Monday, September 12, 2016

The SRV Gear Guide

It is only appropriate to start with possibly the ultimate legend in the valley of the tone-seeker, a fellow Texan, Stevie Ray Vaughan.  As he needs no further introduction, let’s dive right into what made SRV SRV, with a heavy focus on his amps, while establishing some background and dispelling some myths…

SRV with Number One

We can’t begin without talking about his Number One Strat, which Stevie claimed to be a ’59, since that was the date stamped on the back of the pickups… this was incorrect, however,  as guitar tech Rene Martinez (who oversaw SRV’s guitars since 1980) found the stamp of 1963 on the body and 1962 on the original neck (the neck was replaced in 1989 after it could no longer be refretted properly; Rene used the neck from another SRV favorite, “Red”, as it was also a 1962 model). The pickups are also relatively low output, not the hot overwound myth that gained legs during the 80s… all 3 pickups are rumored to be under 6k ohms output impedance, which would be typical of a 1959 set (the neck pickups tended to be hottest, but not by much). Although the Fender SRV signature model uses Texas Special pickups, which Stevie was heavily involved in the making of, they do not accurately represent the sound of his original Number One (For my money, I use a set of Arcane ’61 Experience pickups in my main strat, and they sound incredible, especially in the neck/middle combined position).

As for strings, SRV used 13’s, as famously rumored, but it was a custom set with an unwound 3rd string… exact gauges, according to Rene Martinez, were .013, .015, .019p, .028, .038, and .058. Stevie had large, incredibly strong hands, but even he couldn’t bend a wound G-string up a full step for an entire night. Also, as he tuned down to Eb, the tension on the strings was closer to that of 12s, but with increased thickness. There is much debate as to the tonal difference with string gauge… I’ve found the biggest noticeable difference when using higher gain amps, as thicker strings retain their clarity a bit more than thinner, and as SRV loved big, clean tones (more when we get into his amps), I imagine this influenced his choice, but perhaps not more than the feel & his playing style… his percussive right hand strumming was acoustic-like, and light strings wouldn’t be able to take that kind of punishment for long.  Late in his career, he did go down a bit lighter to 11s (although it’s total speculation, I’ve gotta believe this had something to do with his getting sober… nerves become a lot more sensitive when you’re not dulling them constantly, and his fingertips took a beating from those 13s).

Although Stevie had several other great guitars in his arsenal, Number One was like an extension of his body & soul, and the others were just variations on the model he played primarily. I’d instead prefer to focus on SRV’s numerous and ever-changing array of amplifiers (I’ll be using a bit of info from this excellent Guitar World article, but have gone even further in depth).

Rear shot of Vibroverb #1

From the start, while cutting his teeth at clubs like Antone’s on 6th street in Austin, it was a pair of 1964 Fender Vibroverbs that anchored the SRV tone, along with an Ibanez Tubescreamer to push them into overdrive. These two amps were both 15” combos (as opposed to the earlier ’63 models with 2x10” speakers), and powered by dual 6L6 power tubes for 40 watts of power each (Fun fact: although the amps were purchased years apart in different states, the serial numbers are one digit apart). Cesar Diaz would eventually mod these Vibroverbs with solid state rectifiers to increase the available headroom and squeeze a few more watts of juice out of them. In fact, Cesar mod’d just about all of SRV’s amps with a solid state rectifier, to prevent harmful voltages from damaging the tubes at such high volumes, and also because Stevie preferred the extra headroom and quicker response feel (Fender even made a special hand-wired '64 Vibroverb reissue with the Diaz mods, including a switchable rectifier circuit and ability to cascade one channel into the other. It is now discontinued). Transformers were also swapped out for the beefier hunks of iron found in Twins & Bassmans, as they held up much better at high levels than the original units. SRV initially used JBL D130 alnico speakers in these combos, then E130 ceramics, but eventually switched to ElectroVoice M15Ls (and stuck with EVs for the rest of his career, for both their power handling and high sensitivity before breakup). One of these combos was also used to drive his Fender Vibratone rotating speaker cabinet for live performances of “Cold Shot” and “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” later on.

Number One leaning against a Vibroverb (left) & rarely seen Marshall Club & Country (right)

SRV's Vibroverb (center) flanked by what look to be a pair of Mesa/Boogie combos, as he had mentioned using briefly around the David Bowie era.

As Stevie’s popularity grew, so did the size of venues and need for more power. Stevie would add a Marshall Club & Country combo (Marshall's answer to the Fender Twin, a 100-watt 2x12 with KT77 tubes & Celestion G12-80 speakers) to his Vibroverbs for more clean power, as well as experiment with blackface Fender Twins and Mesa/Boogie combos (likely Mark IIc+ models, used with David Bowie). This was the beginning of the quest for the ultimate LOUD yet clean tone, retaining clarity and detail along with the beautiful harmonic enrichment of cranked power tubes, and would be a lifelong venture. He also added a pair of Fender Super Reverb 4x10” combos to the stage, essentially the same amplifier as the Vibroverb but providing some variance in tone due to the different speaker array. With all four 10" speakers replaced with EVs, each combo weighed nearly 130 pounds and could take your head off with bite. The Super Reverbs even replaced the Vibroverbs altogether at one point in the mid-80s ever-changing amplifier landscape.

The Texas Flood Dumbleland Special, once owned by Jackson Browne, shown here being used in a recording session by John Mayer (recently sold for $160,000 to a private collector).

SRV with his Dumble SSS "King Tone Consoul" and custom Hamiltone strat, a gift from Billy Gibbons.

At Jackson Browne's Downtown Studios, SRV would encounter the Dumbleland Special amplifier head, originally built for and owned by Browne. There’s some debate as to whether this amp was a monster 300-watt model designed for bass, or the more conventional 150w head using 6550 tubes (which SRV’s eventual custom model would utilize), but either way, Stevie loved it, and used it along with his beloved Vibroverbs for the recording of his debut album (This amp was most recently owned & used by John Mayer for a brief period, before selling it to a collector). He would then contact Alexander Dumble and order his own custom amp, a Steel String Singer model, voiced to his personal specs and used on his next album, Couldn’t Stand the Weather (which, in my opinion, contained his best guitar tones ever recorded).  This amp would be dubbed “King Tone Consoul”, and regarded along with Number One as Stevie’s most prized and important pieces of gear (another similar Dumble would be built and added as a backup, with a third model ordered but never delivered due to a rumored dispute between Dumble & SRV, more on this later). After some speaker experimentation, a 4x12 loaded with EV M12Ls became the mainstay. The quest for a bold, beautiful clean tone was complete, and now it was time for some Hendrix-inspired color.

One of SRV's SSS heads, underneath a Marshall. This is from Jimmie Vaughan's personal collection, 
on display at the Grammy museum.

Fender Vibratone cab (upper left), on top of what looks like a Marshall 8x10" cab, two Dumble heads on top of a Super Reverb (being used as a speaker cab), and a Vibroverb (far right).

Vibratone (left), a stack of 4x12s, and Marshall Major on top of Dumble head (right).

As a lifelong Jimi devotee, Stevie began paying tribute to him both on album and in concert, and added a 200-watt Marshall Major lead head to the arsenal, at one point even ditching all of the Fenders and running just the Marshall & Dumble for a bit (You can see & hear this duo in the interview video below). Blowing tubes on this amp was an almost nightly occurrence, according to amp tech Cesar Diaz, as Stevie would walk over and crank it up to 10 for the encore “Voodoo Child” at the end of the set. He was also occasionally seen using Marshall Super Leads and even JCM 800s in the late 80s, but these flirtations rarely lasted long.

In addition to the Marshall, Stevie began experimenting with Dallas-Arbiter germanium Fuzzfaces, but inconsistency in the original units led Cesar to build a custom fuzz pedal for Stevie with matched germanium transistors, known as the Diaz Square Face fuzz. Stevie also incorporated an Octavia octave fuzz and original UniVibe pedal for his Hendrix tributes, along with Vox wah pedals. He famously linked two wahs together for the tune “Say What!”, and also ran a pair of Tubescreamers together at times, one set for the more traditional boost, the other with the gain higher (These pedals would feed into all of the amps simultaneously).

An SRV pedalboard with closeup of MXR Loop Selector used for engaging Vibratone

Another pedalboard featuring the Hendrix-style Roger Mayer Octavia (3rd from left, UFO-shaped), and Arbiter Fuzz Face (2nd from right, round)

During the recording of In Step, SRV had as many as 32 amps at his disposal, running up to 10 simultaneously, including a couple of reissue ’59 Bassman heads.  There’s a great article with producer Jim Gaines on the making of this album for more info.

Studio shot from the In Step sessions, L-R: Marshall JCM 800, Blonde Fender Twin, Dumble Steel String Singer, Fender Super Reverb, Marshall Majors on 8x10" & 4x15" cabs.

Shortly before his death, and likely influenced by Eric Clapton (whom used Soldanos heavily in the late 80s), Stevie began talking to amp builder Mike Soldano about a custom amp that could deliver the kind of tone he loved from his cranked amps but at a lower volume, and without any pedals… they started work on a custom model, but it wouldn’t be completed until after Stevie’s untimely death (See the below feature from Guitar World for more on this amp). 

It is rumored that Alexander Dumble wasn’t happy with Stevie’s flirting with another amp designer, which caused the delay and ultimate non-delivery of his third Steel String Singer (it’s also rumored that Dumble doubled the cost at the last minute, but none of this has been substantiated). This means that in addition to the Soldano, there is another custom-made SRV amp in existence, and unfortunately the world never got to hear it.  It's my understanding that Jimmie Vaughan owns most of the classic pieces, including Number One, the Vibroverbs, and his main Dumble Steel String Singer.

And in closing, after all this talk of amps and equipment, Stevie was still Stevie on an old beat-up Gibson acoustic...


  1. The two boogie looking amps flanking the Vibroverb, in the picture with the Strat on the floor, are (At least the one on the left, and most likely also the one on right too), are Studiomaster Valve Leadmaster´s. It is an English made amp from the early 80´s. No doubt heavily inspired by boogie. As far as I recall they were VERY expensive, which no doubt is one of the reasons they vanished from the market pretty quickly.

  2. I was at a January 1986 sound check in the afternoon in Pittsburgh and a TV news crew shot some video of the sound check which is posted on YouTube. I was there that day for several hours and it was mentioned that Dumble was given a lot of money for an amp and that they were looking for Dumble as he had produced no goods for them......Dumble took the money and disappeared. But Dumble taking a long time to produce amps he was commissioned to build is once of his classic quirks......But there was a Dumble amp there that afternoon. I wasn't clear if the amp was Stevie's or if it was a borrowed amp. Personally I can be seen in the video after the second song finish when Stevie goes to the side of the stage to swap out his guitar for another......I'm standing behind Rene Martinez as he hands Stevie the guitar and get the strap locked on to the guitar. It was quite an interesting day for me being there and chatting with Stevie and Jimmie and everybody else......and finally after 33 years finding the video that the news crew videographer shot public posted as I thought it was the property of the TV station and locked in the stations archive....or destroyed.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I don;t see the one rig I got a good look at... I'm a lifetime player (Strats since the 70's) as well as a live and studio tech/engineer.
    Vaughan played a college hall in Maryland sometime after cleaning up... I had, theretofore (all hail and laugh at my public admittance and humiliation), had my head up my butt complaining that 'everything he plays is a quote off either 2 Hendrix albums or King's LIVE WIRE BLUES POWER..' and so a friend got me on the local crew for this show, assigned to his guitar tech on stage. 1/2 way through the night my head snapped up out of the book I was reading (yeah I was that misled!) when he started playing stuff off the new album and I was hearing HIM, not anything else... magnificent. I am not worthy... but I digress...
    Rig for this show was VERY simple... the Dumble SSS on top of a full stack (don't recall what brand... I recall they were dark in color...?) and my first lesson of the evening was about putting SOMETHING... gaff-tape X's in this case... across the center of each speaker which was a revelation (later I bought Weber beam-blockers for everything I have) but the Dumble was the ONLY amp he had up there. 'BUT!.." I hear you jumping in..." the Leslie???"
    The trick was a classic little-cone-Fender-footswitch that did something ingenious: it went to the top 4-12 cab and, when punched, took the signal AWAY from 2 of the 12's and inserted the JBL 10 over in the Vibratone/Leslie cabinet. It seemed to work out fine, although there was a case of JBL10's off-stage as they blew a LOT.
    Otherwise, IIRR he had a Screamer and a WAH and that's it... I'd never heard ANYTHING like the SSS moving that much air on a clean-ish stat...
    great page here... thanks!