How To Sound Like Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan got me hooked on the blues. I had already played guitar for a number of years before he crossed my radar. Then I heard Pride and Joy and it really began my obsession with the blues.
I have since spent much of my time trying to play and sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. To me he is the ultimate guitarist and one who mastered every element of the blues.
For us mere mortals, being able to play and sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan is no simple task. But by looking closely at the gear and techniques Stevie Ray used, we can certainly get that little bit closer.
This is a two part article. This first part is going to focus on the gear that Stevie Ray Vaughan used during his career. The next will be focused on his playing and the techniques you need to adopt to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. But today, we will be looking at the specific gear Stevie Ray used, so you can capture those beautiful vintage blues tones for which he is famous.
How to Sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan has one of the most enviable blues guitar tones ever recorded. He has a distinctively American blues tone that countless players have since tried to replicate.
The good news, is that his rig is fairly basic. Stevie Ray Vaughan did not have a vast range of pedals, nor did his set up change much during his career.
Stevie Ray Vaughan almost exclusively used Fender Stratocasters during his career and had a couple of main guitars that he switched between. The most iconic of these – his battle worn ‘Number One’ Fender Stratocaster – is amongst the most famous and instantly recognisable guitars of all time.
‘Number One’ was a 1963 Strat, with 1959 pickups and a 1962 neck. Fender Stratocasters from this period are generally considered to be some of the best the company has ever made, and Vaughan’s guitar was no exception. Unlike an off the shelf Strat, Vaughan and his super skilled guitar tech Rene Martinez (who now tours with John Mayer) made a number of modifications to his guitar during the years they worked together.
Most of these modifications have more of an impact on playability than they do on tone, but if for nothing more than academic interest, I think they’re worth noting.
Arguably the most distinguishing feature of Stevie’s beloved Strat (pictured left) was it’s D shaped neck. Modern Fender Strats typically have a ‘C’ shaped neck profile. Some – like my Fender Elite Strat – have a neck profile that shifts from a ‘C’ on the lower frets up to a ‘D’ on the higher frets. The idea behind this, is that you have better control at both ends of the neck.
To find a ‘D’ shaped neck on a modern Fender Stratocaster is pretty rare. Typically, they’re found on Gibson Les Pauls. As such, ‘D’ shaped necks tend to be thicker and deeper. This was very much the case with ‘Number One’.
When I’ve played guitars with these necks in the past, I’ve always found them cumbersome. I personally struggle to control them and I find that my playing suffers as a result. Luckily for him, Stevie Ray Vaughan had huge hands and so the chunky neck didn’t pose a problem.
The good news, is that the neck shape of your guitar has no impact on your tone. It only has an impact on the way your guitar feels and plays. So you don’t need to rush out and buy a new guitar or neck to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan.
What is more important for tone, is the wood from which your guitar’s neck is made. ‘Number One’ had a rosewood fingerboard, as did all bar one of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Strats. Rosewood is typically associated with warmer tones than maple, the latter having a brighter and sharper sound.
The neck on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Strat was made of Brazilian rosewood. This is generally deemed to be the highest quality rosewood available. For some time it has been illegal to export Brazilian rosewood, and so as a result, it is also quite rare. It is in fact one of the features which makes vintage guitars so expensive.
Up until the last year or so, guitar necks were built using Indian rosewood. However in 2017, the environmental body CITES restricted the sales of rosewood across borders to crack down on illegal selling of furniture.
Fender have since switched to using Pau Ferro wood on all of their Mexican and American made models. Both visually and tonally, it is very similar to Rosewood, though it is slightly brighter in tone.
With all of this in mind, if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan and replicate his set up as accurately as possible you should opt for a guitar with a Pau Ferro fretboard.
One slightly curious feature of ‘Number One’ is the back to front tremolo system. Vaughan fitted his Strat with a left handed tremolo, so that the tremolo arm sat off towards the base of his guitar, rather than hanging over the volume and tone controls. This adjustment has no implication on tone. Rene Martinez – Vaughan’s guitar tech – suspects it was to emulate Jimi Hendrix. Either that, or it was a practical adjustment that allowed him greater access to either the strings or the volume controls.
Which Guitar Should you Buy?
Buying an original 1960s Fender Stratocaster will set you back in the region of around £20,000 or more. So it’s unlikely to be a viable option for most of us.
The good news, is that you don’t need to remortgage your house to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Whilst there is no doubt that vintage Strats are stunning guitars, the price tag of these instruments is arguably more reflective of their rarity and status as collector items, than it is of their playability and tone. Elements of these vintage instruments were imperfect and had a lot of scope for improvement.
Modern Fender Strats are built without these imperfections, which arguably makes them more playable. Luthiers are now also able to very closely replicate the exact build and parts used in vintage guitars. So if you are desperate to get as close to that as possible, you can pick up a Fender Custom shop guitar for the fraction of the cost of an original.
But even without getting into the custom shop price range, there are beautiful Fender Strats to suit every budget. Here are my top recommendations if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan:
If you’re a bit more budget conscious, you should opt for the Fender Squier range:
In the middle range, the Mexican made Fender range produce some great guitars:
If you have a bit more money to spend, then either the American made or Custom shop Strats are your best options:
- Fender American Professional Strat
- Fender American Original 60s Strat
- Stevie Ray Vaughan Artist Signature Strat
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s signature tone is one that is very natural and warm, with a slight bit of distortion. The key word here is ‘slight’. Although there is a bit of a crunch to Stevie Ray’s tone, it is a subtle overdrive.
This subtle overdrive is the result of Vaughan using amps that had beautiful clean tones and lots of ‘headroom’. When he played these at ear shattering volumes and combined them with some choice guitar pedals (see below), they produced the beautiful for which he is famous.
Although Stevie Ray Vaughan experimented with different setups during his career- he came to use Fender and Dumble amps most frequently. Specifically, he used a 1964 Fender Vibroverb and a Dumble Steel String Stinger. The Fender Vibroverb was only produced for two years, and so has become a rather pricy collector’s item. Dumble amps – crafted individually by boutique amp legend Alexander Dumble – have become the stuff of legend. As such, they come with a price tag that puts them far beyond the reach of the average guitarist.
Both the Vibroverb and the Dumble were also high watt amps and so are inappropriate for home use or smaller gigging venues. As I wrote about in more detail here, you should not buy a high wattage amp if you can’t play it at a decent volume.
With all of that in mind, here are my top recommendations if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. As always seems to be the case with amps, you have to spend a bit more to get quality, but I’ve added in a few more budget friendly options too:
The Tube Screamer
Unlike some of the other guitarists I’ve written about recently, guitar pedals played a more prominent role in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s sound. He did not use many pedals, but those he did use made a big impact on his tone. The most notable of these is the Ibanez Tube Screamer.
The day that Stevie Ray Vaughan added a Tube Screamer to his rig must have been a very happy day at Ibanez HQ. Thanks to his unbelievable tone and playing, the Tube Screamer has gone on to become one of the world’s most popular guitar pedals. I wrote a bit more on this pedal and others here, but in essence, the Tube Screamer is an overdrive pedal.
The primary function of a boost pedal is to amplify your guitar’s signal. This increases its volume and will cause your amp to go into overdrive, especially if it is already on the edge of ‘breaking up’.
The Tube Screamer does this, but it boosts specific parts of your guitar signal. So rather than amplifying the whole signal evenly, it amplifies the middle portion of the signal disproportionately.
It is for this reason that it works so well with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rig. Fender guitars and amps are renowned for lacking in the ‘mids’. Their tones are tight and well defined at the bottom end and bright at sparkly at the top. In the middle they aren’t so well defined. So you end up with somewhat of a ‘scooped’ tone.
The Tube Screamer puts those mids back into the mix. Combined with the right guitar and amp it creates a thick and warm sounding crunch. It is a key part of his tone and a must if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Which Tube Screamer should you buy?
Ibanez released a number of variations on the Tube Screamer, all of which Stevie Ray Vaughan used during his career.
It is widely believed that he favoured the TS808, but in fact stage photos and evidence show that Stevie Ray used the TS9 through most of the 1980s. This is very similar to the TS808, but is a slightly higher gain pedal. Stevie Ray also added the TS10 to his rig when it was then released in the late 80s. He cranked the overdrive up on this pedal and used it to generate more distorted tones.
As a result of the popularity of the Tube Screamer, Ibanez have released a number of new reissue pedals, as well as Tube Screamers that come with a few added extras:
In my personal quest to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, I bought the TS808 Reissue. It has served me very well. If you want to capture the Stevie Ray sound, I’d recommend opting for either the TS808 Reissue or the TS9. These pedals are very accurate replicas of those that Vaughan used during his career and will help you get closer to his sound.
Having said that, provided that the extras that come with the Ibanez TS808DX don’t compromise overall tone, that could also be worth considering. The idea behind this pedal is that you can combine the two key functions of the Tube Screamer – a clean boost and also an overdrive – in one unit (see below for more details). I haven’t personally tried the pedal, so can’t comment, but go to a guitar shop and try it out. Compare it against the standard Tube Screamers and you’ll be able to make an informed decision from there.
Using the Tube Screamer
The Tube Screamer is not a complex guitar pedal. But if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, you have to set it up properly. There are two main ways you can use a Tube Screamer:
The first is as a clean boost pedal. To do this, set the overdrive at zero, but crank the level right up. When you turn the pedal on, the volume of your guitar will be boosted without distorting your tone. This is great if you want to increase your volume and cut through the mix in a live setting without colouring your tone too much.
The second is more as an overdrive pedal. In this instance, you need to turn both the overdrive and the levels up. Turning the pedal on in this case will increase the volume of your guitar, as well as the distortion.
The slight drawback of the original Tube Screamer pedals is that you have to commit to one of these two options. Either the pedal acts as a clean boost pedal, or it becomes an overdrive pedal. It is for this reason that Ibanez introduced the Ibanez TS808DX. This allows you to have one side of the pedal set to a clean boost and the other set as an overdrive.
Assuming you are using either the TS808 Reissue or the TS9, to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, I would recommend setting the overdrive to around four and cranking the volume up to around seven or eight. You can then adjust the tone according to how much treble you want to add.
To nail those Stevie Ray tones, it is key that your amp is cranked to a level where it is almost breaking into distortion. When you then add the Tube Screamer, your amp will tip over into that light, warm and crunchy overdrive. It’s a tone that’s hard to beat.
If you really want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, you need to add a wah pedal to your rig. Although the wah features on only a small number of Stevie Ray’s songs, it’s crucial if you want to replicate the tones of songs like Voodoo Child (Slight Return), Telephone Song and Say What! For the last song, he famously used two wah pedals at once.
To sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, I personally would recommend opting for the Vox Wah. These pedals are arguably better associated with vintage tones and this was also the pedal that Vaughan used more frequently. Having said that, the Wah pedal is much less of a classic feature of Vaughan’s tone. So opting for either the Crybaby or the Vox will help you get close to the Stevie Ray wah tones, when combined with the rest of his rig.
Rene Martinez has noted that Vaughan also used a Octavia pedal, as well as a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face. Whilst I have no doubt that this is true, neither of these pedals plays a key part in Vaughan’s tone. Both pedals are better associated with Jimi Hendrix and his heavier, more psychedelic rock tones.
Personally, I don’t think you need to add these pedals to your rig to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Having said that, a good quality fuzz pedal is a worthy investment, so buying one of those can’t hurt.
Unless you want to emulate the more modern tones of guitarists like Gary Clark Jr (or if you have cash to burn) I wouldn’t rush out to buy an Octave pedal.
The Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face is no longer in production, and originals will set you back in the region of £1200 or more. Luckily, you can pick up great sounding fuzz pedals for a fraction of the cost:
No article about Stevie Ray Vaughan would be complete without a lengthy discussion on string gauge.
Stevie Ray Vaughan is almost single handedly responsible for the idea that you need thick strings to get a thick sound. He played with 13s (ouch!) and so the legend goes, applied superglue to his fingers before shows because they were so torn to pieces.
When I first found this out, I went out and bought a set of 12s to try and emulate my hero.
What happened, I hear you ask?
My fingers really hurt and I wasn’t able to bend the strings very much. I wasn’t even really able to play my guitar, let alone to play or sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Playing with such thick strings is hard work. It is tough on your fingers, and also on your fretting arm. Everything from applying vibrato to playing at speed is more difficult.
So the crucial question; do you need super thick strings to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan?
The answer is both yes and no…
A lot of brilliant blues guitarists have shown that you don’t need super thick strings to get a thick tone. B.B. King has a custom set with 10s on the top strings. Jimmy Page famously used 8s and Jeff Beck has used everything from 8s, to 11s – which he’s favoured in more recent years. On the advice of B.B King, Billy Gibbons played with 7s!
So if you do have smaller hands and struggle to apply pressure or heavy vibrato, do not despair. With the right amp, guitar and some choice pedals you can get a killer blues tone.
Finding a Middle Ground
Having said that, with very thin strings, you will struggle to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. This is not because thinner strings inherently have a much weedier sound. Rather it is because thick strings (if you can handle them) allow you to manipulate the guitar in particular ways. They resist your playing and allow you to apply a heavy pick attack and muscular vibrato.
These two elements (both of which will be covered in my next article) are crucial to the Stevie Ray sound. It is why he favoured thicker strings and why it is difficult to play in the same way with thinner strings.
Unless you already play on thicker strings, I would not advocate rushing out to buy the thickest strings you can get your hands on. Playing thick strings is painful, especially if you’re not used to them. When I tried it I found that I was much less inclined to practice or play my guitar. So it was actually to the detriment of my playing.
If you currently play light strings but would like to go heavier, then I would recommend working up to it. So if you play 9s, go to 10s etc. D’Addario also offer half gauge strings, which will help if the jump up a whole gauge is too much. You can also do as Stevie Ray Vaughan did and tune down a half step (more on that below). This will take some of the tension out of the strings and make them easier to play.
Tuning Down a Half Step
Stevie Ray Vaughan always tuned his guitar down a half step. This was largely to accommodate his vocal range. But it has the added benefit of easing the tension of very thick strings, which them easier to play.
If you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, then tuning down a half step makes sense. If like me you’re a bedroom warrior, then you’ll be able to play along with his backing tracks and jam along to his songs. It will also help if you have opted to use heavier gauge strings.
Beyond that, tuning down a half step will make your sound thicker. I don’t really know why this is the case, but it just is. Jimi Hendrix tuned down a half step to Eb and Slash almost almost exclusively plays in the same key. More recently, Philip Sayce has also opted for the same tuning.
Riffs sound heavier in Eb and your guitar will sound bigger. Regardless of whether you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan or not, I’d definitely recommend giving this tuning a go!
Stevie Ray Vaughan has a very distinctive tone. A huge part of this comes from the gear he used and specifically how he paired his guitar, amp and pedals. Whilst individually each of these elements are fairly unremarkable, when combined together, they produce beautiful American blues tones.
Having said that, if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan; replicating his rig is only one part of the battle. As Eric Johnson once said:
I think people overemphasise the importance of gear in their search for tone. Your sound comes from how you pick and dampen the strings, and from your attack as much as anything
Stevie Ray Vaughan was a guitarist who’s playing style had a huge impact on his tone and overall sound. You need similar gear to replicate his sound. But beyond that, if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, you need to study his style and the techniques he used. So keep an eye out for my next article, where I’ll be covering everything you need to be able to play like Stevie Ray!