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There have been quite a few iconic blues musicians in the last 50 years or so, but few of them have the cultural reach of Texas bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Vaughan’s massive, meaty tone came, in part from his use of equally massive, meaty strings. So what strings did Stevie Ray Vaughan use?
After experimenting with even heavier strings, Vaughan played a custom set of GHS strings that ran .013, .015, .019 (plain), .028, .038, and .058 from high E to low E. After long-term injuries to his fingers, he replaced the .013 high E string with a .011 string, and got custom sets from GHS.
Let’s take a closer look at the strings Vaughan used, and, more importantly, why he chose such heavy strings and how that contributed to his sound.
What Gauge Strings Did Stevie Ray Vaughan Use?
Like most players, Vaughan experimented with different string gauges over the years. In one case, he reportedly played a set with a high E string of .018.
Over time, his guitar technician, Rene Martinez, developed a custom set of strings to suit Vaughan’s playing style.
While many blues musicians, including B.B. King, used surprisingly light gauge strings to help make bending easier, Vaughan kept things very thick. But he did take an old blues trick.
That’s to use a plain string for the G string instead of a wound one. Many blues and folk musicians would make this happen by buying a set of banjo strings and then replacing the high E string with a banjo string and moving the other five strings over, leaving the third, or G, string, plain, which makes it easier to bend.
A normal set of .013 gauge strings would go .013, .017, .026 (wound), .036, .046, .056, but Vaughan had a different set up, including using a plain G string.
As noted above, Martinez put together a custom string setup based on Vaughan’s preferences and playing style, ending up with .013, .015, .019 (plain), .028, .038, .058. That’s much different from a standard set.
But a combination of the fact that Vaughan played heavy, stiff strings with high action and the aggressive bending he did took a massive toll on Vaughan’s fingers.
He ended up wearing holes in his fingertips, and Martinez had to convince Vaughan to change string gauges, warning him that if he kept damaging his fingers, he wouldn’t be able to play guitar at all.
That led to switching the high E string from a .013 gauge string to .011. That put Vaughan’s final string gauges as: .011, .015, .019 (plain), .028, .038, .058.
In this video, Martinez talks about Vaughan’s strings.
What Gave Stevie Ray Vaughan His Sound?
Vaughan found his way into the mainstream after years of touring America and Europe. He played on David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” which led to him being signed in his own right and releasing multiple albums, and even notching a No. 1 hit with Crossfire.
Vaughan’s sound started to take the airwaves by storm at a time when guitar playing in general, and blues playing in particular, had fallen somewhat out of favor in pop music.
The fact that Bowie used Vaughan on six of the eight tracks on “Let’s Dance,” and wanted him to go on tour, speaks to the fact Bowie thought his sound was important to the album, and that album went on to be more successful than Bowie’s previous few.
Vaughan had a thick, heavy tone that was closer to rock than blues in timbre, but his playing was 100 percent blues.
One thing that contributed to Vaughan’s distinctive tone was his choice of instruments. This video takes a look at his different guitars and the sounds he used them for.
More than anything else, Vaughan is known as a Stratocaster player, and for good reason. His main guitar was a Strat with a body from 1963 and a neck made in 1962.
Most of his other Stratocasters were also either 1961, 1962, or 1963 models, although he also played a few custom Strat-style guitars, as well as a 1959 Strat, called Yellow.
Vaughan played plenty of other guitars, as well, including a 1951 Nocaster, now known as “Jimbo” that Vaughan was given as a young person. But more than anything else, he’s regarded as a Stratocaster player.
Vaughan even saw himself that way. In 1985, a catalog for Tokai guitars implied that Vaughan was a player, but when presented with a copy of the poster by a fan, Vaughan apparently wrote “I play Fender” on it.
Vaughan’s idiosyncratic choices of amplifiers also made a difference in his sound. He played both Marshall and Fender combo amps, but used them in the reverse of the way most players do. Instead of using Fender amps for his clean tone and Marshalls for distorted or overdriven sounds, Vaughan played the Marshall amps clean and used the Fenders for distortion.
Why Did Stevie Ray Vaughan Use Thick Guitar Strings?
Vaughan’s guitars, as well as his effects and his amplifier rig, definitely had a tremendous impact on the way he sounded, but as is so often the case, they aren’t the only thing that influenced it.
Vaughan’s playing technique, particularly his very aggressive attack, was probably just as important, and his use of heavy strings and high action made that aggressive playing style possible, even as that same combination caused massive damage to Vaughan’s fingertips, as I noted above.
But his use of heavy strings and high action allowed him to really dig in, both with his fretting and playing hands. While his playing style was clearly influenced by blues and rock greats like B.B. King, Johnny Winter, Jimi Hendrix, and Buddy Guy, he went in a different direction in many ways.
The thicker, heavier strings allowed the aggressive action, which, in conjunction with the gear setup he was using, created a tone that players have been trying to re-capture pretty much ever since.
As is almost always the case, there is rarely just one factor when it comes to making a player’s sound, especially one who had the range and talent of Stevie Ray Vaughan.
A combination of his instrument, the strings, the overall setup, the way his hands worked, and his choices about using a pick all play a major part in creating his distinctive sound.
That sound has been influential, even after Vauaghan’s life was cut short in a 1990 helicopter crash. A generation of new players has emerged and been heavily affected by Vauaghan’s playing, his tone, and his overall musical style.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.