I’ve answered this email what seems like 10,000 times since starting StevieSnacks.
“I have _________amp and ________ guitar and ________ pedals. How do I sound get SRV tone with my gear?”
This is a hard question to answer, impossible almost. There are no magic settings, there is no magic gear. Your tone starts with what you play, how you play it, and is shaped by the gear you have. You will never have SRV’s gear, and even if you did, if you can’t play like him, it won’t sound like him. You could take a player like Tommy Katona, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Mato Nanji, Chris Duarte, or countless others, give them a Squire Stratocaster plugged into a Fender Blues Junior with no pedals, and you wouldn’t believe how much they sound like SRV. If you can’t play like SRV, you can’t sound like SRV with any gear, period. Incidentally, that’s why lessons are a better investment than gear, but I digress.
There is however, a basic formula you can follow to get in the ballpark of SRV’s tone.
- A Strat-style guitar with good pickups.
- A cranked up Fender-style amp.
- A Tube Screamer-style (mid-boosting) overdrive pedal(s).
- Play like SRV.
Let’s go through these one-by-one.
Yes, if you play like Stevie, you’ll sound like him with any guitar you play, but a Strat-style guitar with great single coil pickups will always sound more like him than a Les Paul. Which Strat you pick depends on how big your hands are, and your budget. But honestly, any MIM or higher level Strat, with a set of boutique pickups, will do the trick.
- Neck size: Fatter necks feel more comfortable if you have big hands
- Pickups: Boutique (Fralin, Lollar, etc..) pickups do wonders for your tone
- Saddles: GraphTech. End of story.
- Strings: I prefer .11s, tuned down ½ step, brand almost doesn’t matter to me.
Cranked Fender Amp
There are several well known “veins” of amplifiers, including
- Mesa Boogie-style
Each of these amp makers has a distinct ‘recipe’ that they follow for making their amps. This ‘recipe’ affects how they design the tone controls, gain stages etc… The main point here is that Stevie’s sound comes more from the Fender-style ‘recipe’ than any other. Yes, he used a Dumble amp. Yes, he used a Marshall amp. But his core, underlying tone, comes from that Fender ‘recipe’. A Fender-style amp is your best bet for getting in the ballpark of Stevie’s tone. You’ll need to get some dirt out of that amp too. An amp over 20 watts without a master volume is going to be almost useless to you unless you’re playing large shows. Most people who play at home, or at small gigs (< 100 people), should look for an amp under 20 watts. Crank the amp up to the point where you could almost play a solo, but not quite. You’re looking for a tone that sounds almost clean when play soft, but has a decent amount of grit when you play a chord with a strong picking attack.
Tube Screamer-style Overdrive Pedal
I’m not a huge fan of the Tube Screamer, it’s a decent pedal, but sounds terrible through a clean amp, and loses a ton of low end. But the signature characteristic of the Tube Screamer is the nasal midrange boost. To get Stevie’s tone, look for a pedal that has this midrange “bump”. A straight clean boost into a cranked Fender amp will sound OK, but will lack some of the thickness you want for high-octane soloing, ala, Texas Flood or Little Wing. Since you’re already getting a decent amount of grit from the amp, we won’t be using this pedal to generate a lot of distortion, rather we’re mainly using it as a “shaped” volume boost. This means our boost is not clean or transparent, it has a distinct sound to it, caused by the EQ response curve of the pedal’s circuitry, in this case, a midrange ‘bump’. Set the volume up high enough so that when you kick on the pedal, you notice a subtle volume boost on the amp, use the tone controls to match the treble level as closely as possible (to the clean signal), and finally, dial in as little gain (i.e., distortion, overdrive, etc..) as necessary to thicken up your tone for soloing. As you increase the gain, you may need to drop the volume knob a bit to keep that volume boost subtle. In addition, you can stack multiple pedals of this type in a row, probably no more than two. You’ll need to make sure the first pedal in the chain is running mostly clean however, running distortion into distortion is a tone killer.
Play Like Stevie
That’s not a joke. If you don’t grip the strings hard, play with a strong attack, play the licks he played, phrase them together correctly, and accent notes the way he did, none of what I’ve written above will matter.
How To Use The Gear
For clean tones, ala “Lenny”, play with a light touch, possibly rolling the guitar volume back to 8 or 9. The amp will clean up just a bit, resulting in a mostly clean tone. For rhythm tones, keep the guitar volume on 10, and adjust your attack based on how dirty you want the rhythm tone to be. For lead tones, kick on the overdrive pedal.
I’m sure many of you are eager to send me your suggestions, corrections, etc… and I’ve got to say…. please don’t. I am not obsessed with getting Stevie’s tone. I don’t know what kind of capacitors he used on his volume bypass circuit, or which tube he preferred in V1, I just don’t care. I can get tone I like with almost any combination of gear that fits in this recipe. And that’s good enough for me. This is not meant to be a complete, or thorough dissection of his tone. This is meant to reduce the ridiculous search for SRV’s tone into 4 basic elements. People argue at great length about the nitty gritty elements of his tone, and for the most part, I think that’s a waste of time. If you can’t make something that sounds like SRV with this recipe, you probably need more lessons :-)