Last week I spent about 15 minutes looking at a guitar that I’ve been listening to for over 15 years. Of course I’m talking about Stevie Ray Vaughan’s beloved Number One Fender Stratocaster. It’s on display at the Bob Bullock museum in Austin, TX until October. I was in town for a few days and didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see it.
When you’ve spent hundreds of hours studying a specific guitar player playing a specific guitar, it’s kind of surreal to find yourself standing right next to it. I was told that taking pictures was not allowed, so I just studied the guitar from every angle, trying to capture as many details as I could in my mind.
The advertising says that the guitar on display is actually Number One. I’m pretty sure that over the years several extremely accurate replicas have been made, so there’s no way for us to know for sure if this is the actual Number One guitar. Personally, I’m doubtful that such a valuable guitar would be put on display with minimal security. It is housed inside a thick glass display, but still…
With those doubts noted, the optimist in me is going to assume that it was actually Number One, and not a replica. Life is too short to be skeptical of everything, especially in situations where there isn’t any upside to being right.
The first thing you notice is the thinness of the rosewood fingerboard. It’s thin, really thin. Stevie went through frets like some people go through batteries. You can only replace the frets on a guitar so many times before the slots have to be cut deeper. This requires the fretboard to be shaved down so the slots will be the right height. On Number One, the rosewood looks like it’s painted onto the maple neck.
In pictures, you’ve probably seen the bare wood above the pickguard where Stevie’s pick wore through the sunburst finish, down into the body wood. What you might not know is that the wood in that small pocket is not smooth. Rather, there are several bumps created by the grain of the body. The wood between the grains is worn deeper, creating a wavy surface leading to the pickguard.
Of course I couldn’t measure the action, but I did look at the relative heights of the strings. This could have been changed by any number of people after he died, but let’s assume that it wasn’t.
The relative string heights match what I’ve seen in videos, but what I noticed this time was that the D and G string were almost identical in height. I’ve never really figured out if I like the D string higher, lower, or the same height as the G string, but on Number One, they’re almost the same.
The flashy trucker-style SRV decal is gone, in its place is the signature-style SRV lettering, the kind you see on his signature strat. I’m not exactly sure when the original decal was removed, but he did play it this way for a while before he died.
It’s kind of disappointing to see Number One without those flashy stickers since that’s how most people are used to seeing it.
The pickups are mostly flat, the bass side is just a bit lower than the treble side on all of them, and all 3 are quite low, protruding from the pickguard no more than about 1/8th of an inch.
The pickguard is thick, and solid black. No sandwich look here, just thick,
black plastic, with 8 screws holding it fast.
The bolt-on plate behind the neck is warped. The metal is actually curved. I’m not sure why, but it looks as if it has conformed to the wood beneath it. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Everything else is pretty obvious, lots of wear, lots of bumps, cigarette burns, the whole 9 yards. In short, it looks like a beatup guitar.
There’s no way to know for sure, but I suspect the guitar is not easy to play, especially not after sitting for so many years. Even at its peak, one has to wonder if Stevie was the only one who could make it sing that way.