Strings and Tuning

In the world of guitar strings, perhaps no one is more influential than Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Most guitar players in the 60s and 70s played fairly light strings, by today’s standards at least (both Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck were known to play .008 gauge strings, Hendrix played custom 9s and 10s). When Stevie came around, getting fatter tone than anyone had ever heard from a Stratocaster guitar, everything changed.

Stevie came into the fold playing .013s, which at the time were pretty much unheard of outside of the jazz guitar world. Electric guitar pickups operate magnetically, so the more magnetic material vibrating above the pickups, the higher the output. Once players got a load of Stevie’s tone, they did everything they could to catch up, and a generation of heavy gauge players was born.

By now, Stevie’s name is synonymous with super heavy strings, but there are a lot of misconceptions going around about what gauges he actually played, and what he had to do to make them work well on his guitar. Stevie also used customised sets of strings, designed by himself and put together for him by GHS Strings of Battle Creek, MI, in sizes of: .011 – .015 – .019 – .028n – .038n – .058n. The set was known as CU-SRV.

Below is a letter from Dave Cowles of GHS  explaining and verifying that.
Stevie Ray Vaughan Customised GHS Guitar Strings
The picture below is of a GHS guitar string packet that has Stevie's contact details on. Note that it was sent c/o Chris Layton.
Stevie Ray Vaughan GHS Guitar Strings

Stevie's Guitar Tuner

Of course, Stevie had to keep his strings in tune and he and guitar technician Rene Martinez did this with a Conn ST11 Strobotuner (pictured below).

 The Strobotuner works on an optical illusion known scientifically as the stroboscopic effect - hence the name "Strobotuner". The stroboscopic effect is responsible for the apparent backward rotation of a vehicle's wheels when clearly the vehicle is moving forward. This same effect causes the wheel to appear to slowly rotate forward or even appear motionless when the vehicle is going very fast.

Charles Gerald Conn, the founder of C. G. Conn Ltd., pioneered highly accurate tuning devices many years ago with the introduction of the Stroboconn. Wide acceptance of the Stroboconn led to the development of the light-weight Strobotuner which for years has been the standard of the industry and used by other guitar players such as Dave Gilmour and Neil Young, and many more.

Stevie Ray Vaughan Conn ST11 Strobotuner
Stevie Ray Vaughan Conn ST11 Strobotuner
Stevie Ray Vaughan Calloused Fingers

Stevie's Finger Repairs

Due to the intensity of Stevie's playing, together with the thickness of his strings, he quite often wore holes in his finger tips and caused them to bleed. These holes could be 1/4 inch deep and so he developed his own way of fixing them.

Firstly he'd fill the holes with baking powder. Then he'd put a layer of super glue over the top of the hole.

Finally, he'd press the finger onto either the palm of his hand, or a finger from the other hand until it stuck. Then he'd pull the finger away and he'd have a new layer of skin over the repair.

He would then use a nail file to file down any rough areas, so they did not catch on the strings.

René Martinez advised Stevie that if he continued doing this, eventually he wouldn't be able to play any more, due to too much damage to his finger tips.

He therefore got some custom strings from GHS in the gauges of .011 - .015 - .019 - .028 - .038 - .058 and Stevie started to use these.

(information from Texas Flood - The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan, by Alan Paul and Andy Aledort) and the following interview:

Guitar String Facts

  1. Stevie Ray Vaughan didn’t play just one kind of strings

    Like most guitarists, Stevie experimented with different string gauges throughout the course of his career, ranging from .011-.058 gauge to as high as .018-.074 gauge. For the most part, he stuck with a high E of .013, until his finger tips got so damaged he had to use a high E of .011.

  2. He didn’t play “standard” .013s 

    In most cases, a standard set of .013 gauge strings is as follows:

    .013 – .017 – .026w – .036 – .046 – .056

    Thing is, SRV didn’t play a wound third. (Could you imagine playing his licks with a wound third? You’d have to have fingers like Thor.)

    Like most pro players, SRV’s guitar tech Rene Martinez created a custom set of strings fit for his gear and his playing style. What were his actual gauges? We’re getting there, one step at a time! 

  3. He didn’t play with low action 

    Most solo-happy guitarists love playing with super low action, and for good reason. It’s easier to move quickly around the guitar, and it causes less fatigue. But anyone who has played heavy gauge strings will tell you that low action and heavy strings aren’t always compatible.

    Thicker strings require a greater amount of space to vibrate properly. Even if it doesn’t sound like your strings are buzzing against the frets, they can still be restricted from vibrating fully, decreasing resonance and sustain. SRV kept his action high, enabling his strings to vibrate fully, and ring out for as long as possible. 

  4. He didn’t play in standard tuning 

    .013s are a feat to play no matter what, but in standard tuning, on a 25.5in scale guitar, they’re especially tricky. But SRV didn’t play in standard—he opted for Eb. Many say that this was more about his voice than his guitar (Great voice though he had, his upper register wasn’t exactly the selling point).

    Still, .013s in Eb are much friendlier than in E standard, they play a lot closer to .012s (not that those are rinky dink strings in their own regard). 

  5. So what gauge strings did Stevie Ray Vaughan play? 

    According to Stevie’s guitar technician, René Martinez he most often played GHS Nickel Rockers (and sometimes Boomers) in the following gauges:

    .013 – .015 – .019p – .028 – .038 – .058

    As discussed in point 2, these aren’t typical .013s—they’re lighter on the top end and a bit heavier on the bottom end. This made them easier to bend, while still giving him a hot and heavy tone when he played rhythm.

    Now does this mean that if you string up your strat with these gauges you’re going to sound like SRV overnight? Probably not. As with most guitarists, the secret to tone often lies in the fingers.

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