The S.R.V. Tone Quest: Part One
Thanks for reading the Guitar Sun, Sunfield Music Store’s weekly take on gear, music history, tone tips, and more.
At Sunfield, we take pride in producing instruments that keep the spirit of the electric guitar alive. For us, that means making high-quality instruments. Our core customers want gig-quality electric guitars. You could call them “cheap electric guitars,” but Sunfields aren’t just beginner’s guitars. They’re simply priced differently—for parts and labor—in a bloated instrument market that caters to prestige and huge marketing budgets (all paid for with musicians’ dollars).
There’s a particular design that’s long been one of our top sellers: the SRV style guitar. This totally functional SRV replica guitar not only gets the looks right—it puts you on the track for the right tone.
Of course, that tone is a subject of fierce debate. Any SRV fan knows that his guitar is only a single piece of the sacred combinations of amp, pedal, and legendary chops that combine to generate the tone of this all-time player.
So we thought we’d shed some light in a two-part blog series where we take a look at some of the history, gear, and sonic choices behind the legendary tone of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Hopefully, we’ll help settle some debates. Maybe we’ll just cause some more.
Today, we’ll take a look at a few of the amplifiers he employed. Next week, we’ll look at his guitar arsenal (which goes far beyond his famous “Number One,”) and a few of his famous “screaming” pedal choices.
S.R.V. : Gear Geek
Let’s get one thing straight: if your buddy claims to know “the” amp/pedal that imparts the “secret sauce” to achieving “the” SRV tone, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Like a lot of us, Stevie was a true gearhead. With both amps, pedals, and even guitars, Stevie experimented extensively. He used different amps on different studio tracks, even within the same album, and frequently tweaked his live setup.
So, as we geek out on his gear choices, keep in mind the true spirit of his gear selection: a working man’s blues player finding tweaks to get that voice he can hear in his head.
If you want proof, consider Stevie’s choices for recording his 1989 album In Step. Longtime amp tech Cesar Diaz says that SRV plugged into 32 different amps during the recording process. That’s a lot of tubes. A small selection used on that album that weren't career mainstays includes:
- A 1962 Fender Twin
- An original 1959 Bassman
- A Vintage Fender Harvard (super low wattage tweed practice amp; unknown year)
Clearly, the man had an ear for amps—these are all total legends. The Harvard is perhaps a lesser known circuit than the Twin and Tweed Bassman (both clear-cut contenders for the “greatest amp ever,” if there is such a thing) but is still a favorite of legends like Steve Cropper.
That said, none of these studio amps ever became mainstays for Stevie’s live rig. The saggy roar of Tweed was less his style than the in-your face scream of louder, cleaner amplifiers pushed to the brink. He almost always employed multiple-amp rigs. Curiously, he took the opposite approach of many players, using (in general) Marshalls set a bit cleaner and Fenders set up to roar.
The Foundation: 1964 Fender Vibroverb, Fender Super
This first amp, the 1964 Fender Vibroverb, is the foundation of the SRV sound for the majority of his live playing career. Distinctive features of this amplifier include 15” speakers. More typically used by Jazz cats (who strongly influenced Stevie), these speakers really help generate the bass response that gives riffs an often “thumpy” quality.
Interestingly, this was actually the first amp ever produced by Fender which included reverb.
In 1983, facing larger and larger venues, he added two Super Reverbs to his Vibroverb rig. Featuring a 4x10 speaker setup, this amp is also rated at 40 watts but a bit more clean headroom.
He paired these Fender amps with a series of others as the venue sizes he frequented grew steadily larger throughout the 1980’s. At 40-watts, Vibroverbs will be pure overdrive at SRV’s famously huge stage volume. His series of pairing choices show that he was going for something louder and cleanish to pair with the Fender OD.
We should note that as Marshall/Dumble took over the clean role from the Supers, the Super took over the overdrive role from the Vibroverbs in the second half of the 1980’s: his stage volume was simply louder than ever. In 1990, Vaughan actually switched out the Supers for a pair of ’59 Bassman Reissues. This guy wasn’t looking for a “holy grail”—he was experimenting with his tone right up until the end.
Clean(ish) Machines: 1980 Marshall Club & Country + Dumble Steel String Singer
The Marshall Club & Country was actually the company’s attempt to compete with the loud cleans of the Fender Twin, not the throaty OD-machine we normally associate with the Marshall sound. With 100 watts, two 12” speakers, and KT77 tubes, this baby could stay articulate at huge volumes.
But Stevie needed more huge. And he found it after meeting legendary amp designer Howard Dumble in LA in 1982. He was recording Texas Flood at Jackson Browne’s studio and did some playing on a 300-watt bass amp Dumble had made for Brown.
Vaughan was enamored with the tone, and Dumble delivered him a hot-rodded Steel String Singer in 1984. Beefed up to be even louder, this beast boasted 150 watts driving a pair of 6550 power tubes and a 4x12 cabinet. The Dumble largely took the place of the Marshall Club & Country in SRV’s main live rig.
Vaughan substituted Fender Twins for a few tours where travel prohibited bringing the one of a kind Dumble.
Marshall 1967 Model Super Lead
This final ingredient, a more traditional Marshall sound, was used in the late 80s’ for some live overdrive sounds (especially his frequent Hendrix covers). We thought we should note these—Vaughan truly employed a diversity of tones to suit the song he was playing—but they were never part of his “core tone.”
We leave you with an amazing performance backed by some shocking trivia. Vaughan was known for cranking his amp. But at this famous jazz festival, he was actually forced to put multiple blankets over his amp, even with it running down at 2-3. And he still manages to coax out some rockin’ sounds.
Just goes to show how much tone resides in the fingertips.