Stevie Ray Vaughan is one of the giants of the guitar world: he revolutionized the sound of modern blues! So it comes as no surprise that plenty of guitarists aspire to re-create his tone.
If you’re one of them, you’re probably eager to dig into Vaughan’s rig and how it shaped his playing. Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at how to create a Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar setup.
What Does It Mean to Sound Like Stevie Ray Vaughan?
Stevie Ray Vaughan is known best for his work with his blues trio, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Double Trouble. His tone (both with the trio and without) has become essentially synonymous with Texas blues. His career as a mainstream musician lasted only seven years before his life was cut tragically short by a helicopter crash.
But even though Stevie Ray’s time in the spotlight was brief, his influence on the guitar world has been everlasting. With expansive, reverberating clean tones and rich, gritty overdrive, Stevie Ray forged a new era of American blues that continues today.
Of course, it’s much easier to get a sense of an artist by listening to them than by reading about them. This video lets you hear some of Stevie Ray’s best guitar solos over the years. It’s easy to see why he’s regarded as one of the best guitarists of all time!
Whether you want to sound as much like Stevie as possible or just find out how he got the tone used on certain tracks, you’ll find what you need by looking closely at his guitar setup and the rest of his rig.
The Stevie Ray Vaughan Guitar Setup
Usually, when someone mentions a guitar setup, they’re just referencing string height, neck relief, adjustments to tuning machines or other hardware, etc. And while we’ll take a look at how Stevie Ray preferred to set up his guitar, we’ll also look at the various types of gear he used to create the tone America came to love.
Like any professional guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan traveled with several different guitars, most of which were Fender Stratocasters. For this rundown, we’re going to focus on Stevie’s main guitar, a Strat called “Number One”.
Number One was a well-worn guitar that had been rebuilt countless times. It had the body of a 1963 Fender Stratocaster and a 1962 Strat neck with a rosewood fretboard. And of course, you likely already know that the lower part of the pickguard was emblazoned with SRV, Stevie’s initials.
Though Stevie kept the original neck that had come with the guitar for quite some time, he eventually replaced it with a 1950s Fender neck given to him by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.
The re-fretted neck is also worth mentioning. Number One’s neck had medium frets initially. But Stevie’s guitar tech Rene Martinez noticed that the frets kept getting worn out. He began fretting the neck with jumbo frets. The result was a faster neck that was still very well-suited to Stevie’s playing style.
How to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Guitar Tone
If you want to get as close to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tone as possible, you might want to purchase an actual vintage Strat. The Fender Custom Shop also makes reissue models with the same specs as vintage Fenders. If you want a look similar to Stevie’s, go for a guitar with gold hardware, too!
You also can buy Stevie Ray Vaughan Stratocasters, as these guitars are generally modeled closely after Number One.
That said, the body of the guitar is just one small piece in Stevie’s tone. Any Strat-style guitar is a good start to emulating Stevie’s signature tone.
No guitar gear discussion is complete without a mention of the pickups used. You may already know that Stevie frequently referred to his guitar as a 1959 model. This was partially accurate, as the pickups themselves were from 1959. Since he got Number One secondhand, it came with these pickups installed.
Not a whole lot of research has been done into the exact model of pickups Stevie used in his various guitars. But the 1959 single coils were notable in that they seemed to have a more pronounced low end than most. Their sound was slightly mid-scooped, but they still had the high-end sparkle that Strats are known for.
If you have the budget and the patience to shop around, actual single-coils from 1959 will get you close to Stevie’s tone. However, chasing down vintage pickups isn’t the most practical advice.
On the more general side, any Strat with “vintage-style” pickups can deliver a reasonably close approximation. If you just want to replace your guitar’s current pickups with something closer to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tone, it’s a good idea to look for Texas single-coils.
These pickups have a bit more output than your average single-coil, and they have a distinctive, midrange-forward sound that works beautifully with blues.
High Action and Heavy Strings
Lots of great lead guitar players like light-gauge strings for their fast playability and ease of playing. But Stevie Ray Vaughan preferred to play with very heavy gauge strings. The high E string was 0.13 and the low E was 0.60. In the guitar world, these are gauges that you more often find on acoustic guitars!
Playing with such heavy strings is unusual enough. But Stevie also played with very high action. Rene Martinez, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar tech who he initially met at Charley’s Guitar Shop, said in an interview that he adjusted the strings on Stevie’s guitar as high as they could possibly go.
So why did this combo work? Rene Martinez believes that Stevie’s aggressive playing style worked. Stevie’s hands were very strong, and he turned to E flat (a half-step down from standard tuning), so string tension was reduced somewhat.
Still, the high strings did take a bit of a toll, as Stevie’s guitar tech often noticed his fingertips starting to bleed. Stevie Ray seemed relatively unbothered that his guitar setup was drawing blood, though!
If your fingertips are starting to hurt just reading this, don’t worry! Stevie’s tone was influenced much more by his playing style than it was by his string gauge or action. That said, trying out slightly heavier strings than normal can be a tonal adventure. Similarly, you might want to experiment with down-tuning as well.
As for string brand, Stevie’s guitar tech has said that he seemed to not have a favorite manufacturer of strings. But he often strung his Number One Fender Stratocaster with GHS Nickel Rockers. If you’re after a similar tone, these or another type of heavy nickel strings should get you the sound you need.
If you’ve ever played with a whammy bar (also called a tremolo arm), you know that it opens up opportunities for creating new soundscapes with dirty or clean tones. But Stevie’s tremolo was unusual in that it was a left-handed tremolo on a right-handed guitar.
It’s possible that Stevie had a tremolo installed this way in order to emulate Hendrix tones. After all, Jimi Hendrix often preferred playing flipped right-handed guitars over playing left-handed guitars.
But the unique tremolo placement may have been more for the sake of convenience. With a left-handed tremolo, Stevie was able to hit the tremolo arm with his elbow and leave his picking hand free for picking.
Stevie was able to use his tremolo to create a wonderfully expressive Texas blues tone, so getting a guitar with a tremolo is a great step toward being able to emulate it. That tremolo doesn’t have to be a left-handed tremolo on a right-handed guitar!
Getting Stevie’s Tone With Amps
Now we have the basics of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar setup. But as any guitar player can attest, the amps you use have a major impact on tone. Just like the guitar setup, the amps in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rig were far from conventional.
As a Guitar World profile on Stevie’s tone notes, many guitarists who use multiple amps will opt to use a Marshall for distorted tone and a Fender for clean tone. Stevie Ray Vaughan often did things the other way around.
His main clean amp was a 100-watt Marshall 4140 Club and Country. This model was a combo amp with two speakers that was effectively the Marshall version of the Fender Twin Reverb amps, also known for their clean tones.
The 4140 was a mainstay in Vaughan’s live rig until 1984. At that point, he replaced it with a Dumble Steel String Singer. The Dumble Steel String Singer is an exceptionally rare amp, as builder Alexander Dumble only made around 12 of them. This hand-built amp had incredible built-in reverb perfect for playing clean. Stevie paired the Dumble Steel String Singer amp head with a cabinet full of Electro-Voice speakers.
Even before the Marshall Club and Country joined his rig, Stevie did use a Fender amp for clean tone. He used a Fender Super Reverb from the 1960s. As he did with many of his amps, he ran this amp through Electro-Voice speakers. Stevie’s EV-loaded Super Reverbs helped him shape the clean tone he became famous for.
Of course, overdrive was a key part of the Stevie Ray Vaughan tone. He used two 15-watt 1964 Fender Vibroverb amps for overdrive. To add extra sonic texture, he also used one of these two identical amps to power a Fender Vibratone. The Fender Vibratone isn’t an amp; it’s a rotating speaker cabinet.
Stevie used many other Fender amps throughout his career. These included the Fender Bassman and the Fender Harvard.
Later on in his career, Stevie ended up using a Marshall amp for overdriven lead tones. In 1988, he acquired a 1967 Marshall Major Lead. He used this 200-watt amp head and his Dumble amps to create a somewhat stripped-down live rig.
Over time, though, most of these amps were modified by Cesar Diaz, Stevie’s amp technician. Stevie also tended to use splitter boxes to be able to play two amps at once. As a result, his sound became highly individualized and can be a real challenge to replicate.
Chances are good that you don’t have the inclination to purchase several different amps to sound like Stevie. And if you live with or near other people, a high-powered amp with lots of headroom may be impractical.
If you want to get close to Stevie’s sound with one amp, a Fender tube amp with relatively low wattage is a great choice for home use. These amps have warm, beautiful clean tones. But the wattage is low enough that you can pish them and get an overdriven sound at low volume. The Blues Junior is a great candidate.
If you want to replicate Stevie’s tone as closely as possible, you might be interested in a Dumble Steel String Singer clone. These amps are somewhat expensive, but they are hand-built and do a good job of creating the spacious reverb the original was known for.
Choosing Effects Pedals
Stevie Ray Vaughan bought different amps throughout this career as his sound evolved. But like most guitarists, he also purchased a range of effects. These little metal boxes certainly look small next to most of Stevie’s amps, but they made a major impact on his sound!
If you want to sound like Stevie, you might want to consider using one or more of these pedals in your playing.
Ibanez Tube Screamer
You might be somewhat surprised to hear that one of the main effects Vaughan owned was the Ibanez Tube Screamer, a classic pedal loved by guitarists of all ages and abilities. Stevie used the TS9 version of the Tube Screamer for most of his career. Since a lot of the distortion in his playing came from the amps themselves, Stevie largely used the TS9 as a clean boost.
Eventually, he replaced the TS9 with a TS10 Tube Screamer. This pedal was used both for creating boost and adding high-gain distortion, especially on solos.
The Ibanez Tube Screamer is one of the easiest of Stevie’s pedals to acquire. It’s still made, is relatively inexpensive, and even comes in a mini version if you need a smaller pedalboard footprint.
Octavia Fuzz Pedal
Stevie was fond of using a fuzz pedal that produces octave-up effects, largely because they let him make sounds like those of Jimi Hendrix. He initially used Roger Mayer Octavia pedals. But after Cesar Diaz found a few Tycobrahe Octavia pedals, Stevie traded the Roger Mayer pedals for the Tycobrahe.
Stevie claimed that the Tycobrahe pedals created the best octave-up sound he’d heard, even though they were very straightforward pedals with two controls: volume and boost. He especially liked to use them along with the Tube Screamer.
Tycobrahe only made pedals for a few years, so the Tycobrahe Octavia is rare and can sell for quite a bit of money used. The good news is that many pedal manufacturers make octave fuzz pedals that can help you create a similar tone.
We mentioned the Vibratone earlier when discussing amps. But the Vibratone rotating speaker is technically an “effects cabinet.” It creates a distinctive chorus effect like the one you can hear in Stevie’s song “Cold Shot”.
The Vibratone was based on the Leslie speaker cabinet, a rotating speaker cabinet built for the Hammond organ. Like the Leslie, it has two speeds: a slow one called “chorale” (a chorus effect) and a faster one called “tremolo” (a tremolo effect).
The Vibratone isn’t the easiest effect to come by. But if you want a similar sound, a good chorus pedal is an easier way to get it. After all, chorus pedals are based on the Leslie/Vibratone sound.
Though Stevie usually preferred the Vibratone, the Uni-Vibe pedal was a more portable version that offered a similar, Leslie-like effect.
This pedal was used by many great electric guitarists, and it is no longer made. As a result, the few used models in circulation often sell for thousands of dollars. Fortunately, though, there are a number of Uni-Vie clones out there. Alternatively, even some inexpensive multi-effects units include a Leslie or Vibratone emulation.
Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face
If you’re familiar with Jimi Hendrix, you know that the Fuzz Face was central to his sound. Stevie knew this, too. And since he wanted to be able to sound like Hendrix, he added an authentic 1960s Fuzz Face to his signal chain in 1988. In time, he collected several.
But as was the case with much of Stevie’s other gear, the Fuzz Face pedals eventually became customized. Their germanium transistors were unreliable, so his amp tech Cesar Diaz modified them. Eventually, the modified Fuzz Faces inspired Diaz’s own design, the Diaz Texas Square Face.
Both the Fuzz Face and Texas Square Face can sometimes be found used. But if you’re looking for a more affordable way to get a similar sound, Dunlop makes a more accessible version of the Fuzz Face.
Roland SDD-320 Dimension D
The Roland Dimension D was not an effect used in Stevie’s live work, but it eventually became a valuable studio tool. He discovered it when editing the guitar tracks he recorded for David Bowie’s album Let’s Dance. This effect worked a little like a chorus, but it was much more subtle: it could thicken the sound of the guitar without adding a warbly feel or otherwise altering the tonal character of the original track.
If you’re like most guitarists, you probably would rather not buy very expensive rackmount gear. But if you want the Dimension D sound, there’s an easier way to get it. There are various audio plugins designed to emulate the sound of the legendary Dimension D.
Dytronics FS-1 Cyclosonic Panner
This panner is another piece of studio gear. As the name suggests, it creates a strikingly vivid panning effect complete with modulation. Using it well makes guitar tracks sound 3D!
Though this isn’t a piece of gear he could take onstage, Stevie used it in the studio on “Riviera Paradise.”
There were only a few hundred of these devices ever made, so finding an authentic, working one is somewhat difficult. They are also quite expensive. However, some software companies make plugins designed to sound like the Cyclosonic Panner.
MXR Loop Selector
Once you get the hang of them, loop selectors can do a lot for your sound. And since Stevie liked to play using multiple amps at a time (or multiple effects chains at a time), he would use the loop selector to move between them.
Stevie also used the loop selector to be able to quickly and easily add the Tube Screamer to his signal chain and take it out again.
Luckily, loop selectors are pretty easy to come by, and they aren’t all that expensive; many pedal manufacturers make some version of a loop selector.
VOX V846 Wah
This pedal was no ordinary wah pedal. Jimmie Vaughan, Stevie’s brother, got it from Jimi Hendrix when Jimmie’s band shared a bill with Hendrix’s band. This wah pedal was from the 1960s, and it was Stevie Ray’s favorite. However, as you might expect, Stevie had a number of different Vox wah pedals.
This effect was one of his favorites when it came to adding sonic texture to his songs. On “Say What,” he even played two wah pedals at once!
The wah pedal is another one that is relatively inexpensive and easy to get. Vox still makes Wahs, but if you prefer another pedal manufacturer, there are many other options out there.
Other Buying Considerations
Usually, when we take a look at a given guitarist’s tone, the type of pick they use doesn’t seem all that important. But Stevie had such a uniquely aggressive attack that it can be helpful to know a little more about how his technique impacted his tone.
You might expect to hear that Stevie used heavy picks. But somewhat surprisingly, he used Fender medium celluloid picks. He held them upside down so that the rounded part of the pick (instead of the pointed part) struck the strings.
If you also have a powerful attack, this type of pick may be a good choice. But most guitarists don’t attack the strings as Stevie did, so if you want to emulate his sound, using a heavy pick just might be the right way to do so. And if you want to play many notes in sequence as Stevie did, try a “speed pick” or a small, heavy pick with a sharp point.
Should You Change Your Setup?
Now you have an idea of how to best emulate Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rig. And while changing up the gear you have is a matter of taste, it’s important to take some caution before altering the setup of your guitar itself.
Setups are very individualized, and what works for one person can actually hinder another. For instance, let’s look at the high action on Stevie’s guitars. Higher strings will sometimes deliver a clear tone that rings out easily. And since Stevie has a very strong fretting hand and a very strong pick attack, the high action worked for him.
But if you have a much different guitar technique, playing with very high action may actually make you sound worse (or less like Stevie, if that’s what you’re going for). When the strings are very high off the fretboard, it puts a good bit of stress on your fingers. Playing fast-flying solos gets harder, and if you want to barre chords, that can prove very difficult.
The same goes for playing with heavier strings. Ultimately, your playing style has more impact on your sound than the strings you use. Heavier strings can certainly give you a heavier sound, but if the heavy gauge hinders your technique, it’s a much better idea to play with a lighter gauge.
So how do you discover the setup that works best for you? Most guitarists won’t instantly discover the perfect setup. The best way to do so is to gradually make minor adjustments. You might raise your action slightly and find that that makes playing easier, or you might switch to a lighter string gauge and find that your solos suddenly get a lot faster.
If you have a tremolo system, there are even more changes to make. You might add or remove springs, or change the type of springs used. This alters string tension and also changes the amount of pressure needed.
Multiple tense springs mean that you will need a heavier hand on the whammy bar to create a pitch-bend effect. Fewer springs (or just looser springs) mean that you need a much lighter touch to achieve the same effect.
If you have experience setting up guitars, you might want to make these tweaks yourself. But there’s something to be said for getting a professional setup. And having your guitar set up by a professional doesn’t have to break the bank, either. Guitar Center and other guitar shops will usually offer setups for a relatively low price.
Another advantage of a professional setup is that you can ask the technician for advice. If you tell them a bit about your playing style and what you value when it comes to playability, they might be able to make suggestions and help you discover what it is you need in a setup.
Discover a New Sound!
Trying to emulate the tone of Stevie Ray Vaughan or any other famous guitarist can be a lot of fun. But hopefully, as you try out new effects, techniques, and gear, you’ll be able to develop your own style as well.
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Yes. Stevie’s Number One Fender Strat had a floating tremolo, as most Stratocasters do. He used five springs on the tremolo (the most possible) to increase string tension.
Stevie’s main guitar had Fender single-coils from 1959. These were added to his guitar after it was built but before he acquired it.
Guitar World notes that Stevie Ray Vaughan seemed drawn to the number 6, so he insisted on setting his amps to that level. Cesar Diaz, who worked as Stevie’s amp tech, would remove the knobs, turn the amp’s level to 10, and replace the knobs so it appeared the amp was still set at 6.