Recently StevieSnacks got a very nice mention on an Italian music site, and although the write-up was very positive, Google translate reveals that the comments devolved into a discussion of the merits of copying Stevie Ray Vaughan’s style. Sigh…
I have tried to write this post many times, and each time it came out too sarcastic, and mean-spirited. I always tried to write it as a smack-down to those who criticize players like myself, but that’s not really the kind of energy I want to be putting out from this site.
So I’m attempting to write this again, not to the critics, but to those players, who like myself, care more about playing the style we love than pleasing people who don’t care about us anyway.
In The Beginning
When I discovered the music of SRV, it changed my musical goals in a matter of seconds. The song that got me hooked was “Say What” from a live performance on SNL. It was the first time I felt as if I could not move while watching someone play.
There was no YouTube in those days, so I had no idea that there was a player just like me in every town across the country and in many cities around the world. I truly thought I was the only one. And as a result, I also did not realize the venom that is directed at young players who emulate Stevie’s style of playing.
Had I been exposed to this criticism too early, it may have discouraged me from spending as many hours as I did learning what little I know of this style. Again, I am very thankful I didn’t get out of my dorm room enough to experience this criticism.
Eventually, as I mingled with more, mostly older guitar players, I began to detect a bit of disgust every time the topic of playing like SRV came up in conversation. Later, I found out that some of that criticism was directed at me.
Luckily it was too late for that criticism to greatly affect my playing because I was already rooted in the style that I loved. Unfortunately, I chalked up that criticism to jealousy, which is not always the cause.
If you are like me, and Stevie’s music is the only thing you ever wanted to play, you’ll experience some of this criticism from time to time, and I think it’s important to understand where it comes from. I have no scientific studies to validate what I’m about to say, but chew on it and see if it tastes right to you.
Blues was not dead before Stevie Ray Vaughan came into the spotlight. Disco may have given it a good shot to the chin, but it was not dead. There were people working just as hard trying to make a living playing the music they love before he came on the scene. Blues did not start with Stevie Ray Vaughan either. It’s important to realize the massive size of the blues ‘culture’ before Stevie ever picked up a guitar.
There are also many blues guitarists, Stevie’s age or older, who watched as he soared into the spotlight, receiving credit for reviving music that they had been playing all along. Every genre needs it’s superstars, and the entire genre benefits from the exposure that these players receive.
Due to the penetration of Stevie’s music into the popular consciousness, many young players, like myself, discovered blues through his music. Because of the passion and intensity of his playing, many of us get stuck there. We obsess over his music, and never really soak up the influences from which his style was birthed.
Herein lies the problem. While blues was not created by SRV, for many young players, SRV is the blues. As in, the only blues they care about. I’m preaching to myself here too, so don’t take this too personally. I believe that this breeds resentment over the fact that Stevie’s music has become as a ‘lobby’ or ‘foyer’ for blues music, where people come in, and get stuck, and never explore the rest of the building.
There are other reasons, which I’ll talk about later, but first, let’s talk about what to do with this criticism.
What’s a young kid who wants to play like SRV to do? Should he give up the pursuit that he loves to appease those who don’t approve? Absolutely not. I’d rather stop playing guitar than to give anyone that much power over what I do.
If you want to play like SRV, then by all means, tackle that pursuit with everything you’ve got. Ignore the critics and get all that your heart can hold or your fingers can bear. As you learn to play the music you love, you’ll be more happy than anyone who criticizes, but don’t expect them to realize that. Do it because you love it, not because you want to please anybody.
Be a good driver
Don’t fall into that trap of thinking that blues starts and stops with SRV. His music might always be what moves you the most. You might never fully enjoy the stripped down early blues of Muddy Waters. But don’t ever get stuck in that awful routine of criticizing anyone who’s playing isn’t as powerful and ferocious as Stevie’s was.
Keep in mind that this style of playing is like driving an 18 wheeler on the highway. Nobody wants to drive on a road full of trucks, so by adopting this style, you run the risk of contributing to an overcrowded roadway full of big, mean, aggressive players.
That does not mean that you shouldn’t aspire to do it. But it does mean that you should attempt to become the most responsible, skilled driver that you can be, learning how to drive responsibly around other cars. Don’t look down on people who choose to drive less powerful vehicles, don’t push them off the road in your haste, don’t try to overpower them, and most of all, give them space to drive the way they want to.
Nobody likes a jerk. And no matter what you do, some people will assume that if you play with a heavy attack, big strings, and with lots of raking, you must be a jerk who only cares about showing off and playing over everyone else.
That might be totally undeserved, but there’s a reason that this stereotype exists. For years, players who emulated Stevie’s style have attempted to grab the spotlight at blues jams, played more loudly than everyone else, and generally, acted like we’re God’s gift to guitar playing. We’ve talked down to players who don’t play as fast or as aggressively as we do. And in many cases, we never learn to see the value in more reserved styles of playing.
Lastly, I think it’s important to recognize and appreciate diversity in blues guitar styles. You don’t have to listen to any music you don’t like, but once you recognize that this diversity is what keeps Stevie’s style so distinct, it frees you up to appreciate music that is nothing like his. It frees you up to truly appreciate someone who has the guts to play a more reserved style, treating each notes as if it costs money.
Me? I’ll be perfectly happy playing the music and style that I love for the rest of my life, and I’ll never let anyone discourage me from doing that. But I’ll also try to make sure that I honor the beauty of other styles of playing, making the stage big enough for everyone.