Few artists have been so widely discussed among guitar players in terms of tone influence. Players around the entire world have tried to replicate Stevie Ray Vaughan’s licks and tone, and it sure as hell is not easily done. After having listened to and played his music for some decades we are amused with how most players focus on all the minor details and tend to overlook the big important factors. We will shed some new light on the case “How to achieve the SRV tone” – but not by listing all of Cezar Diaz’ amp mods. Neither will we dive into pickup specs and things that are just distracting details. We will kill some of the myths and make this more simple for you as a player so you can spend more of your time playing the guitar.
Let there be no doubt – the most significant factor to his tone is the man himself, his playing style and his passion. Broken down even more – it’s what he plays, how he plays it and what equipment he used to support him, that produced his overall SRV signature style and tone. His unique signature tone and straightforward pentatonic Texas blues licks can be immediately recognized. SRV invented his own licks, riffs and phrasings, and he borrowed things from players that inspired him such as Albert King, Jimi Hendrix and his older brother Jimmie Vaughan. We believe it’s his brute force and powerful technique that makes true fans recognize SRV by only hearing two seconds of a full-tone double string bend-and-shake lick from “Live at the El Mocambo”. This brute energy and control in his hands enables him with a technique and string touch that forms all his notes.
The SRV-tone can achieved with many different guitars, amps, pedals and speakers as long as you use them correctly together. But, after having said this – SRV hung on to some specific pieces of gear and ways to use his gear, that made his tone as we know it. Some of this is described in the chapters below.
It is not just the matter of big strings, it’s the relation between string gauge and the power in your hands and fingers. Stevie had enormous finger strength and big hands. He had no problems with bending and shaking 013, 015, 019 strings for hours.
- Yes it is true that fatter strings result in a fatter, darker and beefier tone. More sustain also.
- Bigger strings also handle more beating from your fingers and pick before the string is “over-hit”, resulting in buzz and a blistering attack. One can say that big strings support a more dynamically playing style, from soft picking to hard hitting.
- Bigger strings can be tuned down a half or full tone and still not be too loose, resulting in an even darker, fatter and woodier tone. Together with single coil guitars and transparent Fender amps, this will give you a richer tone.
If the strings are too big you will not have the necessary power, control and ability to play fast and bend and shake as easily as Stevie did. You won’t sound like Stevie at all, more like an amateur – you will not be able to make the bends and shakes as precise and quick as they should, all your notes will be flat without nuances, vibrato and touch’n’feel. Another good example of how powerful string control makes great tone is Kirk Fletcher. He does great things with great tone and rather light gauge (010, if we remember correctly from a YouTube clip from D’addario).
Any loss of tone fatness can partly be compensated for in your pedals and amps – therefore you should use strings that suit your fingers with a correct relationship between finger strength and string gauge. Tune down to Eb and try with 011, 015, 018, and you’ll experience that the SRV and Albert King licks are bouncing out of your left hand. Do not worry that you had to give up the 013 strings. You’ll thank us later that you did.
Guitar setup and frets
You need a high string action to allow big strings to vibrate freely without buzzing. Tall and large frets will make it easier for you to bend and shake, since your fingertips are raised from the fretboard and thus reducing friction. Stainless steel frets in some custom made necks make it even easier to bend and shake. A good, fat/big neck will enhance sustain, punch, harmonics and richness in your tone, which is you want when going for the SRV tone. But make sure that the frets and neck together are not too big for your hands. You need to be able to play quickly with lots of bending without getting tired after 3 minutes of Texas Flood. Also make sure that the neck wood and lacquer is smooth and not braking and limiting your bend moves when in contact with your fingers.
A guitar set up for SRV is not easy to master for entry-level players that favor easy-played low-action guitars with thin strings. But by endless practicing of the SRV technique, energy and power, you will achieve both great guitarist skills and tone.
Stevie rarely played with only one amp. An important factor to his big and powerful tone was that he used several amps both in studio and on stages, each delivering their thing to the table. Only a clean’ish amp can give you the edgy sparkly clean-sound attack that we hear on many of Stevie’s recordings. The overdriven tone with sustain and harmonics can only come from cranked amps and/or pedals. This is a big topic itself, we have to leave it out for now. But you can experiment with two, three or maybe four amps that are dialed in differently, some cranked, some clean, some with pedals in front, some that gives you tight and punchy bass response and some that gives you singing lead tone. You will experience a big, compound and complex tone that gets you closer to the SRV feel.
If you can use only one amp we recommend one of the Fender blackface amps. Yes, you need the bigger 40W+ amps to achieve the same stage volume as Stevie, but for miced gigs (and recordings) you don’t need any volume. A valid question is if the audience can tell if you have a small or big amp when they hear the guitar and amp through a PA? The answer is no. You can nail the SRV tone close enough with small Fender amps too. You deserve to try playing Mary had a little lamb with a slightly cranked Princeton Reverb equipped with a Jensen C12n speaker. It offers a killer SRV tone. Just make sure the amps are dialed in correctly with powerful speakers that don’t distort and have lots of punch, both lows and highs.
Let’s talk more about amps. Make sure it is not pushed too hard into distortion, but set nicely at its sweet spot with just s little power amp breakup (think Little Wing intro). Stevie used initially JBLd130f and JBLe130f in his Vibroverbs and then switched to EVM 15L with huge clean headroom and massive bottom. Stevie did not want speaker cone breakup and there are many suitable alternatives today in 10″, 12″ and 15″ size that will do the SRV thang for you. Make sure it has a clean and firm attack with lots of low end. EVM12L, Eminence Swamp Thang, WGS G12c/s, Jensen NEO series and Jensen C12n are speakers that can deliver all this. Not to mention the Weber 10A150, a fantastic and cool 10″ Alnico speaker for some cranked SRV tones.
SRV’s tone is relatively scooped (low mids) and you need to EQ and match the amp, speakers, pedals and guitar all together. A bright sounding guitar (thin neck, hard fretwood material, bright pickups) should be matched with an amp that has enough mids and lows. 12″ and 15″ speakers usually have strong mids. The bright switch is very effective to boost or reduce the upper presence and needs to be on if you’re using a tube screamer. A mellow and dark sounding guitar (fat neck, rosewood fretboard) matches a bright amp and pedals good.
We can give you a few good examples how to assemble and match your equipment. First, start with using thicker strings, tune down to Eb and increase the pickup height to increase sustain and reduce the brightness and attack. Let’s take the Vibro-King, Super Reverb or Vibrolux custom Reverb with Jensen P10r speakers, all new amps and speakers that many people struggle with. You need to be careful with transparent or brigther fuzz pedals with these amps. The amps’ bright switch should be off. The Boss OD3 pedal works out nicely with these amps since it compresses and colors the sound in smoothing/reducing the upper treble. The different Ibanez tube screamers are also good in this situation, but they will probably require you to increase both the bass and treble on the amp. Another pedal example is the Xotic RC Booster or other transparent boost pedals. If you’re playing a normal bright stratocaster you will need to tame the treble on the amp, flip the bright switch off and use bold, powerful speakers such as the Weber 10a150, Jensen NEO-100, Eminence Legend 1058. Another example is the Eminence Swamp Thang or EVM12L speakers in a Pro Reverb, Twin Reverb or even better, a 2×12″ semi-closed extension cabinet that extends the low punch even further. These speakers are also bright, so your pedals, amp settings and guitar needs to be mellow sounding.
Here is a video “Hunting the SRV tone” with several blackface and silverface amps. As you can hear, the bigger amps does not sound bigger and cleaner on recordings. You select amp based on stage size. It’s so simple as that:
Here is the El Mocambo setup, a Vibroverb and Super Reverb together.
Boost and overdrive pedals will give you the more saturated SRV tones, particularly used to boost the guitar solos. The best suited pedals are those with good transparancy and little color. You still need to hear the Stratocaster and the Fender amp. The purpose of the pedal is to make the amp break up even more and increase the mids and highs. Stevie used mostly Ibanez Tubescreamer TS808, but you will be able to get his tone with many other pedals too. What is important is to match the effect pedal with your guitar and amp. A 2x, 3x or 4×10″ amp with a scooped tone deserve a pedal with strong mids, i.e. a Tubescreamer. Amps with 1×15″ or 1×12″ amp will make a good pair with pedals with significant highs and lows, i.e. a BOSS OD3. You need to experiment with your rig. It’s all about compensation between different components and to achieve a balanced tone. Too much of the same sonic character in series of components is not a good thing. Also remember that most amps handle pedals best when they are slightly cranked. An amp who is breaking up will smooth out the pedal distortion and you get a good mix of pedal distortion, power amp distortion and just a little preamp distortion.
Which SRV tone
For the sake of accuracy we will define the “SRV Tone” we’re talking about. We refer to the early period around the Texas Flood album and the legendary El Mocambo concert, where his amps are slightly more cranked. He uses several amps, Vibroverbs, Super Reverbs and Dumble Steel Stringer, just to mention a few. Those of you who have built or modified Vibroverbs and Super Reverbs to exact SRV spec know that the tone of these amps is really hard and bright and not sweet and forgiving. His amps were modified to play extremely loud and clean on big stages. At lower volume the amps are terribly shrill and cold. They really have to be cranked. Many players have experienced disappointments and failure when using such amps on moderately sized club stages.