Stevie Ray Vaughan’s influence on gear and
gearheads has been gigantic. Back in the ‘80s,
it seemed as if he almost single-handedly
resurrected the Stratocaster, helping boost
vintage Strats into a mythic realm. And who
else did more to bring the worship of vintage
Fender amps to a whole new level?
In one of his earliest major interviews, around
1983, Stevie Ray Vaughan let out a bit of
personal information that has had an effect on
gear and gearheads to this day. Talking about
his now well-known ‘59 Strat—even then
completely trashed—he told the interviewer
what string gauges he was using: .013 to .052.
The interviewer was surprised and asked him
to repeat it. Yep, 13s. I remember reading that
interview as a teenager and my jaw dropping.
No one used strings that thick. But now that
Stevie Ray did, it started to creep into the
consciousness. Thus became the mantra,
myth, truth, cliché—whatever you want to call
it—in strings: heavier is better. Surely, heavy
strings produce better tone. And, surely,
only a great player will be able to handle the
thicks. So, it follows that if I play heavy strings
I am great. The debate goes on. You hear it all
the time. “Anybody tried 12s?”
Some myths are meant to be explored, so
let’s look at some of the great players and the
gauge strings they used. Starting with Stevie
Ray, we find that, according to most available
published information, he did indeed play
some of the heaviest gauges available, most
consistently 13s. He even went thicker, an
astounding .018-.072 at one point. However,
on the brown ‘63 Strat known as Lenny, SRV
switched to lighter strings to get a lighter
tone. Some nights when his fingers were
thrashed he’d go down as light as 11s—back
into mere mortal territory. It was rumored that
he went to lighter strings later in his life, but I
haven’t been able to substantiate this.
Swing to another god of guitar, James
Marshall Hendrix, undisputed King of Gigantic
Tone. One might assume that from gigantic
strings come gigantic tone, but check this
little tidbit from the absolute must-have book
Jimi Hendrix: Musician by Keith Shadwick:
“Hendrix described the setup on his Strat
around 1967 as ‘Fender light-gauge strings,
using a regular E-string for the B and
sometimes a tenor A-string for a [high] E to
get my kind of sound on the Stratocaster.
[I] put the strings on with a slightly higher
[action] so they can ring longer.’ This particular
string-swapping routine was a popular
modification at the time. It resulted in a set
of stings as light as possible, aiding not only
the string bending but also finger vibrato.
On a later guitar, his black Strat, the surviving
strings indicate he preferred ‘light’ gauges,
.009" to .038".”
Now go back to the roots. Early on in rock
history, flatwounds were all there were. It
wasn’t until 1959 when Ernie Ball put together
his first sets that you could get some medium
or light-gauge strings. Here’s another mind-
blower: until guys like Ernie Ball came around,
aspiring string-benders like Chuck Berry found
a secret weapon—banjo strings. Yes, that
ultimate rock tone that Chuck Berry got on
songs like “Johnny B. Goode,” “School Days,”
and “Sweet Little 16” was derived from
8-gauge or lower banjo strings.
- Jimmy Page: well-known user of
- Danny Gatton: played 10s with a wound G,
also played 9s.
- Jeff Beck: “On my early stuff, I was playing
the thinnest strings you could get, .008s,”
Beck told Fender.com. “And then the Jimi
man came along and told me, ‘You can’t play
with those rubber bands. Get those off there.’
So my string gauges have been creeping up
ever since. Now I’ve got .011, .013, .017, .028,
.038, and .049. I’m trying to get heavier on
the top end.”
- Billy Gibbons: hipped to light-gauge 8s or 9s
by B.B. King. King’s take on it is that it takes
a lot less stress and strain to play the light
stuff. Gibbons’ custom set from Dunlop has a
7-gauge high E!
- Brian Setzer: 10s straight out of the box.
- Peter Frampton: 8s back in the Comes
- Carlos Santana: 9s
- Allan Holdsworth: 11s
- Eddie Van Halen: well-known for using
- James Hetfield: .009-.042
As you can see, a lot of the great players of
our time have used some pretty everyday-player gauges. This is not to say that heavy
strings don’t produce a different tone. The
point is that the gauge of your strings is not
the gauge of your greatness.
Back in the ’80s when I read that SRV
interview, I immediately went out and got a
set of 13s put on my yellow ’79 hardtail Strat.
The guy at the store looked at me oddly,
wondering what I was up to. What I was
up to was sticking my nose where it didn’t
belong. What I failed to remember was that
Stevie Ray was a pro playing at a pro level.
He played gigs every night for years to get
to the point where he needed 13s. Needed,
not wanted. Because of the style he had
developed and the level he was playing at,
SRV had to have those strings to get through
the gig. Other strings would break under the
strain and not produce the tonal heights he
was looking for. Me? I was just a kid playing
in my bedroom. When I got the Strat home
with the 13s on it, I plugged it into my
Peavey Classic 2x12 and tried—really tried—
to play “Love Struck Baby.” Didn’t happen. I
could barely chord with those monsters, let
alone bend. Lesson learned.
Wallace Marx Jr.
is the author of Gibson Amplifiers, 1933–
2008: 75 Years of the Gold Tone. He is a lifelong musician
and has worked in all corners of the music industry. He is
currently working on a history of the Valco Company. He is
a children’s tour guide at the Museum of Making Music, a
struggling surfer, and he once hung out with Joe Strummer.