In the world of guitar strings, perhaps no one is more influential than Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Most rockers 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 strat, 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, SRV’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. Let’s clear a few of these up, shall we?
1. Stevie Ray Vaughan didn’t play just one kind of strings
Like most guitarists, SRV experimented with different string gauges throughout the course of his career (even going as high as .017s at one point!), but for the most part, he stuck with a high E of .013
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).
So what gauge strings did Stevie Ray Vaughan play?
According to Stevie’s tech, he most often played GHS Nickel Rockers (and sometimes Boomers) in the following gauges:
.013 – .015 – .019p – .028 – .038 – .058
If his fingers were aching, he would cut back to a .012 – .058 set, but for the majority of his career, his famous Number 1 and Lenny strats were strung up like this.
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.
Still, as much as guitarists analyze guitars, amps, and pedals—down to the core wood and circuitry—it’s surprising many players don’t put the same effort into finding the right strings. After all, that’s where it all starts.
So maybe you want to grab a set like Stevie’s and see what the fuss is all about? Or maybe you’d prefer to carve out your own custom gauges (Hey, maybe someone will even write about yours one day!). Either way, here at Stringjoy we specialize in giving you the tools and the freedom to make the most of your strings.
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Stevie Ray Vaughan is one of the most legendary guitarists of all-time, and deservedly so. The thing is, over the years, his strings have gotten almost as legendary as he is.
The funny thing is, Stevie Ray Vaughan didn’t actually play just one set of strings. He actually played as light as 12s and as heavy as 17s at one point, but for most of his career, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s main guitars, his Number One and Lenny that are super legendary, were strung up with 13s—which is probably what you’ve heard of when you heard about Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar string gauges in the past.
What you may not have heard of is that Stevie Ray Vaughan’s 13s weren’t your normal 13s. If you go to a guitar store and ask for a set of 13s for electric guitar, the chances are, the gauges inside that set are going to look a lot like a set of 13s for acoustic. Most likely, they’re going to go something like 13, 17, 26 wound for the third string, 36, 46, and 56.
(Side note, Stevie Ray Vaughan is hardly the only famous guitarist to use a custom set of strings. Everyone from Jimi Hendrix to David Gilmore, Billy Gibbons, Tony Iommi, and many, many more have used very, very customized gauged sets of strings in order to dial in their setup for exactly how they play the guitar.)
Let’s talk about Stevie Rayn Vaughan’s guitar string gauges, because it was a lot different than that set of strings we talked about earlier. In order, his strings went from lightest to heaviest, 13, 15, 19 plain—so he’s not using a wound third—and then 28, 38, and 58 on the wound strings. That’s way different than the setup we talked about earlier.
Most notably, the second string through the fifth string in the set, at each of those positions, he’s using a way lighter string than you would typically see in a set of 13s. What does that do for him? It gives him a lot more flexibility on those old recordings, and you can hear it. He bends like crazy, and make no mistake, a 15 and a 19 are still pretty heavy strings to bend, but they’re not nearly the same as bending a 17 or a 26 wound.
In addition to that, on the very bottom of the set, he uses a 58 instead of a typical 56, which is interesting, because he has way lighter strings on the other wound strings. He has just a massive low E, which works really well for blues playing, where you’re often starting with that low E and then doing a riff on top of it.
In Stevie’s set, the only gauge of string that’s the same as a typical set of 13s is actually the 13 itself. Every other gauge of string is optimized one way or the other, whether it’s less tension or more tension, to better suit what his needs were at that particular position of the guitar.
In fairness, I should also mention that Stevie wasn’t playing in standard tuning. He was actually playing in E flat, down a half step across the board. This gives him a little bit more flexibility out of the same gauges of string than you would see in standard. (Make no mistake, these are still pretty heavy strings and not super easy to bend for any regular player, but it does help a little bit.)
The last thing we should talk about in regards to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar string gauges is that he was actually playing with higher action than a lot of players typically do, which I think is interesting, because a lot of lead players seem to like to play with as low of action as humanly possible—where Stevie, who’s a really, really great lead player, really liked his action pretty high. This gives him a pretty clean, bell-like tone, no matter where on the guitar’s neck he’s fretting a note. It really, really sings out and really rings, and it also complements those really thick diameters of strings. As you can imagine, those take up a little bit more space from where they’re strung up, and this way, they’re not really interacting with the frets or getting any buzz or anything like that.
As with any discussion of string gauge, it’s worth taking these things with a little bit of a grain of salt, because the truth is, while Stevie Ray Vaughan had monster heavy tone, there are also a lot of guitarists that played eights or nines or nines that had really, really heavy meaty tone, as well. BB King, Jimmy Page, these guys played eights, and no one’s saying that their tone isn’t muscular and huge. If you do want bigger, fuller sound, heavier string gauges can get you a lot of the way there, and it might be something worth trying in your own rig.
What do you think? Are you going to jump straight up to a set of 13s like Stevie, or may just go with a set of 11s or even 12s? Let us know down in the comments. If you like this video, give it a like and be sure to subscribe to our channel to keep up with more great stuff just like this.