How To Sound Like Stevie Ray Vaughan
I think there are very few blues guitarists out there who haven’t wanted to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan at some point in their career. He is one of the most famous blues musicians of all time, and is celebrated for revitalising the whole genre of the blues in the 1980s. And this in turn inspired a new generation of blues guitarists.
Vaughan’s reputation is largely the result of his amazing guitar playing, which is technical but full of intensity and emotion. Yet Stevie Ray Vaughan also had a beautiful blues guitar tone.
The ‘Lone Star State’ has given rise to some of the best blues tones ever recorded. Players like Freddie King, Albert Collins and Billy Gibbons are just some of the notable Texas bluesmen to craft a killer tone. Yet Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar tone is so popular that it has almost become synonymous with Texas blues. If someone says that they want a ‘Texas blues tone’, it is generally safe to assume that they are referring to an SRV style sound.
And that is what I will be exploring in this article. I will look at all of the gear that Vaughan used to craft his beautiful blues tones and how you can recreate similar tones to suit your budget.
Without further ado then, here is everything you need to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan:
Some Opening Thoughts…
Upon first look, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rig is deceptively simple. From the outside, it would appear that Vaughan basically used one guitar, a couple of amps and just a handful of pedals. Yet as I will explain further, his set-up becomes more complex when you look at it in greater detail. So although Vaughan did not have a lengthy signal chain with lots of different components, his set-up is still fairly complex.
What is also significant about Vaughan, is just how much of his tone came from his playing style. He had a heavy pick attack and an aggressive style which helped him produce his beautiful blues tones. And the way he set his guitar up enabled him to play the way that he did.
So here I will be focusing a lot of attention on those elements of Vaughan’s rig which often come as an afterthought – the guitar strings he used, the action of his strings and the size and type of frets on his guitar. These all had an impact on how Stevie Ray Vaughan played his guitar. And in turn, this had a profound impact on the tone that he produced.
Of course, the guitar, amp and pedals that Vaughan used are all key to replicating his tone. But here I will also be digging into some of the more nuanced elements of Vaughan’s rig. And the best place to start here, is with his guitar:
Throughout his career, Stevie Ray Vaughan almost exclusively played Fender Stratocasters. He had a vast range of Fender Strats and a couple of favourites that he switched between. The most iconic of these is his battle worn ‘Number One’ Fender Stratocaster. It is one of 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 is no exception.
Having said that, even when Vaughan bought the guitar it was slightly unusual, as it had been put together with parts from different guitars. And to add to this, over the years Vaughan and his guitar tech Rene Martinez (who now works with John Mayer) made a number of further modifications to his guitar.
Some of these were through necessity, when Vaughan’s guitar was damaged during tours and gigs. But many of them were out of choice. The most notable features of Vaughan’s guitar – which he often lovingly referred to as ‘his first wife’, are listed further below in this article.
Choosing The Right Guitar
Before looking at some of the features of Vaughan’s guitar though, it is first important to choose a guitar that will help you to get close to those beautiful Stevie Ray Vaughan tones.
And given that Vaughan almost exclusively played Fender Stratocasters, I would recommend going for either a Fender Strat or a Strat replica. Fender Strats from the early 1960s in good condition typically start at prices of around $20,000/£16,000. And they can cost many times more than that, depending on their condition and specs.
Although the Fender Custom Shop released 2 slightly different limited edition versions of Number One in the early 2000s and 2015, the build quality and legacy of the guitar is such that second hand versions of these replicas are often more expensive than original Strats from the early ’60s. They start from around $32,000/£25,000 on sites like Reverb. Unfortunately then, those options are beyond the reach of most players.
The good news though, is that there are a lot of vintage Stratocaster reissues and replicas out there across a range of budgets. There are also a number of Fender Custom guitars in a lower price bracket. Here are my top recommendations if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan:
In the lower price range, I would recommend looking at the Fender Squier range:
In the middle range, the Mexican made Fender range produce some great guitars:
Beyond that and if your budget allows, then there are some brilliant American made Fender Strats:
- Fender American Performer Stratocaster
- American Professional Stratocaster
- Fender American Ultra Stratocaster
In this range, you also have the option of the American made Stevie Ray Vaughan Signature Stratocaster. This guitar is closely modelled on Vaughan’s Strat. It has gold hardware, a left-handed tremolo and Texas Special single coil pickups. So this would be a brilliant choice if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan and you are interested in authenticity.
Finally, if you are looking to spend a bit more and make an investment, then there are some beautiful Fender Custom Shop models out there. These models change all of the time. But if you are looking in this price range, then a guitar built to replicate a late ’50s or early ’60s Strat would work very well. Some good examples are as follows:
- Fender Custom Shop 1962 Heavy Relic Strat
- Limited Edition ’62/’63 Journeyman Strat
- Fender Custom Shop ’59 Heavy Relic
In this price range, you can also buy the Stevie Ray Vaughan Custom Shop Signature Strat. So if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan and are looking to spend a bit more, this guitar would make an amazing choice.
Getting Closer To Number One
All of the guitars listed above will help you to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. And all of them will help you to recreate Vaughan’s Texas tones, in addition to a range of beautiful blues and rock tones.
But if you are a massive Stevie Ray Vaughan fan and you are looking for authenticity, then there are some further elements to consider. This is because as noted above, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Strat was a little unusual.
There are a number of distinguishing features of Number One, and we can break these up into 3 categories. There are a number of features that fundamentally affected Vaughan’s tone, those that affected the feel and playability of his guitar, and those that are purely aesthetic. I have listed these in full below and have indicated the importance of each of these elements in helping you to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan.
First though, it is worth noting that if you already have, or if you go out and buy a Stevie Ray Vaughan Strat – it will be modelled closely on Vaughan’s original guitar. As such, you don’t need to worry about these more nuanced elements. Instead you can focus on recreating other areas of Vaughan’s set-up. But if you don’t have one of these guitars, it is worth thinking about the following:
Number One had a rosewood fretboard, as did most of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Strats. Rosewood has a warmer tone than maple, which has a brighter and sharper sound.
The fretboard on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Strat was made of Brazilian rosewood, which is generally considered 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. In fact it is one of the features which makes vintage guitars so expensive.
Up until the last few years, guitar fretboards were made using Indian rosewood. However in 2017, the environmental body CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) restricted the sales of rosewood across borders to crack down on the illegal selling of furniture.
During this time, Fender 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 sounding. However in 2019, the ban on Indian rosewood was lifted, and so Fender have again started to produce instruments with rosewood fretboards.
All of this is to say, there is a tonal difference and a different feel between fretboards made of different woods. And so if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan and are looking for authenticity, it is worth taking this into account.
It is for this reason that all of the guitars listed above have either rosewood, pau ferro or laurel fretboards.
Neck Shape & Width
The neck on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Strat is quite unusual. When it comes to talking about neck shapes on guitars, there is some confusion. This is because manufacturers like Fender use various different letters to describe both the shape and width of a guitar’s neck. Neck shapes are described using letters like ‘C’, ‘V’ and ‘U’. Slightly confusingly, letters A through D are also used to describe the width of the neck, particularly on guitars made in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The shape of the neck on Number One is not unusual. Like a lot of Stratocasters – both vintage and modern – it has an ‘Oval’, C shaped neck. This is one of the most common neck shapes, as it is comfortable and suited to a range of different playing styles.
However unlike most modern Strats, Vaughan’s guitar has a thick neck. It has a ‘D’ width designation, making the neck quite a bit fatter than most Strats.
To find a neck like this on a modern Fender Stratocaster is rare. Typically, Strat necks are fairly narrow. A lot of players prefer this, as it allows them to grip the neck of their guitar more easily.
Having said that, it all comes down to personal preference. A lot of guitarists prefer to play guitars with thicker necks. And in fact a lot of guitars – the Gibson Les Paul being one obvious example – have thicker necks.
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.
Gold Hardware & Pickguard
Visually, one of the most distinguishing elements of Vaughan’s Strat is its gold hardware. His Strat features a gold bridge, a gold jack input and gold guitar tuners. It also features a distinctive black pickguard with the initials SRV carved into it.
These elements of Vaughan’s Strat had no impact on his tone and are purely aesthetic. Having said that, if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan and you love the look of his guitar, then you can easily buy these accessories.
If you want to recreate the look of Vaughan’s pickguard, then you can buy a specific SRV Black Stratocaster Pickguard. Alternatively, if you want a similar look but without the engraving, you can buy a plain Black Stratocaster Pickguard.
With regards to gold hardware, some of my top recommendations are as follows:
- Fender Gold Guitar Jack Plate
- Gotoh Locking Vintage Oval Knob Gold Tuners
- Fender Gold Locking Tuners
- Gold Vintage Style Strat Bridge
If you do decide to alter the hardware on your guitar, you will also need to fit your guitar with a gold tremolo arm. There are lots of these available, but just make sure you buy one that is compatible with your specific Strat.
If you like to use your tremolo, then it is worth noting that Vaughan fitted his Strat with a left-handed tremolo.
So instead of his tremolo arm resting over the volume and tone controls on his guitar, Vaughan’s tremolo arm rested over the body of his guitar.
Rene Martinez – Vaughan’s guitar tech – suspects that Vaughan set his tremolo up in this way to emulate left handed players like Jimi Hendrix and Otis Rush.
Either that, or he might have made the modification as a practical adjustment. This is because arguably it allowed him greater access to his volume and tone controls. It also allowed him to press down on his tremolo arm with his elbow. And this enabled him to use his tremolo without comprising his picking hand at all.
If you are right handed, then using a left-handed tremolo won’t change your tone. As such I would only recommend it if you really want to replicate Vaughan’s set-up with authenticity, or if you find it more comfortable. If that is the case, then you can get left-handed tremolo systems in gold, or in nickel.
As mentioned above, before you buy anything, just make sure that you check that it is compatible with your specific Strat.
A number of years after playing Number One, Rene Martinez fitted the guitar with jumbo frets. Vaughan had previously used medium-jumbo frets, but Martinez switched to jumbo as Vaughan kept wearing the smaller frets out.
Although the frets on a guitar don’t alter the tone of the instrument, they do change its feel and playability. Specifically, jumbo frets can help with playability because you don’t have to press so hard on the strings. And this makes string bending easier.
As such, if you are trying to play like Stevie Ray Vaughan, opting for jumbo frets could be a good idea. Playing them will feel unusual at first. This is particularly because most modern guitars come stock with medium-jumbo frets. But once you get used to playing with them, they could help you to get closer to those beautiful SRV tones.
You can buy Fender Jumbo Fret Wire very cheaply, but changing the frets on your guitar is not a simple task. So if you do want a re-fret, I would recommend taking your guitar to a local guitar store or repair shop.
Many of the changes that Vaughan and Martinez made to Vaughan’s guitar altered its feel and playability. This is of course significant, as these features enabled Vaughan to play in a specific way. And that in turned helped him to dial in his signature tones.
But one element of Vaughan’s set-up that related directly related to his tone, are the pickups in his guitar. For even though Vaughan’s guitar was a 1963 Stratocaster, it was fitted with pickups from 1959.
If you have a Vintage style Strat or a Stevie Ray Vaughan Signature Strat, then your guitar is likely to come with a set of vintage style pickups. If not, then I would recommend one of the following sets:
- Fender Texas Special Single Coil Pickups
- Seymour Duncan Texas Hot Strat Set
- Fender Pure Vintage ’59 Pickups
- Bare Knuckle Apache Single Coil Pickups
If you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan and you are looking for authenticity, then I would recommend one of the Texas single coil sets. Conversely, if you are looking for SRV style tones, as well as a range of beautiful vintage blues tones, then one of the vintage style pickup sets would probably make a better choice.
Whichever guitar you go for, and regardless of whether you decide to change the hardware and the pickups, if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, it is worth looking at the set-up of your guitar.
The guitar, amp and pedals that Vaughan used of course all had a huge impact on his tone. But so did his playing style. A big part of Vaughan’s sound came from the way he played. He was an aggressive and physical guitarist, with a very heavy pick attack and a muscular vibrato technique. And this all helped him to create his searing Texas blues tones.
Yet he would not have been able to play so physically, had he and Rene Martinez not paid attention to the set-up of his guitar.
Often the way that a guitarist sets their instrument up is a matter of personal taste. As such, the impact it has on tone can be fairly limited. That is not the case here. And so if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, there are 3 areas that you should focus on. These are as follows:
- The gauge of your guitar strings
- Which tunings you use when you play
- The action of your guitar
Let’s dig into each of these in detail to understand the impact they had on Vaughan’s tone.
Since the very early days of electric blues guitar, there has been a long held idea that heavy gauge strings are better for tone. And Stevie Ray Vaughan played a key role in perpetuating this idea. Vaughan has one of the best electric blues tones of all time, and he also favoured very heavy guitar string gauges.
Although the specific gauges Vaughan used varied at different points in his career, the set he most commonly used ran: .013, .015, .019 (plain), .028, .038, .058. These are very heavy gauge strings, particularly on the treble side of the guitar.
The topic of string gauge is one that remains hotly debated amongst blues guitarists. There are those that believe strongly that you need to play heavy gauge strings to get decent tone. Conversely, there are famous guitarists like Billy Gibbons and Jimmy Page who both advocate using much lighter strings.
If you are a feeling a little confused on the subject, then I detail everything you need to know about string gauge in this article here.
In short though, if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, I would advocate opting for slightly heavier guitar strings. This is not because heavy gauge guitar strings have inherently better tone. Rather it is because they will help you to play more like Stevie Ray Vaughan, which in turn will help you to better recreate his beautiful blues tones. Let me explain in a bit more detail:
The Benefits Of Heavy Gauge Guitar Strings
Heavy gauge strings do have some inherent tonal benefits, which result from their thickness. Broadly speaking they sustain better, have better intonation and a wider dynamic range than lighter gauge strings.
Of these points, the last is the most significant. On guitar strings of any gauge, you can use a soft touch to play quietly. But on thinner strings you are limited by how much you can dig in with your picking hand.
If you watch Stevie Ray Vaughan play, you’ll see that he often uses a very aggressive pick attack. When he does this and strikes the strings hard, he instantly adds a power and intensity to his sound, which simply comes from the pressure he applies to each string.
It is not possible to adopt such an aggressive pick attack on thinner guitar strings, and so the variation in tone you can achieve using nothing but your strings and pick is more limited.
Vaughan’s playing style was aggressive and physical. And this applies to the way that he bent strings and applied vibrato too. Playing in such a physical way is challenging on thin guitar strings, and it is why I would recommend opting for slightly heavier guitar strings if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Tone Vs. Playability
You might at this stage be wondering just how heavy you need to go with your strings. And here my advice would be to choose the heaviest guitar strings you can, without compromising playability.
This point is crucial, as there are some fairly significant drawbacks to using heavy gauge strings. Heavy strings demand more from you physically. They make it harder to bend, apply vibrato and play at speed. And all of those techniques are crucial if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan.
I speak from personal experience here. As a teenager and after reading that Stevie Ray Vaughan played .013s, I fitted my guitar with .012 gauge guitar strings. Instead of sounding more like Vaughan, my tone actually got worse, as I wasn’t able to bend, slide or apply vibrato properly.
In the blues, getting great tone is a compromise between tone and playability. It is about finding the sweet spot where you get a great tone and you can play comfortably. So keep that in mind, and if you are going to change the gauge of your strings, be conservative in the changes you make.
So if you currently play .009s, don’t jump straight up to .011s. Move to .0095s and play them for a few weeks. Then move up to .010s, and so on.
You will better adjust to each change and will never be in a position where your fretting arm and fingers are very sore.
Some Practical Recommendations
Apparently Stevie Ray Vaughan didn’t have a favourite brand of string. And so over the course of his career he used strings produced by a whole range of different brands. One of the brands that he used more frequently was GHS. Though I believe that this was largely because they were easy to acquire; not because he particularly loved their tone.
As such, if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, I would recommend opting for a heavier gauge of guitar strings, and then choosing your favourite brand from there. In reality, there are not that many string sets out there in gauges much heavier than .011. If you are happy with .011s then you will have a lot of choice, but if you want to go heavier, some good sets to try out are as follows:
Although there are some sets of .013s out there, these sets often have a ‘wound’ 3rd string. Vaughan played with a plain 3rd string, and I would recommend you do the same. Bending with a heavy gauge plain string is difficult enough; you don’t need to make life more difficult for yourself by trying to play a wound string!
It is also worth noting at this point that .012 gauge strings are pretty heavy. And it is quite rare to find blues guitarists playing such heavy strings. So if you find that .011s are as heavy as you can go without comprising your technical ability, don’t worry about it. You will still be able to get some killer tones using slightly lighter strings!
Part of what made it slightly easier for Vaughan to use such heavy guitar strings, is that he always tuned his guitar down a half step to E flat (Eb).
This was largely to accommodate his vocal range, as he struggled to sing in E. But it also reduced the tension of his heavy guitar strings, which made them easier to play.
So if you have already opted for, or you want to start using heavier guitar strings, tuning down a half step makes sense. It will instantly make your guitar easier to play.
Not only that, but it will help you to sound more like Stevie Ray Vaughan too. This is partly because you will be playing in the same tuning as Vaughan. But it is also because tuning down a half step makes your guitar sound heavier and more powerful. It is for this reason that players like Jimi Hendrix, Slash, Philip Sayce and Dan Patlansky all use(d) the same tuning.
If you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, adopting this tuning will instantly get you closer to his sound.
The final element to consider when it comes to the set-up of your guitar, is your action.
Vaughan played with a very high action. In the words of his guitar tech: “I used to adjust the screws down at the bridge to raise the height (of the strings), and I would run out of thread – I couldn’t make the strings any higher.”
A lot of guitarists pay little attention to their action. But actually, raising the action on your guitar will improve your tone. You want your guitar to sing and for the notes to really ring out. And it is difficult for this to happen if your strings are too close to your frets. They need space to vibrate and resonate properly. Give them this extra space and all of your notes will resonate more. You’ll increase your sustain and you’ll get a better tone.
This is why Stevie Ray Vaughan played with such a high action, and why modern players like Josh Smith and Dan Patlansky also favour a higher action.
When it comes to adjusting your action, I would recommend taking a similar approach to that noted above when increasing string gauge. This is because you will struggle to play at speed or play more complex chords if you push the action too high. So start with moderate adjustments and tweak your action until you find the sweet spot between tone and playability.
Striking The Balance
In many respects, the way that Stevie Ray Vaughan set his guitar up aligned with his playing style. He had heavy guitar strings that he could strike with power and aggression. And these same strings – combined with his Eb tuning and high action – gave his tone depth and sustain.
Yet all of these elements of his set-up also made his guitar more difficult to play. Heavy guitar strings are more difficult to bend. And it is more challenging to play at speed using thick guitar strings, especially with the action set so high. As Martinez reflected when talking about Vaughan’s guitar in a 2010 interview:
The guitar was hard to play, and he would literally be drawing blood from the tips of his fingers. I saw some blood on the guitar one day and I said, ‘Hey, are you OK?’ And he said, ‘Aw, my tips are starting to get cut, you know.’
Don’t forget this when trying to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. After all, If you can’t play your guitar properly, then you have little chance of creating a decent tone. If you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, you need to be able to bend your strings, apply vibrato and apply all of the techniques he used that gave his playing such an expressive feel.
So if in doubt, err on the side of caution. Set your guitar up as close as you can to Vaughan’s, but never allow the changes you make to compromise your playing style.
The final element to consider when it comes to Vaughan’s guitar, are the picks that he used. Normally I think that analysing a guitarist’s set-up with such a granular level of detail is overkill. But the way that Vaughan struck his strings had a profound impact on his tone. And so I think it is worth looking at this in a bit more detail.
Stevie Ray Vaughan used medium gauge Fender Celluloid Picks. But he turned them upside down, and so he struck the strings with the rounded end of his pick, rather than the tip.
Given that Vaughan had a heavy pick attack and also played a lot of fast, single note lines, his choice of pick is perhaps a little surprising. This is because – as I outlined in much more detail here – if you want to play quickly and to alter your tone through your pick attack, a small, heavy gauge pick with a relatively sharp point would make the most sense.
Having said that, if you are interested in authenticity, then you can easily recreate Vaughan’s set-up.
Whichever route you choose to go down, take the same approach with your picks as you do with your guitar strings. In other words, always err on the side of comfort and playability.
Don’t get so wrapped up in the tonal properties of the different materials of picks, or in what you think you should be playing. If you are playing at your best, then you will be much more likely to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan.
If you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, it is worth investing in a great guitar amp. During his career, Vaughan used a whole range of different amps. These included Marshalls, a number of different Fenders, a Dumble and even a Soldano in the final months of his career.
Vaughan often combined these different amps with each other. And he did this either to blend the tonal characteristics of 2 different amps, or to set the same amps up, but with different settings. He and his amp tech Cesar Diaz also modified a lot of his amps. So they had different transformers and tubes than off the shelf models.
As such, trying to replicate Vaughan’s amp set-up is challenging. This is particularly so given that the 2 amps that Vaughan is best associated with are the Fender Vibroverb and the Dumble Steel String Singer.
Vaughan used the Vibroverb as his main amp when playing live. It was a key part of his set-up throughout most of the 1980s. And he combined this amp with pedals (more on this below) to create the beautiful bluesy overdriven tones for which he is famous.
Conversely, he used the Dumble Steel String Singer for his clean tone. Vaughan first played a Dumble in 1982 when he was recording in Jackson Browne’s studio. He was so impressed by the amp that he ordered his own. Vaughan’s Steel String Singer was 150 watts and became the main amp that he used for his clean tones.
Choosing The Right Guitar Amp
When trying to choose a guitar amp that will help you to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, there are 2 main challenges to overcome.
The first of these is price. The Fender Vibroverb was only produced for 2 years, between 1963-1964. And although you can still buy second hand models of the amp on sites like Reverb, prices start from around $7800/£6000.
Similarly, the Dumble amps that Alexander ‘Howard’ Dumble made for Vaughan and a number of other notable guitarists have now gained legendary status. Only around 300 models were originally made, and they have become extremely rare and expensive. Prices vary based on the model and condition of the amp, but they regularly sell easily for more than 6 figure sums.
As a result, both of the amps that Vaughan used are beyond the reach of most players.
Yet even if these amps were affordable, there is a second challenge to consider. And that is the challenge of volume and headroom.
Both the Vibroverb and the Steel Sting Singer are big and powerful amps with lots of headroom. And as I have discussed in much more detail in this article, this is problematic for most guitarists.
In short, to get the most out of your amp, you need to ‘push’ it into a beautiful bluesy overdrive. And to do this, you need to play your amp at a certain volume.
This is difficult for most guitarists – who have family and neighbours to consider – and so need to be mindful of their volume.
This begs the question then – if the original amps that Vaughan used are not an option, which amps should you look at to help you recreate Vaughan’s beautiful Texas tones?
Here I think there are 2 options – to look at Fender amps, or to look at boutique American voiced amps.
Fender amps are renowned for their beautiful clean tones and distinctly American sound. They also provide a great platform for guitar pedals. So they make a great choice if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan and are also looking for a range of vintage blues tones.
As well as now being a rare and relatively expensive amp – the 40 watt Fender Vibroverb that Vaughan originally used is too big and powerful for home use. Fortunately though, Fender offer a number of brilliant alternatives. Some of my top recommendations are as follows:
- Fender Blues Junior IV
- Pro Junior IV
- ’57 Custom Champ
- Fender ’65 Custom Princeton Reverb
- ’68 Custom Princeton Reverb
- Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverb
Of the amps listed here, the ’57 Custom Champ is the smallest. As such it breaks up quickly and so would be a great option if you are playing at lower volumes.
Conversely, the Blues Junior, Pro Junior and Deluxe Reverb all have slightly more headroom. This makes them a good choice if you are playing with other musicians and need a bit more volume or if you want an amp that has a great clean tone, even at higher volumes.
The second option to consider, is to look at boutique American voiced amps. And the good news here is that there are a whole range of beautiful boutique amp brands out there.
It is worth pointing out here that Vaughan didn’t actually use these amps during his career. So I wouldn’t recommend them if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan and are interested in authenticity.
However, I think they are worth including here because they do have similar qualities to the amps that Vaughan originally used. For although Vaughan used a variety of different amps over his career, the characteristics of his main amps are actually quite similar. They all have high quality clean tones and a lot of headroom. And they also all make a good platform for pedals.
Although it is tricky to buy an amp with lots of headroom when you are playing at home or in small venues, there are some great vintage voiced boutique options. Whilst these won’t have the same headroom as a larger amp, you will still be able to get beautiful clean tones. You will also be able to effectively drive the amp using the right pedals.
With that in mind, here are some of my top amp recommendations:
- Milkman 5W ‘Half Pint’
- Milkman 10W ‘Pint’
- Tone King Imperial Mk II
- Tone King Falcon Grande
- Morgan PR5
- Morgan PR12
Although these smaller amps won’t have quite the same headroom as the amps that Vaughan used, they still have beautiful clean tones and they will enable you to get a great tone at a lower volume. This is particularly the case with the Tone King amps, which have built-in attenuators. This allows you to dial in a great blues tone without disturbing the neighbours.
Dumble Alternatives – Are There Any?
Given that Vaughan played a Dumble for much of his career, you might be wondering why I haven’t suggested any Dumble Style amps.
After all, not only did they play a key part in Vaughan’s tone, but they are also generally regarded as some of the best amplifiers ever made. Yet whilst this may be the case, I don’t think most of the Dumble alternatives are suitable for most guitarists. Let me explain in a bit more detail:
Originally manufactured in California in the 1960s, Alexander ‘Howard’ Dumble initially took inspiration from amps like the Fender Bassman. So tonally, Dumble are similar to Fender amps. The biggest difference is the dynamic range. As long time Dumble user Robben Ford noted, when talking about his Dumble Overdrive Special amp:
(There is) a perfect sonic curve, the lows are deep and rich but not unclear, it doesn’t mush out like some amps will. You have the frequencies there for your use. The mid range (is) punchy and clear and the high end, bright, clear but doesn’t hurt your ears. It’s loud but it sounds good.
As a result of this legacy, and due to the fact that Dumble now only builds around 5-10 amps per year – mostly for notable musicians – a number of companies have started to produce Dumble style amps. There are a whole range of these different companies. Some – like Bludotone and Ceriatone – build Dumble clones that look and sound like Dumble amps. Others – like Two-Rock – build amps close to the Dumble sound, without cloning them directly.
Although these companies unquestionably build great amps, for the most part they make amps that are also big and powerful, and so are inappropriate if you are playing at home or in small venues.
So instead of going down this route, personally I would recommend buying one of the boutique amps listed above. This will help you to create a range of beautiful blues tones, but at a lower volume.
The Tube Screamer
Once you have navigated the complexities of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar and amp set-up, it is time to turn your attention to the pedals that he used.
As is true of many blues guitarists, Vaughan did not use many pedals, but those that he did use made a big impact on his tone. The most notable of these is the Ibanez Tube Screamer.
The Tube Screamer is one of the most popular guitar pedals ever produced. I covered the main reasons why this is the case in this article here. But in short, the Tube Screamer is versatile, pairs up very well with a range of classic guitars and amps, and has been used by a number of notable blues guitarists, including Gary Moore, Joe Bonamassa and John Mayer, amongst others.
Like all boost and overdrive pedals, the Tube Screamer amplifies your guitar’s signal. Under the right circumstances (more on this below) this will cause your amp to start overdriving. And this will give you a beautiful vintage blues tone.
What is siginficant about the Tube Screamer, is that it does not boost your signal evenly. Instead it amplifies the middle portion of your signal disproportionately.
And this is why it worked so well for Stevie Ray Vaughan. 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. Yet their mids are not 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. So if you have a similar set up to Vaughan and you want to replicate his tone, a Tube Screamer is a necessary addition to your rig.
Which Tube Screamer should you buy?
Over the years, Ibanez released a number of variations on the Tube Screamer, many of which Stevie Ray Vaughan used during his career.
It is widely believed that Vaughan favoured the TS808. But stage photos and evidence show that in fact he used the TS9 through most of the 1980s. The differences between these pedals have long been debated. In reality though, and as I covered in more depth here, the TS9 is in fact very similar to the TS808.
After it was released in the late ’80s, Vaughan also added the TS10 to his rig. The circuitry of the TS10 did represent quite a shift away from both the TS808 and the TS9. But again people tend to exaggerate the tonal differences between the pedals. As such, if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan, then any of those pedals would work well.
Ibanez are still producing reissue versions of both the TS808 and the TS9. And although the TS10 is no longer in production, you can buy second hand versions of the pedal on Reverb for around $350/£300.
Using the Tube Screamer
Once you have your Tube Screamer, you want to make sure that you set it up properly. There are 2 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, it will boost the volume of your guitar without ‘colouring’ your tone too much. This is great if you want to increase your volume and cut through the mix in a live setting without fundamentally altering the sound of your guitar and amp.
The second is 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, and push your amp into overdrive.
Typically, Stevie Ray Vaughan used his Tube Screamer as a boost. He set the drive around 3 or 4 and then cranked the volume up to 8 or 9. If you are using either the TS808 or the TS9 and you want to recreate Vaughan’s tones, I would recommend doing the same.
The key to creating that sound is to make sure that you are pushing your amp to the point where it is starting to break up. When you put the Tube Screamer in front of an amp like that, it will cause your amp to start overdriving. And that will go a long way in helping you to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan.
In addition to his Ibanez Tube Screamer, Vaughan also used a number of further pedals and effects. This included a wah pedal, a chorus effect, an Octavia pedal, and a fuzz pedal.
Unlike the Ibanez Tube Screamer, Vaughan used these effects more sparingly. Typically he used them to create a specific sound on a particular song.
As such, I don’t think these pedals are essential additions to your rig if you want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. But having said that, these effects – and particularly fuzz and wah – have been put to use very effectively by a number of blues guitarists over the years. And if you like the heavier sounds of guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Gary Clark Jr. and Jack White, then an octavia pedal would also make sense as part of your set-up.
Although Stevie Ray Vaughan only used wah on a small number of songs, it is an important effect if you want to replicate his tone on tracks like ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)‘, ‘Telephone Song‘ and ‘Say What!‘ For the last song, Vaughan reportedly used 2 wah pedals at once, rocking between them to create a rich and unique sound.
The main wah pedal that Stevie Ray Vaughan used was the Vox V846 Wah Pedal. But Rene Martinez also noted that Vaughan used a Dunlop Crybaby at certain points in his career too. As such, either of those pedals would make a great addition to your rig.
Having said that, if you are looking for a vintage sounding wah pedal, then I would recommend opting for a Vox. If you are interested in authenticity, the Vox V846 Wah would be my top choice. Not only was this the pedal that Vaughan used the most; it was also the wah that Hendrix used at Woodstock. In fact, so the story goes, the specific pedal that Vaughan used had previously belonged to Hendrix, who had given it to Jimmie Vaughan after they played a gig together in Fort Worth.
Finally, in a slightly lower price range, the Vox V845 Wah Pedal could also work well.
When recording in the studio, Stevie Ray Vaughan used a Roland SDD-320 Dimension D Chorus Rack. He used this heavily on some songs – like ‘Cold Shot‘. But more broadly he used it in a more subtle way, as on songs like ‘Couldn’t Stand The Weather‘ and ‘The Things (That) I Used To Do’. This gave his tone added depth and thickness without adding too much modulaton.
The original chorus rack that Vaughan used is no longer in production. And although you can buy it second hand, prices start from $1500/£1150. That price tag, combined with the size of the Roland SDD, makes it a less than ideal choice for most.
Instead, I would recommend adding a simple chorus pedal to your rig. There are a huge range of these available, but some of my top choices are as follows:
The key with these pedals is to use them sparingly. Unless you are trying to recreate the tone on ‘Cold Shot’, you just need to dial in a very small amount of the effect. This will help you to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan without overly modulating your sound.
Stevie Ray Vaughan used an original Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face pedal, which is now no longer in production. And although you can still buy the pedal second hand, prices start from upwards of $1300/£1000. If you are interested in authenticity, then the good news is that Dunlop have produced a reissue of the pedal – Jim Dunlop Arbiter Dallas Fuzz Face. They have also introduced a whole range of different vintage fuzz face pedals. Some great choices are:
All of these pedals will help you to produce some heavy vintage blues-rock tones and recreate Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tone on some of his heavier tracks.
The final effect that Vaughan used on occasion was an octave pedal. Like Hendrix, Vaughan originally played a Roger Mayer Octavia. He then switched a number of years later to using a Tycobrahe Octavia Pedal.
Although the original Roger Mayer Octavia pedals that Hendrix and Vaughan used are no longer in production, Roger Mayer is still producing the ‘Octavia Classic‘ – an updated version of the pedal. So if you want to replicate this element of Vaughan’s rig with authenticity, this pedal would be a great choice.
The Tycobrahe Octavia Pedal that Vaughan started using later in his career is no longer in production. And although you can buy the pedal second hand on Reverb, prices start from around $2500/£2000. So if you don’t want to go for one of the Mayer Octavia pedals, I would recommend opting for a modern fuzz pedal built to replicate vintage tones. Some of my top choices here are:
If you want to save space on your pedalboard, you also have the option to buy an Octafuzz pedal, which performs the role of both a fuzz and an octave pedal. The Electro-Harmonix Octavix or the Wampler Fuzztration would both make great choices.
Some Closing Thoughts…
Well there we have it – everything that you need to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Although Vaughan did not use a whole range of different pedals or effects, his set-up is surprisingly complex.
It also presents a number of challenges for non-professional guitarists. Some of these are financial. But many of them are practical. Like so many of the great blues guitarists out there, Vaughan played very loudly. And this volume played a key part in his sound. For most players, playing at a similar volume is not an option. And as such, recreating Vaughan’s tones exactly is a challenge.
Not only this, but Vaughan’s playing style had a huge impact on his tone. Of course, you need similar gear to replicate his sound. And I hope that the information I have outlined here helps you get closer to Vaughan’s blistering blues tones.
Beyond that, work on your technique and playing style. Study Vaughan’s playing and how this helps to create his tone. In this article here I outline some points to help. Combine them with the information outlined here, as well as passion and intensity, and you will be well on your way to recreating the tones of one of the best blues guitarists of all time.
Good luck! Let me know how you get on and if you have any thoughts or questions, just post them in the comments!
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