Unleashing the Soul of the Blues: Mastering Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Tone in 8 Simple Steps

Stevie Ray Vaughan Tone

Achieving Stevie Ray Vaughan’s (SRV) signature tone involves a combination of gear, setup, and technique. Here’s a comprehensive guide:

1. Guitars

Fender Stratocaster: SRV’s primary guitar was a 1959 Fender Stratocaster, named “Number One.” He also used other Stratocasters like “Lenny” and “Scotch.”

Pickups: SRV had vintage-style pickups in his Strats. If you’re after this tone, you can look into pickups that emulate the vintage ’50s and ’60s Stratocaster sounds.

Strings: SRV famously used a heavy string gauge, typically .013 to .058. He believed this contributed to his full, rich tone. However, heavy strings require a strong hand and fingers, so keep this in mind if you’re considering the switch.  It has been known that the heavy strings took a toll on his fingers and he would “Crazy Glue” cuts on them to continue to play in pain.

Neck and Setup: SRV’s Stratocasters usually had a rosewood fretboard, which can add some warmth compared to maple. Make sure your guitar is set up for a higher action which, combined with the heavy gauge strings, allows for his aggressive bending style.

“Number One” was heavily worn, and SRV used it extensively throughout his career. This guitar was known for its distinctive look due to its sunburst finish that was heavily worn down from years of use. “Number One” had some unique characteristics regarding its neck:

“Number One”, had a neck from 1957. It was a thick “D” shape profile typical of Fender necks from the mid-to-late ’50s. This neck had been refretted several times due to SRV’s aggressive playing style and heavy-gauge strings. 

Fretwork: Over the years, the neck underwent multiple refret jobs. Stevie was hard on his guitars, and because of his aggressive playing style combined with heavy-gauge strings, the frets wore out relatively quickly. These refret jobs would have used larger jumbo frets, which are more resilient to wear and allow for easier bending of notes, especially with the heavy strings that SRV used.

Left-handed Tremolo: SRV installed a left-handed tremolo system on his primary “Number One” Strat, which some believe affected his tone due to the different orientation of the tremolo block.

Finish: The back of the neck was worn from years of playing, which gave it a very smooth feel. This can make moving up and down the neck more fluid. Some guitarists believe that a worn-in neck, especially one that’s seen as much play as “Number One,” has a particular feel that’s impossible to replicate with new instruments.

While the neck played a significant role in the guitar’s feel, it’s worth noting that the tone and sound were a combination of all parts of the guitar, SRV’s setup, and, most importantly, his playing technique. However, a comfortable neck would undoubtedly have made it easier for SRV to play in his iconic style.

 SRV often played with his guitar’s volume and tone knobs, using them to get cleaner or dirtier sounds as needed. Experimenting with your guitar’s controls is crucial to achieve a dynamic sound.

 The tuning is also essential. SRV often tuned down half a step (Eb Ab Db Gb Bb eb).

2. Amplifiers

Stevie Ray Vaughan is renowned for his robust and vibrant tone, and his amplifiers played a vital role in crafting that iconic sound. Here’s an in-depth look at some of the amplifiers and associated gear that SRV used.

 Fender Vibroverb: This was a major component of SRV’s sound, especially his clean tones.

 Marshall Major: He often combined his Fender amp sound with a Marshall Major to get his unique tone.

Fender Super Reverb and Dumble Steel String Singer: These were other amps that SRV used throughout his career.

Daisy Chaining: SRV often used more than one amplifier at a time, creating a fuller and richer tone. He would split his guitar signal and send it to both a Fender amp (like a Vibroverb or Super Reverb) and a Marshall. This combination provided both the clean, sparkling highs and mid-range punch.

Amplifier Modifications: Some of SRV’s amps were modified by Cesar Diaz. These modifications added more gain, altered reverb circuits, or changed the tonal characteristics.

This is perhaps the most associated amp with SRV’s sound. The specific model he’s famous for using is the 1964 Fender Vibroverb with a 15-inch speaker.

The amp is known for its lush reverb and vibrato circuits. Its 15-inch speaker contributes to its distinct, full-bodied sound. 

Fender Super Reverb:

A 4×10 combo amp that delivers the sparkling clean tones associated with Fender. 

SRV often cranked up this amp, relying on its natural tube overdrive. 

It’s been said that for some tracks, SRV would even daisy-chain two Super Reverbs together.

Marshall Club and Country: 

Less commonly associated with SRV but used nonetheless, this amp added a British flavor to his sound palette. It provided a contrast to the typical American Fender tones, lending a bit more midrange and grit.

Dumble Steel String Singer:

Howard Dumble is an amplifier designer famous for his bespoke amplifiers, and SRV had one of these rare pieces. 

The Steel String Singer is renowned for its clarity, headroom, and dynamic response. The specific sound characteristics can vary, as Dumble amps were often tailored to the individual musician’s preferences.

 SRV’s Dumble was known for a very clean and loud sound, allowing his pedals and playing dynamics to shape the tone further.

Fender Bassman:

Another classic Fender amp, the Bassman has a different character compared to the Vibroverb and Super Reverb. It has a more pronounced midrange and can get grittier when pushed.

Marshall Major: 

 A 200-watt beast of an amplifier. SRV used it sparingly, but when he did, it contributed a massive, loud, and overdriven tone to his sound.

Additional Notes on SRV’s Amplifier Use:

Amp Settings: SRV was known to crank his amplifiers, pushing them into natural overdrive. This allowed him to control his tone from the guitar, using the volume and tone knobs to get cleaner or dirtier sounds. 

Amplifier Modifications: Some of SRV’s amps were modded by Cesar Diaz, a well-known amplifier technician. Diaz made adjustments to achieve more gain, change reverb circuits, or alter tonal characteristics to better suit SRV’s preferences.

Multiple Amps: SRV often used more than one amplifier in unison. This setup, known as a wet/dry setup, can allow for a full, layered sound. For instance, one amp might be set for a clean tone, while another provides overdrive.

Volume: It’s crucial to understand that SRV often played at very high volumes. This approach not only overdrove the amplifiers but also interacted with his guitar, creating feedback and sustain that’s hard to replicate at lower volumes.

Be sure to read: How to Sound Like SRV: Tube Screamer Settings

3. Effects Pedals

Ibanez Tube Screamer (TS-808 or TS-9): This is crucial for achieving SRV’s overdriven tones. It pushes the amp to break up and adds some midrange boost.

Wah Pedal (Vox V846 or Dunlop Cry Baby): SRV occasionally used a wah pedal for expressive solos.

 Fender Vibratone or a Uni-Vibe pedal: For the rotary speaker effect heard on songs like “Cold Shot.”

Reverb and Delay: SRV had natural reverb from his amps, but if your amp lacks reverb, consider adding a reverb pedal. A delay pedal can also be used sparingly to create more depth and space.

Roger Mayer Octavia: Used in songs like “Little Wing” and “Voodoo Child,” this pedal adds an octave-up effect and some fuzz.

Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face: SRV occasionally utilized a Fuzz Face for a thicker, fuzzier overdrive tone.

Tycobrahe Octavia: Another octave pedal that SRV had in his collection.

Keeley Katana Boost: A clean boost pedal can help to push your amplifier into natural overdrive, something that SRV often did to get his roaring sound.

Chorus/Vibrato: While not a staple, SRV occasionally added chorus or vibrato effects to his signal chain. Look into pedals like the Boss CE-1 or CE-2.

4. Technique

 Pick Attack: SRV had an aggressive pick attack, which contributed greatly to his distinctive tone.

Finger Strength: As mentioned before, SRV’s heavy gauge strings required strong fingers. This allowed him to dig into the strings and achieve a thick, singing tone.

Vibrato: SRV’s vibrato was deep, fast, and controlled. It’s an essential aspect of his style and sound.

Thumb-over Technique: SRV often used his thumb to fret the low E string, freeing up his fingers to play more intricate licks and chords.

Slide: While not as common, SRV occasionally employed a slide, further diversifying his tonal palette.

5. Setup

 Amp Settings: Aim for a bass-heavy and midrange-focused tone. Start with Bass at 7, Mids at 8, and Treble at 5 or 6, then adjust according to your preferences and gear.

Tube Screamer Settings: Keep the Drive low (around 9 o’clock), set the Level to push the front end of the amp (around 2 o’clock or higher), and adjust the Tone to taste, usually around noon.

Intonation: Due to his heavy string gauge and aggressive playing style, it’s crucial to ensure your guitar’s intonation is spot on, so everything remains in tune even when bending strings significantly.  Sometimes, for intonation, it’s best to see a guitar tech.  Especially if you’re changing to heavier gauged strings, you may need a nut replacement.

Plectrum (pick): SRV usually used Fender medium picks, which contributed to the sharp attack of his notes.  He also held them on the narrow end, using the fat end (or wide end) on the strings.

Cables: Believe it or not, the type and length of your guitar cables can affect your tone. SRV often used coiled cables, which can slightly roll off high frequencies, resulting in a warmer sound.

6. Listening & Imitating

 Spend time listening to SRV’s recordings and live performances. This will give you insights into his nuances, dynamics, and phrasing.

Try to play along with his songs. This will help you internalize his style and approach.

Remember that while gear and setup play a significant role, much of SRV’s unique sound came from his hands and his approach to the guitar. Even if you have all the gear listed above, emulating his technique, feel, and passion is crucial to truly capturing his tone.

7. Physical Dynamics

Stage Volume: SRV played loud on stage, which pushed his amplifiers into natural overdrive and produced a natural compression. This aspect is often overlooked, but playing at higher volumes can significantly affect your tone.

8. Influences

Listen to SRV’s Influences: Understanding the players that influenced SRV can help you understand his tone and style. Dive into artists like Albert King, Freddie King, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Lonnie Mack, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Reed, and Buddy Guy to get a sense of where SRV’s tonal inspirations originated.

Lastly, while gear is crucial, the heart and soul of SRV’s tone was his passion, emotion, and technical prowess. To genuinely emulate his tone, one must not just mimic the gear but the feel and energy behind every note.  Remember, while SRV’s amplifiers and gear were essential in crafting his tone, his fingers, technique, and approach to the instrument were equally significant.

Remember that while gear and setup play a significant role, much of SRV’s unique sound came from his hands and his approach to the guitar. Even if you have all the gear listed above, emulating his technique, feel, and passion is crucial to truly capturing his tone.

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