SRV Guitars, Tone & Gear

STEVIE RAY’S KING TONE

The first two secrets to Stevie’s tone are his passion and hands. A distant third is equipment, including a rare Dumble Steel String Slinger (now over $200,000 if you can find one). So, in my opinion as an amateur guitarist, you are likely defeated before you begin in your quest for his tone. For those who are interested, the following is the best I can do for you in answering gear questions. If you have reliable information which should be added here, feel free to send me the information with appropriate credit. Please DO NOT ask me gear questions. I am not a gear nut.

My effort has been to focus on gear used from 1985-1990. While Stevie used dozens of other guitars and pieces of equipment, this page is not meant to be a complete history of his gear. In the 1960’s, Stevie went through a number of guitars, a few being hand-me-downs or borrowed: Gibson Messenger, 1952 Fender Broadcaster, 1954 Gibson Les Paul T.V., 1952 Gibson Les Paul gold-top, Gibson Barney Kessel from 1972 to 1975, 1959 Gibson dot-neck 335. He also had 1963 maple neck Strat during his high school years, but it gave him a lot of trouble, and he mainly used the other guitars until he got his famous guitar he called simply Number One.

Sources for this page include:
Guitar Player Repair Guide by Dan Erlewine based on his inspection of Number One in 11-89 and discussion with Rene Martinez.
Guitar World 9-97 interview of Rene Martinez by Andy Aledort.
Guitar World 9-95 article by Ritchie Fliegler from interviews with Cesar Diaz and Rene Martinez.
Guitar Player’s Legends of Guitar, summer 1995, Dan Forte 1984 interview with Stevie; 1989 Gore/Resnicoff interview with Stevie.
Guitar World 9-94 Alan DiPerna interview with producer Jim Gaines.
Guitar Player 1-04 Barry Cleveland report on inspection of Number One.
Other sources include roadie Cutter Brandenburg re “Butter” and “Scotch” and roadie Byron Barr.

GUITARS

NUMBER ONE

A Fender Stratocaster acquired by Stevie in 1974 from Ray Hennig’s Heart of Texas Music, Austin, Texas. For the complete story on the acquisition as told by Ray, see The Essential Stevie Ray Vaughan or Stevie Ray Vaughan: Day by Day, Night After Night.

Age: Number One was disassembled by Fender Custom Shop employees in 2003, and they stated that the neck is from December ’62 and the body is a ’63. So, Number One can rightly be called a ’63 Strat. Pickups are 1959, which is why Stevie referred to it as a ’59.

Neck size: Nut width is the typical 1-5/8″, and the neck profile is “D.” (thanks to Bob Sickler) 

Neck adjustment: .012″ relief at the 7th and 9th frets, leveling out for the remainder of the fingerboard.

Fret wire: .11″ wide by .047″ tall. Original height likely .055″. No particular brand or size of fretwire – the tallest bead and smallest tang that would fit in the fingerboard without damaging it. They were not bass frets. In the early to mid-80’s the fret wire was Dunlop 6100.

Fingerboard: Veneer rosewood (all other rosewood fingerboard Strats of Stevie’s had slab-boards). Radius is flatter than the standard vintage 7.25″ radius due to at least two refrets, creating a 9″ or 10″ radius in the upper register.

String height: High action for clear, ringing tone. At the 12th fret: 5/64″ on the treble E, 7/64″ on the bass E. Each string with three full winds on the tuning machines for best angle at the nut.

String guage: GHS Nickel Rockers .013, .015, .019 (plain), .028, .038 and .058. Stevie would use .011 E’s when his fingers were sore. Always tuned down a half-step.

Saddles: vintage replacement saddles, not matched, modified to increase the angle of the string break over the contact point to reduce string breakage. The strings were also run through a small piece of plastic tubing from inside the tremolo block hole beyond the saddle contact point, also to reduce string breakage. The block/bridge top plate is also ground to elminate the sharp edge where the string contacts the metal.

Nut: Fender-style, but made of bone. (Brass nut on Scotch and Red for studio work)

Tremolo: stainless steel Fender tremolo bar (cotton at the bottom of the block hole to ease removal of broken bars). Graphite and grease lubricant on all moving parts and contact points. The lefty bar is non-original to the guitar. Stevie used all five springs on the tremolo. In photos from 1983-85 one can see a much heavier guage tremolo bar on Number One. These were made by Stevie’s roadie’s father. Some were straight (as in the photos from the In Session recording with Albert King) and some were bent (as used at the El Mocambo in 1983). Approximately ten of these custom bars were made either to reduce the number of broken tremolo arms (Stevie still broke them), or merely because the threads in the left-hand trem block were stripped and retapped requiring the larger gauge.

Pickup height: on the treble side – very high. Laying a metal rule on the frets, the bridge pickup touched the rule, the middle pickup almost touched it, and the neck pickup was 1/16″ from the rule. On the bass side, bridge 1/32″, middle 1/16″, and 1/32″ neck.

Tuners: started with original, but were replaced at least twice. 

Miscellaneous: The gold-plated hardware was not added until late ’85 or early ’86.
Five-way pickup switch is non-original to the guitar.

Pots: stock Fender 250k. In the last tone position, a push-pull pot to cut down on hum, a dummy coil to prevent buzz, and different value capacitors to preserve the original tone.

Which neck? Prior to July 1990, the original neck from Number One was retired because it couldn’t take another refret job. The original ’62 neck from “Red” was put on Number One (Red’s neck was changed to a non-Fender left handed neck in 1986). It was the “Red” neck (sorry) which was broken into pieces by a falling sound baffle after a show in New Jersey. After that, Number One had a new Fender neck until after Stevie died when the original Number One neck was reinstalled on it.

OTHER GUITARS

RED

Acquired in about 1984 from Charley’s Guitar Shop, Dallas. Red was a stock 1962 until the left handed neck was installed in 1986, and a new Fender neck installed in July 1990. The black color showing where the red has worn away is because the guitar was originally sunburst (not solid black), then repainted red, probably at the factory for a special order.

YELLOW

Stolen from Stevie in 1987 and never recovered. Previous owner was Vince Martell of Vanilla Fudge, who sold it to Charley’s Guitar Shop, Dallas, who painted it yellow and gave it to Stevie. The cavity had been hugely routed for four humbuckers. Charley’s gave it to Stevie in early 1981 with a single neck pickup. Apparently, this is the original “Butter” guitar, not the butterscotch colored guitar listed below.

LENNY

Stevie found it in a pawn shop in the early ’80s but didn’t have the money for it. His roadie Byron Barr arranged for the purchase, and Lenny apparently presented it to him. I think Stevie thought it was a gift from her. Brown stain on natural wood; butterfly tortoise-shell inlay in body. Had a rosewood fretboard, later switched to maple neck that Jimmie gave Stevie. It is reported that Stevie did the switch himself and used non-stock screws, screwing one through the fretboard. Said to have been a ’63 or ’64 model. Used to record “Lenny” and “Riviera Paradise.” Lenny sold at the Eric Clapton Crossroads Guitar auction on June 24, 2004, for $623,500 (including buyer’s premium) to the Guitar Center, who later conspired with Fender to make 250 copies of it.

1961 Stratocaster (“SCOTCH?”)

Acquired in the fall of 1985 in either Baltimore or the Boatyard in Norfolk, it was to be a prize at a Stevie show, but Stevie bought it and they gave away some other guitar. Butterscotch-colored stock 1961 Stratocaster. Non-original pickguard made by Rene Martinez. Some articles have referred to this guitar by the name “Butter” because of the butterscotch color, but Stevie’s roadie says it was the yellow guitar listed above which was called Butter. I seem to recall this 1961 Strat being referred to as “Scotch,” but I am not sure.

HAMILTONE (“MAIN”)

Acquired on April 29, 1984, a gift from Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), crafted by James Hamilton. Two-piece maple body, neck through the body design. Originally with EMG preamped pickups, Rene installed vintage Fender pickups. Fingerboard is ebony with inlaid mother-of-pearl. The original active pickups were replaced (after they were damaged in the filming of the “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” video) with passive pickups. It is said that Stevie didn’t want to get Number One wet during the filming, and didn’t like the pickups on Main, so it was used in the video. There are replicas made in Asia that in my opinion are not nearly the quality of Jim’s work.

CHARLEY

Gift from Charley Wirz of Charley’s Guitar Shop, Dallas, in 1984. Alder body, ebony fingerboard, maple neck and Danelectro “lipstick” pickups. Hardtail (non-tremolo), single tone and volume controls. White “trick” or “flip-flop” automotive paint which gives an irredescent blue tint depending on the light and angle of view. A hula girl sticker was applied to the back of the guitar, and can be seen in photos when Stevie plays behind his head. Seen on the cover of Couldn’t Stand the Weather. In 2003, Charley’s and Rene Martinez made 23 numbered limited edition replicas of this guitar, selling for $2500.  Owners of these replicas include Carlos Santana, John Mayer and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. In 2005, ten more replicas were made by Rene and the former owner of Charley’s, but they do not have the Charley’s logo anywhere on the guitar. This guitar was originally called “Ol’ White,” and later called “Ol’ Pearl” after the addition of the hula girl, a reference to the paint color and the hula girl.

NATIONAL STEEL

Acquired as a gift from roadie Byron Barr, the 1928 (or ’29?) National Steel guitar seen on the cover of In Step. Rumors that it may have belonged to Blind Boy Fuller are unsubstantiated and unlikely. Serial number said to be 0034. Acquired from Charley’s in 1981.

GIBSON ES-335

A 1958 dot-neck.

GUILD JF6512 12-STRING ACOUSTIC

Used on MTV Unplugged. and probably the same guitar Stevie used in 1985 for a benefit show, during which he played his first public acoustic set. This guitar actually belonged to Stevie’s friend and personal assistant Timothy Duckworth. Timothy recalls that Stevie’s hands were so strong that he accidently cracked the neck. The Hard Rock asked Stevie if they could have the damaged guitar, and Timothy said okay. I assume it is the one which has been on display at the Dallas Hard Rock Cafe for many years.

GIBSON JOHNNY SMITH

Used to record “Stang’s Swang.”

Unless otherwise noted above, interviews with Stevie suggest that he used Number One to record all other songs.

AMPLIFIERS

In the early 1980’s, Stevie used a Marshall 4140 2×12 Club and Country 100-watt combo amp for clean tone, and his two Vibroverbs for distortion. The Marshall’s test date was February 18, 1980. (I have verified the serial number from a customs/insurance equipment list from 1983). Photos from 1981 show two Celestion G12-80 speakers. It had brown “elephant” cabinet vinyl and tan basketweave grill cloth. In 1983 Stevie was preparing to go on tour with David Bowie, but at the last minute dropped out. Before he did, however, Bowie’s crew took the Marshall amp and painted the vinyl black and the grill cloth grey, presumably to approximate the look of other amps which would be on stage. Stevie’s road manager, Cutter Brandenburg, recalls that after the paint job the Marshall letters would not stay on and they would catch in the guitar strings when Stevie leaned Number One against it for feedback. Some of the letters broke off, so photos show the amp with “Marshall,” “Marsha” and “Marsh” before the remainder of the name was finally removed completely. All three of Stevie’s roadies/techs from this era recall this amp. Once Stevie started making some money, he upgraded to larger Marshall and Dumble amps and traded this one in sometime after the spring of 1983, possibly as late as 1984. It was then owned by another Texas guitar player for many years. In May 2003, I purchased the amp. It still has the Bowie paint job and the Celestion speakers. In a 1983 interview, Stevie mistakenly suggested that this was a 200-watt amp that did not perform properly, peaking at 80-watts. It would not produce 200 watts because it was a 100-watt amp, but this amp will still rattle my windows! The amp is now under new stewardship.

1985: two blackface Fender Super Reverbs (4×10 EV’s — one article referred to them as “EV’s” another “EVM’s.”), a 150-watt Dumble Steel String Singer (4×12 with four 100-watt EV’s, and 6550 tubes), another Dumble 150-watt 4×12. The 4×12 cabinets were non-angled homemade cabs. Sometimes a 200-watt Marshall Plexi- Major was substitued for the second Dumble head. Stevie had two sequentially numbered* Fender Vibroverbs ca. 1963-64, (1×15) one often used to power a Fender Vibratone (not a Leslie). The Vibroverbs and Supers had 3/4″ plywood baffle boards to accomodate the weight of the speakers. The EVM’s larger magnets required repositioning some of the transformers in the chassis. In the later years, the Vibroverbs had Super Reverb-style transformers. The first channel from the phase inverter tube were disconnected, and the tremolo disabled (by disconnecting the wires from the intensity control – don’t try this at home unless you want to turn yourself into a light bulb). Around 1989 Stevie also took a couple of 4×10 Fender reissue Bassmans on the road, but the speakers were replaced.

*The two Vibroverbs are often referred to as “sequentially numbered” 5 and 6, but equipment lists from the early 1980’s prepared by the band reveal that the serial numbers were in fact 36 digits apart. The 5 and 6 are references to the production run number found on the tube chart on the amp. Stevie’s brother had guitars, amps, awards, important documents and other of Stevie’s things in a drive-up storage locker in Austin. Many of the guitars and one of the Vibroverbs were stolen in 2007. The amp and some of the guitars were recovered when the thieves were busted on a drug charge and the equipment found. There being no theft report beforehand, I’m not sure Stevie’s brother even knew the thieves had been breaking into the storage unit for several weeks or months.

John V. recalls working the stage in the late ’80s and noticing an “old-style Fender footswitch … and the top 4×12 cabinet had its top two 12’s wired so that they could be shut off and their place in the speaker-wiring replaced with a line over to the JBL in the Vibratone Leslie cabinet, which was mic’d thru the PA. Switch choices: full 8×12 stack, or six of the eight 12’s in the stack plus the Vibratone. This slammed a lot of power into the single speaker in the Leslie and there was a box of replacement drivers on stage for it.”

Tubes were typically Philips 6L6’s and 12AX7’s and GE 6550’s. Mesa Boogie STR415’s and STR387’s were also used when they could be found.

Volume settings on stage usually started at 7 or 7.5, but would end up at 10 for “Voodoo Chile.”  Roadie Cutter Brandenburg recalls that Stevie would often run his hand down the bottom of the knobs, turning them all up as far as they would go.

Miscellaneous studio amps for In Step included an old Magnatone and Fender Harvard.

PEDALS ETC.

Ibanez Tube Screamer: Stevie upgraded as new versions came out – TS-808, TS9, TS10 Classic.

Wah-wah: Vox wahs from the ’60’s. Occasionally connected two together.

The usual setup in the later years was Ibanez Tube Screamer TS10, Vox wah, vintage Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, and Tycobrahe Octavia. For a brief time he used a Univibe. Roger Mayer Octavias were used prior to the Tycobraches. Cesar Diaz installed matching germanium transistors in the Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face body to increase transistor life. Note: one of Stevie’s Octavias was on display at the Los Angeles Guitar Center for several years.

The splitter box was one input and six outputs to the amps. No preamp, but resistors to cut down the noise. With the Vibratone he used a Variac AC power regulator. 

Microphones in the studio for In Step were Shure SM57’s and Sennheiser 142’s. Occasional use in the studio of a Roland Dimesnsion D for extra chorusing effect.

Loop Selector – Stevie had several MXR loop selectors in the early ’80’s.

Picks – equivalent to Fender mediums, and he played with the “fat” end. There are 17 verified variations of Stevie’s custom picks, but he also used plain Fender picks, and freebies he picked up at many places.

Music Note Straps – The Earth III Guitar Strap Co. was started by Richard (Ritchie) Oliveri in the late 1970’s on Staten Island NY. He designed the musical note and the lightning bolt straps and manufactured them until 1989, when he was tragically killed in an auto accident in Florida while on vacation. (Thanks to Paul Wilsbach for that info.) Similar straps were made by Main Strap in later years, but Stevie’s were all Earth IIIs.

The following is from a customs/insurance equipment list prepared by the band in the summer of 1983:

1981 EQUIPMENT
’59 Fender Stratocaster (This is actually Number One, a ’63)
2 other Fender Stratocasters, no details listed
Rickenbacker Stereo Prototype (this is the guitar later gifted to Hubert Sumlin)
100 Watt Marshall Combo Amp w/Case
Fender Vibroverbs 
Uni-Vibe Univox FM-No 49.5
Echo Plex 
Crybaby Wa Wa


1982 EQUIPMENT (supplemental to the above list)

Fender Stratocaster (Lenny)
Fender Stratocaster (Butter)
Tokai Stratocaster
Gibson 335
National Steel Guitar
Stratocaster (no details)
Marshall Cab
Super Reverb
Vox Wa Wa
Ibanez Tube Screamer TS9
MXR Loop Selectors

See the SRV Collection pages for more information on Stevie’s Tube Sreamers, Loop Selector, guitar picks and tremelo “whammy” bars.