April 17, 2020
I met Kenny backstage at a festival in Canada. The airline had lost his luggage that included his pedals, and I scraped together a Boss Delay and Blues Driver for him to use that day with Marty Stuart. This the the un-edited version of the interview that appeared in the December 2006 issue of Vintage Guitar Magazine.
Born in a suburb of Denver, Kenny Vaughan is one of the top guitarists in Nashville today. Vaughan is unusual in that seeing Jeff Beck with the Yardbirds was just as great an influence as hearing the low-end twang of Luther Perkins playing with Johnny Cash. He has absorbed the playing of everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Bill Frissell and lesser-known player such as Hollywood Fats. Artists as diverse as Lucinda Williams to Patty Loveless and current honcho Marty Stuart, call upon him to deliver the goods. Vaughan played on all 3 of Stuart’s recent albums: Live At The Ryman, Soul’s Chapel and Badlands: Ballads Of The Lakota. (All 3 were reviewed in the VG June 2006 issue.) Vaughan is the guitar player to call when tone, technique, and vibe are needed. Kenny is all groove, delivered with panache.
VG: How did you start playing the guitar?
KV: I saw the Beatles play on the Ed Sullivan Show on my 10th birthday. I thought it looked like fun. My Dad had a hefty Jazz record collection, and when I told him I wanted to be a guitar player he took me down to see Johnny Smith play guitar at a nightclub in Denver. I would sit down in front of him and my Dad would say; “Now that’s how you play a guitar.”
VG: What was your first guitar?
KV: It was a brand new ’66 Telecaster I bought from Johnny Smith. I was 12. I then started taking lessons from a couple of local guys.
VG: What were some of the bands you were listening to?
KV: Fortunately for me, ’66 was about the greatest year for rock-n-roll. My heroes were The Animals, The Kinks, and The Yardbirds. When I heard "Having A Rave Up With The Yardbirds," with Jeff Beck on side one, I just flipped out. I just saw that guy with the red strap holding the Esquire, and just knew he was the guy. Then I saw them on Shindig. Jeff Beck was doing all of this crazy stuff. He was banging his guitar against the drum riser, and ramming it into the amplifier. He was making all sorts of cool sounds. My Mom and Dad listened to Les Paul and Mary Ford and I recognized “Jeff’s Boogie,” as being like Les Paul.
VG: When did you first get exposed to Country Music?
KV: I had a neighbor across the street that had some Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard records. First thing I learned to play on my Tele was “Folsom Prison Blues.” My neighbor would come over everyday after school and make me play the guitar lick to it over and over again.
VG: What came next?
KV: I saw Jimi Hendrix play in ’68. So of courseI had to get a fuzz tone. He really blew my mind. I ended up seeing him play 3 times throughout his career. I also saw Cream, and most of the San Francisco bands play. I saw Howlin’ Wolf when I was 14. That was a big eyeopener. I also got into Mike Bloomfield in the Butterfield Band. I also saw Led Zeppelin play the first night they played in the states. They weren’t even on the bill. I got to see a lot of cool bands play in Denver.
VG: What about the 70’s.
KV: Most of the local guys got into fusion, but I just couldn’t get into it. I was listening to Iggy Pop, and stuff like that. Then I met Bill Frissell working at the local music store giving lessons. I took some lessons from him and he helped me figure out the fingerboard. I liked him because he was a Jazzer, but he didn’t really like fusion, but he didn’t want to end up playing standards all night.
VG: Were you playing gigs at this time?
KV: I started playing country music. Most of my friends were wearing uniforms playing at the Holiday Inn in Nebraska for 4 weeks straight. It sounded like a ticket to hell to me. So I started playing honky tonk music with a bunch of older players that I thought were cool. They played Telecasters through Twin Reverbs, with the reverb turned up too high, and they were all good musicians. I was kind of the weirdo punk rock kid, but they liked me cause I was into playing guitar, and the music we played. So I survived the 70’s doing that. I also had a punk rock band I played in at the same time.
VG: Did you continue that into the next decade?
KV: Pretty much. I got a call about 1985 to fill in for a guitar player in Nashville, and ended up moving there and never moved back to Denver.
VG: Who was your first professional gig with in Nashville?
KV: Sweethearts of the Rodeo, then I played with Patty Loveless, Rodney Crowell, and Kim Richey. I quit going on the road for a while to do sessions, then Lucinda Williams called me to go on tour with her. I played with her for about 3 years then went back to session work.
VG: What gear did you move to town with?
KV: I had a ’63 Esquire, ’66 Strat, mid 60’s top boost AC 30, and a Tweed Pro. When I started playing with Patty Loveless, I bought a black face Fender Twin. About that time I started getting some guitars from G&L and Music Man. I still use my G&L Asat, and Music Man Albert Lee guitars.
VG: Tell us about your Floyd guitars.
KV: I was playing downtown Nashville with Don Kelly, and he handed me this guitar and said, “get rid of that piece of junk and play a real guitar.” Don sold it to me, and I have been playing them ever since. I have a couple of them, a green thin line with a Bigsby, and a baritone. I just got one with custom Lindy Fralin pickups in a kind of cream color.
VG: How did you start playing with Marty Stuart?
KV: He called me up. He wanted to put a band together and asked me if I was interested.
VG: What’s it like playing with such a strong guitar and mandolin player such as Stuart?
KV: Its fun! We have a solid 4-piece band, and we throw it down. We have over 100 songs that we can do at the drop of a hat. We can play anything from a performing arts hall, to a honky tonk, to a church on Sunday morning and we just press go.
VG: What’s your on stage rig with Marty?
KV: I use a ’64 Vibroverb, and a ’65 Showman with a 15’ speaker. Sometimes I use an amp that Ky Kennedy built that is based on a late 50’s twin.
VG: Is that the red amp you have with “Big Jo” on the grill?
KV: Yes it is. I use it a lot on the Opry and for local club gigs. I also use a 4-12 50-watt Naylor amp. I have been trying out a new Peavey amp called a Penta.
VG: What is your studio rig?
KV: A ’66 Deluxe, Princeton, ’71 Marshall PA 20, and a Dr. Z Carmen Ghia head. I plug them into a Vox AC 30 cab with Celestion Vintage 30’s. I met Dr.Z years ago at a theatre in Cleveland. He brought out a couple of his amps for me to try. He is one of the nicest guys.
VG: What other guitars do you use in the studio?
KV: I use a custom shop Les Paul with Lindy Fralin pickups, a Harmony with flat-wounds, a Hagstrom with a whammy bar, a ’59 Meteor, and a Teisco Spectrum 4. I really like using the old Harmony guitars with flat-wounds along with the more modern style guitars with round wound strings. I think they blend well. I also have an old Gretsch, and a Guild X175. Also the Albert Lee guitar, which is like a great hard-tail Strat.
VG: What about pedals?
KV: I like the old Dallas Rangemaster with my Marshall. It’s the only way to punch up the front end of an old Marshall. Everything else seems to mess with that great Marshall attack. I also like the MXR Micro Amp to use with single coils in front of a Fender amp. I could play just about any gig with a Boss Blues Driver and a Boss Delay though. I have an old Fuzz Face, but it's like trying to tune in a radio station from 500 miles away. I like to use the Captain Cocoanut for the fuzz and Hendrix thing.
VG: Who are some of your favorite players?
KV: I was listening to Roy Latham on the way over here. If I could play like anyone it would be Hollywood Fats. His version of Okie Dokie Stomp can’t be beat. I also love guys like Jimmy Bryant and Roy Nichols. Roy was the guy as far as country players in the 70’s. He played great licks but also had jazz chops.
VG: What about some up and coming players?
KV: James Mitchell. James plays downtown Nashville and will scare the crap out of you. He’ll play a solo, and you think he is going to do a Brent Mason thing, and he twists it into some Lenny Breau stuff. Guthrie Trapp is another favorite. He’s a Holly wood Fats guy also. He’s a great player.