But on Live at C-Boy's, released in September via Proper Records, Vaughan is also charting new territory. It's the first time he's been recorded leading a Hammond B-3 organ trio. In conversation with the Observer, he says he grew up listening to organ trios on the radio and occasionally playing with them at clubs in Dallas.
"That was real popular around town," Vaughan says. "Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff were on the radio. KNOK played it, and WRR played it late at night."
Vaughan started playing guitar at age 12. By 13, he was known across Dallas and was sitting in at clubs such as Gringo's, which had open jam sessions Sunday afternoons led by a Hammond B-3 organist.
"Sometimes, our parents would take us to try and sit in at some of these places in Dallas," Vaughan says. "And there were several B-3 trios."
That was more than 50 years ago, and Vaughan says he's forgotten many of the musicians he played with in those days. But he's sure Jerry Fisher and the Nightbeats were among them. Fisher later joined Blood, Sweat & Tears as lead singer.
By age 15, Vaughan was making money playing rock-and-roll in clubs and at frat parties across DFW. But after seeing Muddy Waters perform at The Family Circle in Dallas in 1968, Vaughan turned his back on rock and began focusing on blues. At 19, he moved to Oakland, and three months later, he relocated permanently to Austin.
In the mid-1970s Vaughan met harmonica ace Kim Wilson. Along with Fort Worth drummer Mike Buck and Houston bassist Keith Ferguson, they formed the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The T-Birds quickly became the band to see on the blues circuit. Vaughan inspired hundreds of guitarists to trade in their Les Pauls for vintage Stratocasters. Everyone from Robin Trower and Buddy Guy to Eric Clapton and Jimmy Rogers praised his stinging, understated style.
"I saw him when he first came to Boston, and it tore my head off," Ronnie Earl told Guitar Player in 1986. "To this day, I have never been affected like that. I wanted to take my guitar and throw it out the window."
The T-Birds scored a hit album with 1986's Tuff Enuff. In June 1990, a newly sober Vaughan left the band, saying he was tired of the road. By then, he had started recording an album with his little brother, Stevie. When Stevie died in a helicopter crash in 1990, it sent Vaughan into near seclusion for several years. He made only a handful of public appearances.
"Jimmie's style is just like an ice pick. It's so direct. For me, as a player, I had to learn how to play with him because he's on such a high level. You feel like the bullshit detector is going off as soon as you start soloing." – Mike Flanigin
His 1994 solo debut, Strange Pleasure, is the first indication that Vaughan remembered the Hammond B-3 music that he listened to in Dallas. He recruited former King Records session musician Bill Willis to play organ in his newly christened Tilt-A-Whirl Band, which also featured a horn section.
"That was all B-3 based," Vaughan says. "I was always interested in getting away from the electric bass. I was interested in playing with the string bass or the organ. It's just a cool sound, and I always loved that because I remember hearing it when I was a kid."
By the time Willis died in 2010, Vaughan had met and begun playing with some of the musicians featured on his new album, including organist and Denton native Mike Flanigin and drummer Barry "Frosty" Smith. Before the album's release, Smith was best known for drumming with Lee Michaels, who had a smash hit in 1971 with "Do You Know What I Mean?"
"I saw him when I was a teenager," Vaughan says. "I went to the Fillmore in California and saw Lee Michaels. And I saw [Smith] playing with him."
Originally a guitarist, Flanigin became obsessed with the sound of the Hammond B-3 organ late in life. He tracked down Big John Patton and persuaded the organ great to give him lessons. By 2008, Flanigin and Smith were playing club gigs with a rotating cast of Austin guitar greats, including Johnny Moeller, Denny Freeman, Jake Langley, Gary Clark Jr. and Derek O'Brien. Vaughan occasionally attended these gigs.
"He's really come around on the B-3," Vaughan says of Flanigin. Since 2010, Vaughan and Flanigin have played together nearly every weekend the guitarist is in Austin. "I just couldn't ever really find people that wanted to play [this] until now," Vaughan says.
Flanigin says Vaughan welcomed the challenge of playing in a trio and learning tunes outside his blues background.
"We started playing some jazzier material. And Jimmie had to find a way to navigate that in his way," Flanigin says. "And a lot of his influence was coming from [jazz tenor saxophonist] Gene Ammons, not from guitar players. He would emulate Gene Ammons — the slurs, every nuance. He's very conversational when he plays."
Playing with Vaughan also challenged Flanigin.
"Jimmie's style is just like an ice pick," he says. "It's so direct. For me, as a player, I had to learn how to play with him because he's on such a high level. You feel like the bullshit detector is going off as soon as you start soloing."
Live at C-Boy's features three musicians comfortable playing soul jazz, blues and virtually everything in between.
"We do Frankie Lee Sims and Gatemouth Brown. We do all of the stuff that you wouldn't normally do with a trio. But somehow it works," Vaughan says. "Plus, we can kind of throw in the more jazzy things. They're not really jazz. But they're jazzy."
Vaughan still takes guitar lessons. He says they help him navigate the tricky chord changes of the trio's jazzier tunes.
"There are several guys around town that are really great jazz players. I never really play jazz. But I know all about blues because I always loved that. But there's definitely a bridge going there across," he says. "It's really just the same thing I've always been interested in. But it's just expanding on that."
Vaughan says the trio has helped him improve as a guitarist. "It pushes me in a different direction. It's always a learning thing. I have to learn stuff that I'm not necessarily comfortable with. So that's good.
"It allows me to go over here on this side and hear things differently," he continues. "When I was in the T-Birds, that was a trio, except when [Kim Wilson] played harmonica. It was bass, drums and guitar. I've always been interested in that. And it's from listening to Jimmy Smith records and Jack McDuff."
Flanigin says playing with Vaughan is a Hammond B-3 player's dream.
"He's the best rhythm player in the world. Any genre," Flanigin says. "It's like having another drummer. If he stops playing rhythm, the bottom falls out. He's just like a metronome. And when he solos, you still feel it. You still feel that rhythm playing. He's always playing rhythm, even if he's soloing. And I'm not meaning he's hitting chords. The way he plays is so rhythmic, it keeps the rhythm happening at all times.
"When I'm soloing and he's playing behind me, there's no better feeling in the world because he is just the greatest rhythm player. He's a lock."
At least one of the songs on the album brings back memories of Vaughan's childhood in Dallas.
"When I was a kid. I remember [Phil Upchurch's] 'You Can't Sit Down,'" he says. "I used to ride my bicycle up to the Dairy Queen and play that on the jukebox five times in a row."
Live at C-Boy's also serves as a memorial to Smith, who died earlier this year. Vaughan describes his playing on the album as "fantastic."
"Frosty really knew how to play with an organ trio," he says. "He taught me more about being a musician than anybody else. How to listen. What's the other guy doing? Are you speeding up? What are you saying? Are you getting to the people? Frosty would solo and the room would snap to attention. He was just a great teacher.
"He was so unique. He was such a stylist and so propulsive and inventive. Frosty was the master of dynamics. When you listen to him on 'You Can't Sit Down,' listen to what he's playing on the basic part of the song, how propulsive it is. And then when he takes his solos ... who can do that?"
Flanigin recalls drummers from all over Austin — and in touring bands from around the world — watching Smith play. "They would sit 2 feet from him because he was so unique," Flanigin says. "All the drummers loved watching Frosty."
Fort Worth native George Rains has played in Vaughan's Tilt-A-Whirl Band for more than 20 years. He now mans the drum chair in the organ trio, which could be making a local appearance.
"We'll probably come up to Dallas and play there soon or early next year with the trio," Vaughan says.
He plans to keep gigging with the organ trio and with his Tilt-A-Whirl Band. But he also has another project in mind. Vaughan wants to take a revue on the road that combines his organ trio with a horn section and singers, including Austin soul singer Sam Evans.
But even a bigger band needs to stay true to Vaughan's guiding principle.
"I don't want it to sound busy or complicated," he says. "What I love about music is when everything fits in there and it's not complicated. It's supposed to be grunt, y'know. That's what I want."