Play Like Stevie Ray Vaughan – Lesson on String Bending in Blues
Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of a kind. Like a comet he came around, revitalised an entire genre and promptly died ahead of his time in a senselessly tragic but nonetheless Rn’R helicopter accident. That kid you imagine yourself to be in your guitar fantasies, rocking up to an open session and burning the place down – that was him.
Maybe it’s worth thinking of him as the alpha blues player. An advanced version of all those who came before him. To say ‘the best’ is a futile matter of taste, but most would agree he was the most virtuosic guitarist to have stayed purely within the blues genre.
Stevie’s tone has also passed into legend. The combination of his muscular playing style and his sparse but pristine vintage set-up gave Stevie a distinctive and gripping sound. Perhaps most astonishingly of all, Stevie was known for stringing his guitars with 0.13 gauge strings. Consider now that most players will never go beyond 0.10, and that in most guitar circles, 0.11s is considered almost unwiedily heavy. Using 0.13s then to play anything beyond simple chords requires an almost superhuman strength, which in light of the kind of bending and lightning fretwork which Stevie pioneered, makes his tone the Excalibur of the guitar world.
We wouldn’t recommend this, of course. I mean, who are we to tell you what to do? Do what you want, man. Part of being a beginner is to do and buy shit that you’ll never use, like the time I saved up £70 to buy an e-bow that was totally going to revolutionise my playing style, or using a bizarre mediterranean tuning in a pathetically transparent attempt to be different. Heavier strings are more difficult to play, and while you’ll get a thicker tone from them, your dexterity will be compromised. Unless you have hands like a lumberjack, 0.13s may seriously demotivate you. So don’t do it. Or do, whatever. We don’t care.
SRV was a highly idiosyncratic player in terms of his playing. Watch any live video of his, paying attention to his picking hand. Notice how he bears down on the strings from a height. There’s a real and spell-binding aggression to the way he plays. This may incite the yoke of guitar teachers who preach the benefits of a more controlled and even picking style (of which there are many). It made him the guitarist he was however, and there’s a lot to be learned from him.
Stevie, like any musician, was a product of his influences. He synthesised elements of traditional Blues with the brawny Texas Blues of his home state. Few would dispute however, that his ‘primary’ influence was Albert King. This shines through in Stevie’s monster bending technique, which we will take a look at in the following exercises of increasing difficulty.
This lick is a good example of how to switch between your pentatonic boxes while bending, which is a way of playing that is perhaps not immediately obviously.
Following from the idea of the first exercise, this chromatic bending has became somewhat of a hallmark of Stevie’s playing. Note how he bends up a half-step on a major 3rd, which creates a very particular sound. This is a wonderful move to absorb into your vocabulary, but use it sparingly – it’s unmistakably Stevie!
Here is a lovely style of bending which you’ll find among Stevie’s slow blues solos. Although the note choice isn’t all that different from the previous two examples, the ‘train wreck’ effect is produced by bending two strings simultaneously. Multi-string bending sounds quite difficult, but it really only requires a slight alteration of your fingers. Simply leave more room at your fingertips to grasp the B string along with the high E. As always, be mindful of your intonation.
Need more inspiration? Watch this video where SRV discusses his influences and playing style. We’ve also got lots of free lessons and articles that go deeper into the concepts behind SRV’s music like guitar zen exercises, our app that listens to music and tells you the chords, as well as how to transition smoothly between guitar chords.