Collecting Stevie Ray Vaughan Guitar Picks
by Craig Hopkins
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Craig Hopkins is the author of three books on Stevie Ray Vaughan and was recognized with the Blues Foundation’s KBA Award for Literature in 2009 for the biography he published after 18 years of research. He is internationally regarded as an expert on Vaughan memorabilia. The comprehensive biography (432 pages, 970 illustrations), Stevie Ray Vaughan: Day By Day, Night After Night, is available through www.StevieRay.com.
Stevie Ray Vaughan is considered one of the greatest electric guitar players of all time in virtually every poll of the past twenty years. Ranked in the company of other legends Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, it is no surprise that Stevie’s guitar picks are among the most collectible and valuable.
The photograph accompanying this article shows twenty-six SRV picks. Seventeen of these picks constitute the only complete collection of Stevie’s custom picks in the world, to my knowledge. Nine of the picks in the photo are either duplicates or “non-SRV” picks used by Stevie. Sixteen of the picks in this collection were actually used by Stevie. I’m not sure how I went from wanting just one SRV pick to having over two dozen. “Hmm. I don’t have that color…” Once you have the second one, you want all of them. But I suppose if you are reading this article I don’t have to explain how that goes.
I. The Early Years: 1965-1981
Stevie’s first public performance may have been June 26, 1965, when he was ten years old. Not surprisingly, he went through many bands (twenty-two according to my count) before having any custom guitar picks. For purposes of this article “custom” refers to picks with his name on them. He developed a preference for medium gauge picks at some point during this time.
In those early years Stevie would use whatever pick was available, just as you probably did when you began to play. Pick collectors probably know more than I do about picks that would have been readily available to youngsters in the sixties and seventies. Being primarily a fingerpicker in my early playing days I didn’t pay much attention to flat picks. In almost twenty years of collecting Stevie’s picks, I am not aware of any of Stevie’s picks from this era being confirmed to exist. At this point there would probably be no way to confirm that any particular pick belonged to or was used by Stevie prior to 1981. You could only consider the source, assess their veracity and either take it on faith or not.
II. The “STEVIE RAY” Picks: ca. 1981-1983
According to his roadies Cutter and Donnie, Stevie started getting custom picks in 1981 (July according to Cutter). Cutter said Lenny Vaughan wanted to make jewelry out of the picks to sell along with tee shirts, etc. Lenny got money from management and ordered baby blue (some would say turquoise) picks with “STEVIE RAY” in black letters on two lines. They were ordered through Ray Hennig at Heart of Texas Music in Austin. Donnie said they were probably made by either Ernie Ball or D’Addario. Again, you pick collectors could probably enlighten me as to what companies were supplying most of the custom picks in the early ‘80s. Donnie commented that they could only order one bag of picks at a time because Stevie didn’t have any money. (The first record was not released until mid-1983.)
These were the thinnest of Stevie’s custom picks, but I would still call them mediums. During this time Stevie was playing several clubs in Texas where he had a significant following. In addition to the pins Lenny was making, female fans would sometimes pick up Stevie’s discarded picks from the stage and make earrings out of them. It is interesting that the custom picks were originally an idea for merchandise as much as for Stevie to use.
Yellow picks of the same design came next and were definitely mediums, as were almost all the other custom picks. The lettering on these first two varieties was relatively thin and compact. The third custom pick was tortoise shell, again with only “STEVIE RAY” on two lines, this time in white letters.
Cutter recalled that Lenny had some heavy, red “STEVIE RAY” picks that she used for pins, but Stevie did not use them. It seems more appropriate to put them in a category with tee shirts and other souvenir merchandise rather than stage equipment or gear. Therefore I do not count this pick as one of Stevie’s picks. You may disagree.
III. The “STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN” Picks: 1984-1990
Unfortunately we are only talking about a six-year period because Stevie was killed in a helicopter crash in the early morning hours of August 27, 1990. During these six years, Stevie had fourteen more custom pick varieties, bringing the total to seventeen.
The chronology of these picks is difficult to establish. These fourteen varieties probably represent a minimum of nine separate orders, which means picks were probably ordered every few months. Certainly there was a lot of overlap, and although some photographs reveal which variety he was using on a particular night, it is difficult to assign specific date ranges to each variety. The bright red picks were probably the last ones made, but Stevie used a white pick (variety unknown) during the last song he ever played, and it is believed he had a translucent blue pick in his pocket. By 1986 there was a mix of pick varieties in the pockets of his clothes, in the guitar cases, and in the roadies’ cases. The dates which can be approximated are stated below.
A. Tortoise shell – The first pick with his full name was probably the tortoise shell with white lettering on three lines. It is a highly desirable pick among collectors because of its relative rarity and the contrast of the thick white letters against the tortoise shell color. Some of the tortoise shell picks are very dark which may mean a different batch but not a different style.
B. Red, white and blue times two – Stevie had two different sets of solid red, solid white and solid blue picks, accounting for six pick varieties. These are considered “sets” because photos reveal all three colors on Stevie’s microphone stand at the same time. The difference between the two sets is the lettering. Both sets have his name on two lines, but one set has wider letters – a more rounded font. The other set has a more oblong font making the letters appear thinner and taller. In the former set, the red and white picks feature gold letters, and the blue picks had silver letters. In the latter set, all three had gold letters. The silver and gold lettering is sometimes difficult to distinguish because wear and environmental factors can cause gold to appear silver over time. The red picks vary in shade, perhaps due to being from a different batch or just ageing differently due to environmental factors. The blue picks in both sets are translucent. There may have been red picks with silver letters, but at present it is unconfirmed whether those were made in the 1980s or after 1990.
C. Purple – These are the oddballs of the whole bunch, and the ones which have caused the most rumor and speculation. The purple picks have “D’Addario Delrins HEAVY .043” on the back – the only custom pick with anything on the back. They are the only heavy custom SRV picks. A rumor was started in the mid-1990s that Stevie did not like these picks and therefore there were only one gross (144) made. The story that Stevie did not like these picks seems overstated because a number of these picks exist showing a great amount of wear (the Delrins plastic is relatively soft). At this point in Stevie’s career, if he did not like them he could easily have tossed the whole bag rather than continue to use them. Some have claimed that the purple picks are particularly rare. However, based on the picks that have been on the market in the past nineteen years, I would say the purple picks have been among the five most common of the seventeen varieties.
D. Multicolor picks – Not to be confused with the “confetti” picks described below, the “multi” picks are regarded by many as the prettiest of Stevie’s picks, and can be found in a range of color combinations of blue, green, pink, red, brown and white. Some of the multi picks are almost a solid color, green and blue being the predominant colors. The multicolor picks have either white or gold lettering on three lines. Multies are the most common of all the SRV picks. Stevie is known to have used these in 1985-86 and possibly as early as late 1984.
E. “Confetti” picks – As opposed to the “multies” described above, these picks have a mix of only red, white, blue and black. The color mix is relatively uniform among the four colors, as opposed to the infinite variety of the multies. The confetti picks have either gold or silver lettering. According to a music store receipt, these picks were ordered by René Martinez while on the road in the summer of 1989. The story is that Stevie wanted red, white and blue picks with gold letters, and this was the closest that could be supplied. The first batch with silver letters was in error, so the company reordered to get the gold lettering. I believe the silver lettering is more rare. Again, be aware gold lettering can appear silver over time.
F. White picks – In addition to the two varieties of white picks which were part of the red, white and blue sets, Stevie had solid white picks with his name on three lines. The gold lettering is relatively bold.
G. Red and white for the blues brothers – These are bright red picks with Stevie’s name in white letters on three lines. Because Stevie’s brother had identical picks with his name, these may have been made while they were recording the Family Style album in 1990. There was speculation that these are fakes created in the ‘90s, but I know Stevie’s mother had some of these picks and there is no reason to suspect she would have come across fake picks.
IV. Wear and use by Stevie
Stevie held picks in an unconventional manner, playing with the “fat,” more rounded corner rather than the “pointy” end. Doing so makes a significant difference in tone. I am not sure when Stevie developed this style of playing but even the earliest baby blue custom picks were worn on the fat end. I have seen those picks significantly misshapen from extremely heavy use. Perhaps he was just wailing away on his “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”/ “Third Stone From the Sun” medley. On the other hand, it is not difficult to believe Stevie was experimenting with reshaping the pick. Then again, maybe he was just running out of picks and used some longer.
The picks in my collection and that I sell as having been used by Stevie all came from either Stevie’s roadie or his former fiancée. Those are the only sources from which I can confidently say the wear on the pick was caused by Stevie. I get a lot of correspondence from fans claiming to have caught picks at concerts, but I cannot authenticate any of those picks as having been used by Stevie. Most of the picks Stevie handed to fans backstage or elsewhere were unused.
V. The Miscellaneous Used Picks
You can see a number of picks in the photograph that do not have Stevie’s name on them. These picks were used by Stevie and obtained from a roadie or his fiancée. These include a plain Fender medium, Eugene’s Guitars (a guitar shop in Oak Cliff where Stevie grew up), Texas Guitar Prod. (the guitar show started by Charley Wirz to whom “Life Without You” is dedicated), Charley’s Guitar Shop (Dallas), H.O.T. Music (Heart of Texas Music in Austin), and a Doyle Bramhall II “Where’s the Food” pick, probably from around the time Doyle was in the Fabulous Thunderbirds. There is also one from Guitarix in Tokyo when Stevie played there in 1985. Of course, Stevie had countless other picks that he picked up (no pun intended) along his travels.
Of these miscellaneous picks, I believe the Heart of Texas and Charley’s picks are the most historically interesting because those were Stevie’s two primary guitar shops. He obtained guitars and equipment at both shops. In fact, the earliest custom picks were ordered through Heart of Texas Music. Stevie obtained his famous “Number One” guitar from H.O.T., and the white guitar on the cover of Couldn’t Stand the Weather came from Charley’s.
VI. Rarity and Values
As with most collectibles, the older items are usually more difficult to find. I am not aware of any records which reveal exact quantities of any of Stevie’s picks, so I can only relate what I have seen on the market and in collections in the 1990’s thru 2010’s. In my experience, the “Stevie Ray” picks are the most difficult to find, followed by the bright red, tortoise shell and translucent blue. The most common are white and multicolor followed by confetti and the darker red.
I am always reluctant to suggest values because the market is fluid. Any dollar amount stated could be quickly outdated. It is fair to say, however, that Stevie’s custom picks have not suffered the decrease in value that most other SRV memorabilia had starting after 2000. Stevie’s autographs and guitar picks continue to be investment-grade collectibles.
Around 1992 or so, one of Stevie’s roadies set up a booth at the Austin Record Convention to sell posters, picks and other items he had collected while on the road with Stevie from 1983-1985. He had a large jar full of picks he was selling for $5 each! Even more shocking is that I did not buy any! By the mid-1990s Stevie’s picks were selling for $50 to $100 each. In a magazine article that suggested purple picks were particularly rare it was also stated that the value was $300 — double what Stevie’s picks were actually selling for, but it certainly made the price go up. By the end of the decade they were $150-$300.
Since about 2004 Stevie’s picks have been going for $300 and up, and significantly more if they were used by Stevie. The fair market value of Stevie’s custom picks peaked (temporarily) in a range from $400 to $750. The economic downturn which began in 2007 dropped the low price to $300-350. The multies, though relatively easier to find, usually bring higher prices because they are often thought to be the prettiest. The few used picks available have been selling for $1000 to $1500.
In 2009 one of Stevie’s roadies found some of Stevie’s miscellaneous picks, mostly the H.O.T., Charley’s and plain Fender mediums. They do not have Stevie’s name on them and so are not as valuable, but they were part of Stevie’s pick supply and in that sense are genuine Stevie Ray Vaughan picks. I would consider an SRV pick collection complete with the seventeen custom varieties.
VII. Fakes and “Tribute” Picks
As with any valuable collectible, fakes dominate the market. Most if not all the varieties have been bootlegged. For a long time the multies were the safest bet because the material was more difficult to come by, but I have seen them bootlegged too. For a while, the confetti picks were thought to all be fake, until I found a gentleman who worked at the store and has the receipt from when the picks were ordered in the summer of 1989. Among the fakes which do not correspond to any of Stevie’s custom picks are those which are solid black, solid green, and various colors with a lowercase “i.” There are also a lot of fake solid white and dark blue (as opposed to translucent) picks.
Among the “tribute” picks that people sell are picks with only Stevie’s initials, pictures of Stevie printed on them, the SRV logo, caricatures, drawings, the years of his life (1954-1990), etc. There are more all the time. In my opinion they are all virtually worthless. If you think it’s a cool novelty item and want to spend a dollar on them, fine, but don’t be deceived into thinking that they are valuable collectibles.
VIII. The Mystery Pick
There is one pick I saw a few times in the 1990s which is currently believed to be fake. It is a tortoise shell pick with Stevie’s full name in gold lettering. I have asked Stevie’s roadies, and no one can confirm that Stevie had custom picks like that. None of this style showed up in the possession of his roadies, fiancée or mother. I will continue to consider these fakes unless someone can convince me otherwise.