veryone has their short lists of musical preferences — favorite songs, greatest jazz album, all that. If you really want to incite a verbal riot, announce loudly that you think Ringo Starr is a great drummer (I do, and it does. Later, maybe.) But talk about guitarists, and on anyone’s top ten list, six, maybe seven of the names will be the same small group. And, if not at the top, very near it, will be Stevie Ray Vaughan; every single time.
Personally, I think Eric Clapton has greater technical prowess; Mark Knopfler has more style, and Chet Atkins had more grace and overall ability than all of ’em. But Stevie played with a passion to match Clapton’s hottest fire on nearly every recording he made. Clapton impresses; listen to “Motherless Children” or “After Midnight” and you know you’re hearing a master. Knopfler delights; hearing “What It Is” or “Skateaway” you know he’s grinning from ear to ear, because so are you. Chet inspires; he and Les Paul playing “Birth of the Blues” makes me wish I could, and his duet with Knopfler “Tahitian Skies” makes me know I could. But when Stevie Ray Vaughan is ‘on’, really playing what he feels, you feel it all the way to your core.
When he recorded “Lenny” on his first album “Texas Flood“, he was on.
Lenny was his wife, Lenora. Lenny was his guitar, a Fender Stratocaster with a maple neck and lighter than usual strings. Lenny is half blues, half jazz, half rock; all three halves graceful, stylish, technically brilliant; but mostly, “Lenny” wordlessly grabs my heart every time I hear it. It constantly amazes me that so much emotion can be conveyed with music alone.
The opening chords are jazz, pure and simple, but right away, Vaughan starts playing with it, establishing a melody and then immediately dropping out for a bar while the bass carries the tune. Now wandering up the neck of the guitar, pausing now and then to let us catch up or wonder where he’s heading; letting the silence build anticipation. Back around to the melody, but shorter, just a bit more punch; then off again, up the neck and then back down to the lowest notes on the guitar, bouncing and flexing to squeeze every drop from that low ‘E’ string, then flying up to the high ‘E’ just so you don’t forget it’s there, and then, my favorite spot in the song. A flattened, buzzed note; from most players, you’d think it was a mistake, but Vaughan has just taken us on a tour of the entire fretboard, and now, in the midst of the only screaming high notes in the journey, he throws in something personal; something other than what you expected to find. And it’s perfect.
Then, back down to the melody, slower, sweeter, and to the finale, just as slow; just as sweet, ending right where we began, except for the final two notes, gently chimed from the center of Lenny’s sweet maple neck.