the period when 1986’s Live Alive was comped together from four separate concerts, this muscular cover of the Stevie Wonder classic papers over the cracks in some style. A showcase for what keys player Reese Wynans brought to the band when he joined in 1985, Stevie hits his guitar so hard throughout he almost hammers the strings out of tune. And the solo, when it comes, is a blinding fireworks display – from the piercing opening notes through to the climactic build that closes the song is a minute-and-a-half of Stevie at his greasy, funky, supercharged best.

Did you know?

Superstition had been in SRV’s repertoire since he was a 19-year-old in Austin band The Nightcrawlers With Marc Benno, which he joined in 1973.

18. Pipeline

The brothers Vaughan fulfilled their longstanding dream of recording an album together (1990’s Nile Rodgers-produced Family Style), and their paths often crossed as they forged their careers. On occasions when their bands shared the bill, they took the opportunity to perform a guitar party piece where both would play a duet on a double-necked guitar – a custom-made instrument created by Robin Guitars.

Three minutes or so into this clip, the brothers launch into classic surf instrumental Pipeline: they perform the tune with eerie synchronicity, Jimmie with his arms round his brother’s shoulders, their hands perfectly mirroring each other. The overall effect is pretty unsettling, as though some strange, quad-limbed genetic experiment has taken to the stage, but it’s a touching moment of brotherly bonding, too.

Did you know?

SRV traded licks with King Of The Surf Guitar, Dick Dale, on a version of Pipeline used in the 1987 movie Back To The Beach.

17. Life By The Drop

Stevie Ray on a 12-string surely shouldn’t work, you’d have thought… But watching back SRV’s appearance on MTV Unplugged in 1990 and witnessing him tear through Rude Mood on a Guild JF65-12 shows he could transplant his electric-guitar style note-for-note into the acoustic realm. Life By The Drop, written by Stevie’s friend and writing partner Doyle Bramhall together with his wife Barbara Logan, was recorded during the In Step sessions in the unadulterated and confessional 12-string-and-voice form eventually heard on the posthumous The Sky Is Crying collection. A technically simple song from the guitar viewpoint, it nonetheless reveals SRV in a rare musical context closer to the ancient source of his electric blues.

Did you know?

Barbara Logan says the song’s lyrical themes are about Doyle Bramhall watching his friend attain success.

16. Say What!

Ever wondered what two wah pedals sound like at the same time? Here’s your answer. During the protracted sessions for third studio album Soul II Soul at the Dallas Sound Lab studio in 1985, Stevie Ray distracted himself with the experiment, coming up with the fearsomely modulated tone that metamorphoses throughout this visceral workout.

Clearly enjoying the unexpected sounds he was summoning and leaning into the near-infinite sustain coming from his wall of amps, Stevie alternates waves of his by-now familiar lightning-fast licks with lingering vibrato-arm phrasing, following the tone into unprecedented areas and having a great time doing it.

Did you know?

One of SRV’s two wahs on this track had once belonged to Jimi Hendrix; Jimmie Vaughan had traded it with Hendrix’s roadie in 1968.

15. Mary Had A Little Lamb

Before he became his friend, Buddy Guy was one of SRV’s heroes and on this cover of Guy’s 1967 nursery-rhyme adaptation, SRV plays his homage reasonably straight, keeping the opening riff, the bell-toned solos and the stop-start format but replacing Guy’s inimitable tortured vocal with a gentler delivery.

In among the histrionics elsewhere on Texas Flood, this song’s restraint and laid-back feel illustrates how much depth there was to Stevie Ray’s musicality: when he chose not to rely on flurries of notes and volume, he could effortlessly turn to clean tones, sax-like phrasing, silence and space and varying the timings of his lead lines instead, to make his point just as effectively.

Did you know?

Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton told Alan Paul and Andy Aledort that Mary Had A Little Lamb was one of his personal favourites: “Because it’s so tight. The way we all hit that one note together after Stevie says ‘tiskit’ always sounded so cool.”

14. Tightrope

His near-death experiences with addiction were fresh in his mind when SRV embarked on the recording of In Step in 1988, his first studio record since Soul II Soul three years earlier. Facing the environment substance-free for virtually the first time was understandably intimidating and SRV spent hours coaxing the right sounds from his temperamental amps.

When he did come to record, though, the Double Trouble sound had become more expansive and slicker as a result. In Step has many moments of spectacular clarity, and the sinuous solo sections on Tightrope (unusually both backed by rhythm guitar and mixing major and minor) are a perfect example of the laser focus of a cleaner, leaner SRV in action.

Did you know?

SRV’s In Step amp arsenal was named the ‘Wall Of Doom’ and consisted of selections of eight or 10 amps from a total of 32 he brought with him.

13. Tin Pan Alley (AKA Roughest Place In Town)

Recording for Double Trouble’s sophomore album, Couldn’t Stand The Weather, took place in New York’s Power Station studios over 19 days in January 1984, with the legendary John Hammond as executive producer. On the first day, producer/engineer Richard Mullen asked the band to run through some sounds, so they struck into this 50s slow blues.

Throughout the nine- minute take that ensued, SRV put in a faultless, emotionally charged performance, varying dynamics and conjuring up a series of endlessly inventive jazz-inflected guitar forays as though soundtracking a vivid film noir playing in his imagination. The take was a keeper.

Did you know?

For Tin Pan Alley…, SRV is thought to have used ‘Charley’, a white custom S-type guitar with three lipstick pickups that was created for him by Dallas guitar-shop owner Charley Wirz.

12. Cold Shot

Mike Kindred, the pianist in SRV’s early band Triple Threat Revue, co-wrote this song, which appeared on Double Trouble’s second album, Couldn’t Stand The Weather. Stevie Ray used a Fender Vibratone cabinet to create the menacing strut of its riff and the organ-like tone enables him to subtly incline his playing approach towards the bass-and-chord style of blues organ players, while still retaining the expressive scrapes and bends unique to the guitar.

Taking advantage of the song’s moody minor key, he uses doublestops and dissonant two-string harmony licks throughout for emphasis; for any player interested in learning the ins and outs of his style, Cold Shot is a perfect starting point.

Did you know?

Unbelievably, the recording on the album is the first time the band had played the song through from beginning to end.

11. Crossfire

Stevie Ray Vaughan And Double Trouble’s only single to reach the top spot on the US Billboard Mainstream Rock Charts, Crossfire was a team effort, written by Double Trouble, Bill Carter, and Ruth Ellsworth and featuring judicious horn stabs from the Texacali Horns. Built around the lope of Tommy Shannon’s spacious bassline, it’s a stylistically unique song in the Stevie Ray catalogue and the perfect canvas for him to not only reveal his talent for stinging Q&A-style guitar fills inbetween the vocals, but for his amazing solo construction to shine through.

It’s one of the best showcases of his ability to rinse infinite variety out of the minor pentatonic scale by varying his timing around the song’s accents, repeating bends and blending doublestops and single-note licks. And the tone is killer, too.

Did you know?

Albert King appeared at the studio on several occasions during the recording of In Step.

10. Scuttle Buttin’

Playing along to records in his bedroom until they either wore down or were snapped in half by his irate dad made SRV an imaginative interpreter of classic instrumentals. Scuttle Buttin’ is to Lonnie Mack’s Chicken Pickin’ what Rude Mood is to Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Hopkins’ Sky Hop – a fleet-fingered reinterpretation intensified by the Stevie Ray filter, but still retaining the spirit of the original.

At 1:52, it’s over before it begins, but if – like so many SRV fans before you – you’re determined to learn to play it, then expect to spend some quality time perfecting the intro lick alone.

Did you know?

On later tours, SRV created a medley of Scuttle Buttin’ and Say What!

9. Little Wing

Hendrix’s inspired original recording has always seemed almost spitefully abbreviated by its fade out. “No, wait! Come back…” SRV’s intimate, extended instrumental version, released on posthumous album The Sky Is Crying, goes a long way towards making amends.

It also provides a fascinating way to compare how Hendrix and SRV approached the guitar: the overlaps and departures in the interpretation of the unaccompanied intro, the note choices, the territory each takes the solo into, the way they navigate around the changes and more make a mockery of the idea that SRV was just a counterfeit copy of his idol. Jimmie Vaughan told Dan Forte in the album’s sleeve notes: “More than anything I can think of, this one shows all of Stevie’s different influences on one song… It gets real tender, and then it gets real tough. It’s hard for me to listen to it, because it feels like he’s right in the room with you.”

Did you know?

SRV won a posthumous Grammy Award for this song in 1992 after it appeared on The Sky Is Crying.

8. Couldn’t Stand The Weather

The title track from Double Trouble’s second album is an oddly uncharacteristic song that doesn’t really have a parallel anywhere else in the SRV canon. It hurls together a number of disparate elements – a descending chord progression in the intro, a faltering unison bass-and-guitar riff, a Nile Rodgers-esque funk-guitar workout and droning single-chord verses – into what could be a mess in less skilled hands.

But it stands up magnificently, thanks to the presence of Jimmie Vaughan holing things together with rhythm guitar and Stevie outdoing himself with the solo sections, which combine fierce vibrato, some of his finest Albert King-derived bends and a selection of contrasting effects-slathered tones.

Did you know?

SRV used the Roland Dimension D chorus unit to add phasing to the song’s solos.

7. Let’s Dance

Thanks to Bowie witnessing Double Trouble’s performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982, SRV earned himself an almighty career break – and was faced with a Sliding Doors moment – before he had a deal for his debut record. But he still had to go and deliver the goods. There can’t have been many more pressurised situations in music history than being an unsigned guitarist turning up at a top studio to add solos to an album by a household-name rock star, in an alien musical style… with Nile Rodgers in the control room.

Apparently, though, a Strat, a lead, a Super Reverb amp and otherworldly talent are enough sometimes, and the results speak for themselves. SRV leant into his Albert King mode and skilfully adapted to the drama and space in the arrangements to send seismic shockwaves through the guitar world.

Did you know?

Nile Rodgers produced SRV’s final studio work, the Family Style album, and delivered a eulogy at Stevie Ray’s funeral.

6. Pride And Joy

Double Trouble’s first single was an early SRV composition that spread the Texas blues-shuffle sound far and wide; from its attention-grabbing intro lick onwards, it’s a joyous celebration of good-time R&B and a virtuoso guitar performance.

Stevie’s rhythm-and-lead style intersperses the walking bassline with scooped muted strings and rock ’n’ roll guitar embellishments in the verses, conjuring the sound of several guitar tracks in unison. From then on, each of its solo sections ups the ante as SRV darts around the neck at lightning pace, imitating slide-guitar riffs, making hay from ringing open strings and putting runs of ascending doublestops together before casually breaking out into perfectly timed flashes of lead guitar. Mighty.

Did you know?

As well as Jackson Browne’s Dumble amp, Pride And Joy features a Roland SDD-320 Dimension D chorus.

5. Rude Mood

Based loosely on Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Hopkins’ Sky Hop from 1954, the year SRV was born, Rude Mood is an instrumental juggernaut that’s equal parts technical dexterity and incredible stamina. Stevie was influenced in his macho attitude to string gauges by his brother and until his later career, often used monster 0.013–0.058-gauge sets on his Strat, which was modified with bigger frets and detuned a half step.

Rude Mood shows the extent of his commitment – this was a man who would perform his own skin grafts with Super Glue – and how faultless his coordination and execution was, throwing in chicken pickin’, supercharged rock ’n’ roll licks, chord-melody excursions, Freddie Kingisms and more into a brutal, metronomic tour de force.

Did you know?

Rude Mood was nominated for Best Rock Instrumental Performance at the Michael Jackson-dominated 1984 Grammy Awards, losing out to Sting’s Fire And Brimstonethat old classic.

4. Lenny

Texas Flood was an impressively slick and fiery assault on the senses and sensibilities of guitar players at the time, but one listen to the languid, dreamy instrumental that closes the record confirmed something else – that there were clearly hidden depths to Stevie Ray’s style waiting to be explored.

Splicing together majestic sixth and Maj13 chords with Hendrix-by-way-of-Mayfield doublestops, aquatic whammy-bar shimmers, piercing harmonics and a lot more besides, this was a far cry from the in-your-face set that preceded it. The 1983 concert version on Live At El Mocambo where SRV sits on the side of the stage at the end of the gig, cigarette burning down as he channels incredible music through his maple-neck 1965 ‘Lenny’ Strat, is a timeless moment in SRV lore.

Did you know?

At Eric Clapton’s 2004 Crossroads Guitar Auction, SRV’s $300 ‘Lenny’ Stratocaster was sold to Guitar Center for $623,500.

3. Texas Flood

This classic slow blues, unfurling like the dark rolling clouds depicted in its lyrics, became an early calling card for SRV. It’s a relatively close retread of Joe Scott and Larry Davis’ 1958 original, down to Fenton Robinson’s opening guitar hook and Davis’ sorrowful delivery, but in typical Stevie style, the intensity is ramped up by extra guitar solos and his impassioned vocal.

If string vibrato is the fingerprint of the blues guitar player, then Texas Flood is among the best places to hear SRV’s – it’s every bit as distinctive here as BB King’s. As he repeats the phrasing of the song’s main refrain, time after time, he introduces something new on every pass: pinched bends, whammy bar, descending turnarounds, picked chord inversions, held notes, diving dissonances, sudden unexpected octave changes… nothing is off limits, everything is authentic.

Did you know?

The title track was the only song used from the first day of the Texas Flood album sessions. The entire rest of the album was recorded over the following two days.

2. Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

Covering Hendrix note-for-note is a hiding to nothing, especially when it comes to one of his most magical, sacrosanct creations. Compared side-by-side, Stevie Ray’s version of Hendrix’s demonic jam swaps some of the psychedelic wah-and-vibrato noisemongery in favour of a slightly more mannered and musically focused take, at least on record – live, the Texan often went completely out there with Voodoo Child (Slight Return), employing his full repertoire of Jimi-esque showmanship and wanton guitar abuse in the process. While the execution might have been slightly different, the spirit, intent and energy are all redlining, on what is surely the best Hendrix cover of all time.

Did you know?

Once again, the seven-minute take you hear on Couldn’t Stand The Weather was recorded live, with no overdubs.

1. Riviera Paradise

Controversial though it may be, no matter how much of a fan of SRV you are, it’s still possible to dismiss Riviera Paradise as expertly played musak. Yet to many others, it’s perhaps the ultimate expression of his soul as a guitar player. Its mythical status is also due in part to it being the closing track on the final Double Trouble album, easily interpreted as a cathartic outpouring of emotion after Stevie Ray had finally overcome his tribulations.

Whatever you think about all that, what’s not in doubt is the ethereal quality of the guitar playing. At one point, after some brushed Wes-esque octaves, he scrapes his pick across the strings behind the nut, using the vibrato arm to give the notes a cadence as they fall in a distracted way, as though he’s almost forgotten he’s playing. After this, he launches into an astonishing outpouring of notes that only he could pull off, raking the strings, fingers blurring, seemingly consumed by the moment. SRV’s playing was often likened to a pure channel that music flowed through, and this specific run in Riviera Paradise is one such example.

Similar to how Riders On The Storm was the last song recorded by all four Doors, but still pointed tantalisingly to new musical possibilities, Riviera Paradise revealed a glimpse of yet another dimension to the extraordinary guitar playing of Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Did you know?

The band managed to finish the song seconds before the tape ran out on the Riviera Paradise recording.

Related Artists

Related Tags


The world’s leading authority and resource for all things guitar.

© 2024 Guitar.com is part of NME Networks.