August 27th, 1990 was one of the saddest days of my life. Beyond the losses I’ve felt from friends and family whom have passed, the biggest impact a celebrity death has EVER had on me was when SRV passed away 36 days from his 36th birthday. I choked back tears when I heard the news from my wife (then my girlfriend). I kid you not, I was a 22 year old man blubbering about a 35 year old Texan he’d never met. I think too hard about it today and I have this feeling of sadness, of real, true loss, like my heart pines for what he would have created. That being said, Stevie was one of the best mistakes I’d ever made. Does anyone remember Columbia House music club? It was this mail order company that gave you 13 albums for a penny plus shipping charges. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” was delivered to me back in 1984 by accident (I didn’t return a reply card telling them I didn’t want the album so they sent it). I was deep into my hair metal phase and the thought of some Texan blues bullshit was not anything my mind wanted, let alone would have ordered. I was listening to Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil and Ratt’s Out of the Cellar, I never would have taken the album if I hadn’t missed the return date. The rest, as they say, was history.
The guitar Stevie used on that album, his favorite guitar, was Number One (also known as his ‘first wife’). Number One is a 1959 Fender Stratocaster according to SRV but his longtime guitar tech Rene Martinez has gone on record to say the body is a ’63 and the neck, a ’62. The reason Stevie thought it was a ’59 was because that was the number written on the back of the pickups. The guitar was originally a tobacco sunburst though in those days they called it a 3-tone sunburst. Fully relic’d, barely any of the original finish remains today. Early strats were finished in a nitrocellulose finish that changed over time and is much more resonant than the polyurethane finish which is much cheaper to apply and prevalent in many of today’s instruments. When scientists figure out how to clone a human, there will be enough genetic material on hand to certainly create a new Stevie from the body alone.
The guitar was given to him by the owner of Ray Hennig’s Heart of Texas music shop in 1973, and it was his main performing instrument and companion (he reportedly slept with the guitar). Vaughan used the guitar on all five of his studio albums and on the album Family Style that was recorded with his also famous brother Jimmie Vaughan of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The distinctive cigarette burn on the headstock comes from an incident when Vaughan had left a burning cigarette tucked under the sixth string for too long while playing (credit WikiPedia).
Speaking of bodies, Number One’s is made of alder, like most Stratocasters and the neck is maple with a rosewood fingerboard. Remember that in 1962 there were TONS of rosewood fingerboards built with old growth Brazilian timber. Rosewood is a very slow growing wood and today global regulations limit over-harvesting any species of Rosewood making old growth rosewood illegal to sell in most countries. Unfortunately, exploitation of old forests continues to this day. Please take a look at this article about CITES for more information about the protection granted to this fauna (as well as others). Okay, back to the strat, there are jumbo frets (Dunlop 6100s) on the neck and because of how heavy handed Stevie was, those frets had to be replaced time and time again. The cost was that every so often, the fingerboard would need to be sanded down and subsequently, the curve of the board went from a 7.25 inch radius, far right in the below picture, to a 12 inch radius today, far left. The radius, as shown in the picture, is the center point of a circle. A small radius (Telecasters, early strats, violins) makes chording easier. Larger radius (modern strats, Jacksons, Ibanez) make solo playing easier. Many guitar builders make compound radius necks today which start small, like 12 inches and then flatten out to 16 or even as high as 20 (some Music Man guitars, such as John Petrucci’s signature, have a 20 inch radius which are super flat). This provides the best of both worlds, easy to chord and easy to solo, win win.
The bridge was pulled from a left handed strat in homage to Jimi Hendrix since he was a HUGE influence on Vaughan. He also managed to do killer versions of Jimi’s Little Wing and Voodoo Chile (Slight Return). Gold hardware, slightly over-wound Fender single coil pickups and a bone nut are all in place. Now we gotta talk about strings. SRV was inhumanly strong when it came to his hands. The average string gauge range, for a 6 string guitar, is .010-.046. That’s 10 hundredths of an inch to 46 hundredths of an inch. Stevie consistently played .013-.056 AND had a string action that eclipsed a quarter inch. My gauges run .009-.042, his first string is larger than my second, yikes, that’s crazy hard to do. Stevie wrangled, muscled, wrenched, fought with, tore and just plain crushed the strings. Those facets really separated him from most other players. By the way, action refers to the distance between the fretboard and the bottom of the string, the higher it is, the harder it is to play. Think about that when you listen to Riviera Paradise (this is a live recording, by the way).
Over time, Number One’s fingerboard became so worn that his tech replaced the neck with another of Stevie’s guitars, “Red” in order to have the fingerboard replaced on Number One’s original neck. In a tragic event that many of SRV’s fans claim to have portended his demise, stage rigging fell on the replacement neck, snapping off the headstock just two weeks before his death. Vaughan, along with three members of Eric Clapton’s touring group took off from the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in Wisconsin and at about 12:50 am on August 27, the helicopter departed from an elevation of about 850 feet, veered to the left and crashed into the hill. All on board, including the pilot, Jeff Brown, were killed instantly.
I had a 2005ish Fender partsocaster, candy cola with a Warmoth flame maple neck that I paid my honors to SRV with my initials in stickers. I liked to say the Vaughan was the coolest white guy alive, after Greg Allman that is. If SRV walked into a room you were in, or anyone else, you would have been floored by his charisma, his personality, his presence and being. He may have started playing guitar at the age of 7 but he was born a star. There’s little more that can be said about Vaughan other than he had reached a peace in his life right around the time of his death. After decades of addiction and pain, he found sobriety and created the best album of his career, In Step which went on to win him a posthumously awarded Grammy award, his second. His guitar playing, his voice, his generosity and his absolute love of the blues made him who he was and there was no denying him. No doubt, should there be a heaven, Stevie is playing alongside Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Albert Collins and BB King. That’s all for now, please stop back next time when I tackle the M1 Esp Tiger of my ultimate guitar hero, George Lynch. Thanks for stopping by.
KSK January 2017