Robert Cray has a beautiful and instantly recognisable blues tone. Learn how you can recreate the same sound to suit your budget and setup
Like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray played a huge role in reviving the blues genre during the 1980s. And he did so whilst fusing the blues with elements of funk, R n’ B, gospel and pop. At the centre of this eclectic mix is Cray’s beautiful guitar tone.
Compared with his contemporary Vaughan – Cray’s guitar tone is very different. It is not warm, beefy and overdriven. Instead it is bright and articulate with a distinctive twang. It is an instantly recognisable guitar tone, and one that works very well if you are looking for a clean blues tone – or like Robert Cray – you fuse your blues playing with other musical genres.
So with that in mind, let’s get into it! Here is everything you need to know to sound like Robert Cray:
Robert Cray is an exceptional guitar player for a wide variety of reasons. But part of what I find most impressive about his playing, is that he always uses a crisp and clean guitar tone.
It is not easy to play with that kind of tone. Overdrive smooths out each note. It does a bit of the work for you, and to some extent it masks your playing, giving you a wider margin for error.
When you play with a tone like Robert Cray, there are no hiding places. If you want to create clean sounding lines, and you want each note to sustain and resonate properly, you need to play with precision and clarity, and really focus on your technique.
I will discuss Cray’s playing style in more detail later on. However it is worth noting at this point that a lot of Cray’s tone comes from how he attacks each note, as well as how he applies techniques like vibrato.
It also comes from paying attention to some of those elements of a rig which a lot of players overlook. Cray does not use guitar pedals, and for the vast majority of his career he has played with just one or two guitars. He does however pay a lot of attention to how he sets his guitars up. And this has an impact on both playability and tone.
As such, a lot of the focus here will be on some of the subtle ways that Cray sets up his guitars and amps to dial in his signature sound. Not only will this help you to dial in similar tones; it will also provide you with ways to extract more from your current setup without having to buy a range of different guitar pedals. And this is useful – regardless of the type of guitar tone you are trying to create.
So with that in mind, let’s get into it! Here is everything you need to know to sound like Robert Cray:
The Fender Stratocaster
For the vast majority of his career, Robert Cray has used a Fender Stratocaster. He initially played a Gibson SG, before picking up an ES-345 to sound more like B.B. King. Neither of these guitars lasted long though, for in Cray’s own words:
I caught Phil Guy playing – Buddy’s brother – using a Fender Super Reverb with the reverb up quite a bit, and a Strat. The sound he was getting really blew me away, and shortly after that I fell in love with my 1964 green StratRobert Cray
Cray has used a Fender Strat as his main guitar ever since. Initially there were two different Strats that he used in his early career. One of these was a 1958 sunburst Strat with a maple neck that can be seen on the cover of the Strong Persuader album. The second was a 1964 Strat in Inca silver, which had a rosewood neck.
In the late 1980s, Cray was approached by the Fender Custom shop to produce a Signature Strat. He did so by combining the neck radii of both Strats and adding in a number of specific appointments, which I have noted in more detail below.
Over the years, Fender have produced two versions of the guitar. One of these is a Custom Shop model, whilst the other is made in Mexico and is in a lower price bracket.
The former of these guitars is not widely available, although you can still find them in a number of music stores, including Sweetwater. At the time of writing they cost around $5000/£3600. You can also find a variety of second hand versions of the guitar on Reverb. Many of these remain in mint condition and are typically around $1000/£720 cheaper than new models of the guitar.
The same is true of the Robert Cray Signature Stratocaster which is made in Mexico. It is not available everywhere, but is sold in stores like Sweetwater in the US, and Thomann in Europe. It currently sells for around $1049/£939.
Choosing the right Stratocaster
As you might expect, there are some differences between the Custom Shop and Mexican made Robert Cray Signature guitars. There are also a couple of elements of Cray’s guitars which are quite different to the majority of Strats. Some of these have a larger impact on tone, whilst some are purely cosmetic.
I will run through the most significant of these in more depth below. However if you want to sound like Robert Cray, the first step is to choose a guitar that will help you get close to those beautiful, clean and crisp tones.
Fender Strats from the late 1950s in good condition typically start at prices of around $46,000/£35,000. And although Strats from the early 1960s are slightly cheaper, they still cost around around $35,000/£25,000 on sites like Reverb. Unfortunately then, those options are beyond the reach of most players.
As noted above, Fender offer some specific Robert Cray Strats. So if you really want to sound like ‘Young Bob’ and you are interested in authenticity, either of those guitars would make a great choice.
Beyond that though, there are a wide range of vintage Stratocaster reissues and replicas out there. And these are available across a range of budgets. There are also a number of Fender Custom Shop guitars that could be worth considering if you want to look beyond the Robert Cray Signature Strat. Here are my top recommendations if you want to recreate Robert Cray’s killer blues tones:
In the lower price range, I would recommend looking at the Fender Squier range. In the middle price range, the Mexican made Fender range produce some great guitars. Beyond that and if your budget allows, there are some brilliant American made Fender Strats.
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.
It is worth noting, that for this amount you could buy the Robert Cray Custom Shop Signature Strat. However if you want to recreate Robert Cray’s tone, without going down the signature guitar route, one of the Custom Shop Strats linked above would make a great choice.
Getting closer to Robert Cray’s tone
If for whatever reason you are unable or don’t want to buy one of the Robert Cray Signature Strats, but you do want to get close to his clean and bright blues tones, then there are a couple of elements of these guitars which are worth noting. As noted above, some of these fundamentally affect Cray’s tone. Others have a greater impact on the playability and feel of his guitars. And others are purely cosmetic. I have listed these in full below and have indicated the importance of each of them in helping you to sound like Robert Cray.
Arguably the most distinguishing feature of Robert Cray’s Signature Strats, is that they are hardtail guitars.
The vast majority of Stratocasters out there have a tremolo system. As such, the bridge is floating. It is not fixed against the body of the guitar, as is the case with Fender Telecasters and Gibson Les Pauls.
Like his fellow bluesman Eric Clapton, Robert Cray never uses his tremolo arm. And so on his Signature guitars, he simply replaced the tremolo system with a hardtail bridge.
Proponents of hardtail Strats argue that they improve sustain. And as this video illustrates – a Strat with a blocked tremolo system does sustain for longer compared to one with a regular tremolo system. As an additional benefit, hardtail guitars also have enhanced tuning stability. This second point is significant if you have quite a physical playing style and you utilise a lot of bends and vibrato in your playing.
With regards to sustain, in the context of a normal rig, I would argue that these differences are not particularly notable. However, when you play with a very clean tone like Robert Cray, it can be challenging to get your notes to sustain. You don’t have any overdrive to push each note along. And so your notes and playing can end up sounding a little clipped.
Assuming then that you want to sound like Robert Cray, and you also don’t use your tremolo arm, it might be worth looking to get a little more sustain out of your Strat. And there are a couple of options you can consider here. These are as follows:
Deck your tremolo
The first and easiest option is to ‘deck’ your tremolo. This simply involves placing springs into the back of your guitar. These springs create tension, which pull the bridge down so that it is flush against the body of your guitar.
By no means will this increase sustain dramatically. However it will help you to get a little more out of each note. It will also improve tuning stability. Crucially, it will allow you to do this without altering your guitar. In fact when you take this approach you can still use your tremolo. You just can’t alter the pitch of the notes in both directions as you can with a fully floating tremolo system. You will still be able to raise your notes in pitch, but you won’t be able to lower them.
Block your tremolo
If you are looking to make a more significant change, then you can block your tremolo. Eric Clapton has done this for many years. It is a quick and easy change to make, and one which can both increase sustain and improve tuning stability.
All you need to do is take a small block of wood – preferably something like maple, alder or ash – and place it in the back of your guitar, between the metal bridge block and the side of the bridge cavity. This renders the tremolo system ineffective and essentially turns your Strat into a hardtail.
As is the case when you deck your tremolo, this will increase your sustain and improve your tuning stability. However it will improve both of these elements beyond what happens when you simply deck your tremolo.
Again this is a very easy and quick change to make to your guitar. So if a little further down the road you decide that you want to use your tremolo arm, then you can remove the block of wood and you’re good to go!
The second and significant element of the Robert Cray Signature Strats that impact his tone are the pickups. Somewhat unusually, in both the Custom Shop and Mexican made versions of the guitar, the pickups are just noted as being ‘Vintage-Style Single-Coil Strat’ pickups.
To my knowledge, Fender do not offer a set of pickups under this name. As such, finding the exact pickups that Robert Cray uses might be a challenge. The good news though is that there are a wide range of vintage style Strat pickups out there (many of which I detail in this article here).
If you want to stick with Fender, then either the Fender Custom Shop ’54 Stratocaster Pickups or Fender Custom Shop Fat ’50s Stratocaster Pickups would work well. Beyond that, some of my top recommendations are as follows:
- Bare Knuckle Pickups – ‘Apache’ Single Coils
- Seymour Duncan Alnico II Strat Pickups
- Lollar Vintage Tweed Pickups
- Fralin Pickups – Real ’54s
All of these pickup sets will help you to dial in those clean and crisp Robert Cray style tones. They will also help you to create some beautiful low gain tones when combined with the right overdrive pedal(s).
When it comes to talking about neck shapes on guitars, there tends to be 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 Robert Cray’s Signature Strat 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.
His specific neck however is noted as being a ’61 C’.
Fender seem somewhat vague on the exact dimensions of this style of neck. On their website they state that there are further subdivisions of each neck type, and that these are ‘usually denoted by a design year or era… in which subtle period-specific variations in one of the basic neck profiles is recreated precisely’.
My understanding is that the ’61 C’ neck is slightly deeper than a modern C shape neck. As such, it is likely to feel familiar to the necks on most modern Strats, whilst being a little bit chunkier. This particular neck shape is also one that has been used on a variety of different Fender Custom Shop guitars, including Rory Gallagher’s Strat, and Albert Collins’ Telecaster.
In addition to the neck shape on Cray’s Custom Shop Strat, a lot of attention was paid to the radius of the fretboard. To discuss fretboard radius in depth is a separate topic and one that is beyond the scope of this article. However in short, fretboard radius refers to the curvature of the fretboard. The lower the fretboard radius, the greater the curvature of the fretboard, and vice versa.
On most modern Strats, the fretboard radius is 9.5”. On Robert Cray’s Strat however, the radius is 12″. This means that there is less curvature across the fretboard.
Broadly speaking, fretboards with a bigger radius are generally believed to be more suitable for playing single notes and solos. Conversely, those with a lower radius are more suited to playing chords.
Neither the width of your guitar neck or its fretboard radius have an impact on tone. They only affect playability. As such, changing the neck on your guitar and replacing it with one that reflects the measurements listed above will not instantly improve or change your tone.
It could however make your guitar feel more comfortable to play. And if you are able to play with greater ease, then it is likely that your tone will improve as a result. So if you are going out to buy a new Strat, it is worth taking these points into account.
If you already have a Strat though and you are happy with its feel and playability, then you certainly don’t need to worry about these factors in your quest to sound like Robert Cray.
Like his contemporary Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray opted for gold hardware on his Strat. His Custom Shop Strat features a gold bridge, a gold jack input and gold guitar tuners.
These elements of Cray’s Strat have no impact on his tone and are purely aesthetic. Having said that, if you want to sound like Robert Cray and you love the look of his guitar, then you can easily buy these accessories.
Some of my top recommendations here are as follows:
These appointments will not impact your tone at all. However they will give your Strat a distinctive look, reminiscent of both Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitars.
Like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray pays close attention to the setup of his guitar. And in fact there are many similarities between the way he and Vaughan set their guitars up. This is because they both have quite a powerful and physical playing style. And in both cases this contributes in a significant way to their tone.
So whilst broadly speaking, the setup of your guitar does not have a direct impact on your tone, it enables you to play in certain ways, which in turn alters your tone.
I will talk in more detail about Robert Cray’s playing style below. However in short, Cray has quite a physical playing style. He executes big, powerful bends and he rarely plays single notes without a generous amount of vibrato.
The way he sets his guitar up enables this playing style. Some of the key elements that are important to consider are as follows:
Cray sets his guitars up with quite a high action. In his own words:
I would say that my action is high. I like to get under the strings to see and feel what’s hiding there. Most of the time it’s something good!Robert Cray
A lot of guitarists pay little attention to their action. But actually, raising the action on your guitar is quite a simple way of improving 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. As Cray noted, it also allows you to ‘get under’ the strings whilst bending.
It is for this reason that Stevie Ray Vaughan played with a high action, and why modern players like Josh Smith and Dan Patlansky do so as well.
Robert Cray uses D’addario strings in a custom gauge, which runs as follows: .011, .013, .018, .028, .036 and .046. So he uses quite a heavy gauge on the treble strings, and a more moderate gauge on the bass strings. He opts for this gauge to facilitate his physical playing style.
I explore the topic of string gauge, as well as the pros and cons of heavier gauge strings in much more detail in these articles here and here. So if you are new to the topic and are looking for more information, I would recommend reading those articles first before continuing here.
In short though, heavier gauge strings will produce a thicker and more resonant sound than those that are thinner. So if you want to sound like Robert Cray, it could be worth experimenting with heavier guitar strings.
Cray uses D’Addario strings in a custom gauge that are not available to buy. However any of the following sets are very close in gauge and would work well:
- D’Addario Nickel Wound Strings (.011-.049)
- D’Addario Regular Light Plus Strings (.0105-0.48)
- Ernie Ball Power Slinky (.011-.048)
- Curt Mangan Pure Nickel Wound Strings (.011-.048)
These are just some of the many different options out there. But hopefully they will help to give you an idea of some of the string sets you can try which are similar to those that Cray uses.
Striking the balance
Before we continue to look at some of the unique elements of Robert Cray’s setup, I want to talk briefly about playability.
The way that Robert Cray sets his guitar up aligns with his playing style. He has quite heavy guitar strings that he can strike with power. And these same strings – combined with his high action – gives his tone depth and sustain.
Yet these elements of his setup also make 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 when you also play with a high action.
Don’t forget this when you are trying to sound like Robert Cray. 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 Robert Cray, you need to be able to bend your strings, apply vibrato and apply all of the techniques he uses that give 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 Cray’s but never allow the changes you make to compromise your playing style.
Similarly, be conservative with any changes you make to your set-up. If for example you currently play .009 gauge strings, 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.
The same goes for your action. Make small adjustments until you find that sweet spot between tone and playability.
One further element of your setup that could be worth considering if you want to sound like Robert Cray is your pickup height. According to Michael Stevens of the Custom Shop, Cray asked him to lower the pickups on his Strat so they were almost level with his pickguard. In Stevens’ words:
If you had the pickup a long way from the string, you’d get less attack and much more (of) an acoustic sound. You’d have to turn the amp (up) a little bit. And that’s where a lot of Cray’s tone comes from – his fingers, and the real low pickupsMichael Stevens
I’ll discuss Cray’s playing style in more detail below. However if you are really intent on sounding like Robert Cray, it could be worth experimenting with your pickup height.
The tonal sweet spot for you will depend on what sounds good to you, as well as the rest of the gear you are using. However some general recommendations to keep in mind are as follows:
You want the bass side of your pickups to be lower than the treble side. This will prevent the wound strings from overpowering the treble strings. You also want to set the neck pickup a little lower than the bridge pickup. This is because the neck pickup typically generates a bit more volume. Finally, you want to tweak the heights of each of your pickups so that the volume of your guitar remains relatively stable when you toggle through each of them.
Give this a go, and play around until you’ve found those beautiful blues tones you have in mind.
Once you are happy with the height of your pickups, you want to make sure that you are using the right pickup positions at any given moment to sound like Robert Cray.
As Cray notes in this video here, he toggles between different pickup positions as follows:
- When playing rhythm, he typically uses the bridge pickup to create a warmer sound
- For his solos, he generally opts to play in the second position, with his bridge and middle pickups selected together.
- When playing solos in the higher registers of his guitar, he sometimes switches to the bridge pickup
- He rarely (if ever) uses the middle position
Of course, the pickup positions that you choose to use will depend on the rest of your rig and also on the song you are playing in any given moment. Having said that, playing solos using your bridge and middle pickup together will instantly get you into Robert Cray territory. That is what I would define as his ‘classic’ lead sound. So if you are looking to recreate his lead tones, I would recommend using that pickup position too.
When it comes to amps, Robert Cray also favours simplicity. For most of his early career, Cray used a variety of classic Fender amps. These included Fender Super Reverbs, Fender Twin Reverbs and a Fender Vibro-King.
Apparently, whilst playing live he used two Super Reverbs. Conversely, in the studio he opted for a Super Reverb and a Twin Reverb. To get his signature sound whilst playing live, Cray set the volume on his amps at 5, the treble and middle each on 10, the bass on 4 and the reverb around 3. He also kept the bright switch on his amps turned on.
The Fender Super Reverb and Twin Reverb are some of the most famous Fender amplifiers of all time. B.B. King, Peter Green, Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Derek Trucks are just some of the many blues guitarists to have used these amps.
Both of these amps are still also widely available. This is not true of the Vibro-King, which is no longer in production. Having said that, you can still quite easily buy Vibro-King amps on Reverb. Depending on the condition, prices start from around $2400/£1700.
However, before you go out and buy one of these amps to add to your setup, there are two further factors to consider. And these are as follows:
Volume & headroom
The first issue – as is so often the case when it comes to replicating the tones of famous blues guitarists – is that of volume. All of the Fender amps that Cray used are big and powerful. And whilst Cray did not often push these amps into overdrive by cranking them, he was still producing a fair bit of volume.
If you are predominantly playing at home and need to be mindful of your volume, then one of these big and powerful amps is not going to be the best choice.
The second argument against rushing out to buy a Fender Super or Twin Reverb is that in more recent years, Robert Cray has used Matchless amps. In his own words:
We were doing a show in Hollywood opening up for Bonnie Raitt, and I had the chance to try out her guitar player’s setup; I played down by the bridge and the sound through the Matchless just flipped me outRobert Cray
Cray still has the Fender Super Reverb, which he uses on occasion when recording. But now the Matchless Clubman 35 is his main amp, which he pairs up with a 4×10 cabinet.
Matchless are often described as being the brand that launched the boutique amp craze of the 1990s. Since they started in the late 1980s, they have produced a range of different boutique amps. These have been used by blues guitarists including Billy Gibbons, Joe Perry, Joe Walsh and Sonny Landreth, amongst others.
Choosing the right guitar amp
All of this begs the question, which amp should you choose if you want to sound like Robert Cray?
Assuming that your playing context prevents you from cranking a Fender Super or Twin Reverb, I think you have 2 choices. The first is to buy a smaller Fender amp. There are a number of these which will allow you to dial in those clean and crisp Robert Cray style tones at a lower volume. Some of my top choices here are as follows:
Of these amps, the Blues Junior, Pro Junior and Deluxe Reverb are slightly larger and have more headroom. This makes them a great choice if you want a great clean tone, and you also want to be able to maintain that clean tone at higher volumes.
Conversely, the Fender Princeton amps have a little less headroom. They will still allow you to dial in beautiful clean tones, but they will break up at a slightly lower volume. This would make them a great choice if you want to sound like Robert Cray, but you also want to dial in a variety of slightly more overdriven blues tones too.
Depending on your budget, the second option is to look at buying a Matchless amp. Some of my top recommendations are as follows:
If you want to sound like Robert Cray and are interested in authenticity, then the Clubman would be the obvious choice. You could then pair that up with one of the Matchless cabinets. Assuming that you are not playing in large venues, then I would recommend either the ESD212 or ESS112.
Having said that, the Clubman is still a 35 watt amp. And so if you are constrained by the volume that you can use, then I think either the Matchless Spitfire or 30/15 could be a better choice.
When it comes to setting up his Clubman, Cray sets the volume around 1 o’clock, bass at 11 o’clock and the treble and brilliance at 1 o’clock. He then sets the master volume at 3 o’clock.
I have touched on Cray’s playing style at various points throughout this article. Now though let’s dig into it in a bit more detail.
I would argue that there are two elements of Cray’s style which play a significant role in his tone.
The first of these is his vibrato. Cray applies a lot of vibrato to every note. In fact in many of the clips I have seen of Cray playing, there is a fine line between his vibrato style and string bending. He really does shift the pitch of the notes when he applies vibrato. And this is a signature part of his sound. As he once joked – ‘(It’s) almost to the point sometimes (where) I think of pulling it out of tune’.
So if you want to sound like Robert Cray and you have the key pieces of gear in place, I would recommend paying close attention to your vibrato technique. Firstly, this will improve your lead playing more generally. In addition, it will also go a long way in helping you to recreate Cray’s signature sound.
The second element of his playing style that is note worthy is his right hand picking technique. Cray uses picks most of the time. Specifically, he uses fairly heavy gauge Dunlop Tortex Picks. These help him to dig in and attack the strings. And that definitely contributes towards his tone.
In addition to this, at times Cray adopts a similar technique to Albert Collins – with whom he toured and played in his early career. Specifically, Cray sometimes tucks his pick into his palm, and uses his first or middle finger to pick and snap the treble strings. This gives a percussive edge to his sound. It is an edge that you can hear in a lot of his solos. And it is one that instantly creates a sound reminiscent of Albert Collins’ playing.
As such, if you want to recreate the funky sound of some of Cray’s lead work, I would also recommend experimenting with this technique in your own playing.
Well there we have it, everything you need to sound like Robert Cray.
Unlike so many of the rigs and setups that I have covered in this ‘Sound Like‘ series of articles, Cray has a very stripped back setup. So much so, that for many years, Cray’s roadie would actually come onto the stage and adjust the reverb on Cray’s amp for certain solos, before heading off stage again.
Yet despite this, there is a lot that we can learn from Robert Cray’s rig. He pays a lot of attention to the setup of his guitar and really looks at how this impacts his tone and affects playability.
The way that Cray sets his guitar up enables him to play in a certain way. And it is this which helps him to create his killer blues tones. As such, I hope the advice laid out here will help you to get as much out of your guitar and amp as possible. And this will do a lot to improve your tone, both when you are trying to sound like Robert Cray, and also when you are trying to dial in a range of different blues tones.
Good luck! Let me know how you get on. And if you have any questions about your rig I can help you with, just send them across to [email protected] I am always around and happy to help 😁
Images & References
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