A slew of top-notch vintage and custom Strats, a 1960 Les Paul, and a wall of Dumbles keep the blues-rocker rolling.
It’s been 11 years since Kenny Wayne Shepherd filmed his previous Rig Rundown. PG’s John Bohlinger caught up with the blues-rocker before his recent sold-out show at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium to hear some killer playing and see some untouchable—by anyone but Kenny and his tech—gear.
The tour stop was supporting the December 2022 release of Trouble Is … 25, a re-recording of his 1997 breakthrough album, which had four top 10 hits when it was originally issued: “Slow Ride,” “Somehow, Somewhere, Someway,” “Everything is Broken,” and “Blue on Black.” There have been seven other studio recordings since then, and while he’s still mostly a Strat player, some other instruments have joined his armada, too. And Dumbles … he has lots of Dumbles.
Brought to you by D’Addario XS Strings.
This 1961 Fender Stratocaster has been Shepherd’s No. 1 since he bought it right as his career began to take off. Like all of his electrics, it stays strung with Ernie Balls—.011, .014, .018, .038, .048, and .058.—and is played with Dunlop heavy picks.
Fender built Shepherda nearly identical version of his 1961 to save wear and tear on the original. Pretty exacting custom relic work!
Here’s a Fender Jimi Hendrix Monterey Strat. The Fullerton giant made just more than 200 replicas of the guitar that Jimi played and burned onstage at the Monterey Pop Festival, in 1967. When Shepherd got the guitar he immediately had Fender make him a custom neck with jumbo frets and a backwards headstock. Graph Tech saddles were also added to this work of art.
Down to the Crossroads
Inspired by the famed Mississippi Delta intersection where Robert Johnson, by fable, cut his deal with the devil, this Strat with the Highway 61 and Highway 49 signs was created by Shepherd and Fender Custom Shop master builder Todd Krause over two years, and completed in 2015. This distinctive relic’d instrument has an alder body, a rosewood fretboard, Graph Tech saddles, and black knobs and pickup covers.
Sunny ’60 Shop
The only thing that’s been changed on this 1960 sunburst Gibson Les Paul is the jack plate and toggle surround. The rest is all original, including the frets.
Shut the Front Door (Or the Cows Will Get Out)
This limited edition reclaimed pinewood Strat’s body came from a barn built in the 1800s in Lake Odessa, Michigan. It has a rosewood neck with a hand-rubbed oil finish and a comfortable, modern C neck profile. Other features include a 9.5"-radius, 25.5" scale rosewood fretboard with 22 medium jumbo frets, three Fender Custom Shop Fat ’50s single-coil Stratocaster pickups with 5-way switching, an unbuffed single-ply black pickguard, a two-point synchronized tremolo bridge with vintage-style stamped steel saddles, Micro-Tilt neck adjustment, and a laser-etched headstock logo.
Sig to Dig
This new Kenny Wayne Shepherd Signature Stratocaster features a chambered ash body, a translucent faded sonic blue lacquer finish, an early ’60s inspired C-shaped maple neck, and a bound rosewood fretboard with a 7.25" radius and block inlay. The neck is “the ultimate copy of the neck on my ’61 Strat,” Shepherd says.
Here’s Shepherd’s Martin acoustic signature model JC-16KWS. It’s got a maple back and sides, a Sitka spruce top, Martin’s A-frame X scalloped bracing, and a mahogany neck with a low oval profile.
Billy Gibbons Wants This Guitar
The good Rev. Gibbons’ eyes popped out when Shepherd unveiled this one on an earlier Ryman gig, and BFG named it “Copperboy.” It’s another Fender Custom Shop Masterbuilt Stratocaster by Todd Krause, with lipstick pickup covers and a reverse position for the bridge pickup.
Old Tones, New Tools
Except for that genuine Roger Mayer Octavia, KWS gets his blues-rock tones using some contemporary tools. There’s a modded Venus Witch Wah by Steve Monk, a Sir Henry Vibe by Tinsley Audio, a Boss TU-3, an Analog Man King of Tone and Bi-Chorus, a gen II Klon KTR, and a Free The Tone Future Factory and Ambi Space Digital Reverb. All pedals are routed through a Voodoo Labs PX-8 Plus programable switcher. A Radial JD7 routes the signal to his three amps, and two Voodoo Lab Pedal Power X4s supply the juice.
Rumbles with Dumbles
For this tour, Shepherd uses a trio of white Fender amps and cabs hot-rodded by the late Alexander “Howard” Dumble—just a few of the 11 Dumbles in his collection. These are a Pro Reverb (called the Ultra/Rockphonix), a Bassman (called the Slidewinder), and a Band Master (called the AC763).
Dialing in Dumbles
Here are close-ups of the settings Shepherd applies to his three Dumble-built amps.
How to make a Bassman, Twin, or Super Reverb sound more Experienced.
In my July column about achieving classic sounds with various Fender amp and guitar pairings, I briefly mentioned the black-panel Bassman as a tonal gateway for Hendrix fans. Let me go a bit deeper into the topic of chasing Jimi's tones with Fender tube amps.
Most players might think they need a Marshall to emulate Hendrix, and that Fenders are way too clean, bright, and twangy for the sustaining distortion and feedback. That is partly, but not completely, true. Hendrix's crazier lead tones did not come from his amps alone, but from amps and pedals paired in the studio, and he played a lot of Fender amps. I think learning Jimi's picking technique and chordal approach are more important than learning to cop his tone, and, according to biographies, he actually wasn't very much focused on gear. Still, he did create a signature sound and I've developed ways to dial it in.
Early in his career, Hendrix played Fender and Sunn amps, among others. But in most photos that were taken of him onstage, he is holding a Strat in front of Marshall stacks with Super Lead or JTM45 heads. Let's look a bit closer at the JTM45. When released in 1962, the circuit was based on the 1958 to 1960 Fender Bassman—a 40-watt, tube-rectified, dual 5881-tube, push/pull amp feeding four Jensen 10" P10R alnico speakers in a combo-style cabinet. In fact, it was almost identical.
Fender's narrow-panel tweed amps have inspired numerous amp builders and manufacturers, right to this day, and the most famous are probably the 5F6-A circuit Bassman, 5e3 Deluxe, and 5E8-A Twin. In my opinion, they are the best-looking guitar amps of all time and they excel at both clean and crunchy tones.
The Bassman has several EQ possibilities through its airy 4x10 cabinet, with full-spectrum tone and crunch that makes it a great Hendrix-style amp when pushed. The most significant change in the JTM45 was the closed-speaker cabinet with 12" Celestion G12Ms in pairs or quads. Jim Marshall did this to make his amp louder, firmer, and punchier, but it also became more mid-focused. A bigger power transformer added further to the punch and firmness. A 12AX7 in the V1 preamp spot instead of a weaker 12AY7 also made the amp louder but did not change the tone. There were minor changes in EQ cap values and the negative feedback resistor, partly because of component availability. That made the tone controls act differently, with more mids in both the bass and treble pots. Summarized, the JTM45 is louder and has more mids and therefore more distortion. However, I think most players would not tell these amps apart in a blind test if they were played through the same speaker cabinet.
Out of respect for history, you should never remove an original Jensen speaker in a vintage Fender amp unless it's seriously damaged.
So, my advice for getting Jimi's tone with the tweed Bassman, vintage or reissue, is to lower the bass to prevent fart-out, set the volume high for a raw, unfiltered sound, and use the guitar volume to dial back to a cleaner and more mellow voice. If you manage to tame the brightness across the amp, pedals, and guitar, you will be greatly rewarded with a detailed, nuanced response to picking, fretting, bending, vibrato, and other work on the fretboard.
Staying in the tweed era, the 5E8-A circuit Twin is also useful for Hendrix-style distortion, and its 12" speakers will put you closer to a Marshall's solid punch. The Twin doesn't break up as quickly as the Bassman, but you can pull one of the two rectifier tubes to compensate, and get more sag and less clean headroom. The vintage tweed version of this amp has dual 5U4GA rectifier tubes, and the reissue has dual 5U4GBs. Thanks to Fender for not going with a more efficient single GZ34 but keeping it essentially vintage-correct.
Fender has reissued the tweed Bassman and low-power Twin as the '59 Bassman LTD and '57 Custom Twin-Amp. You can put vintage-appropriate Celestion G12M speakers in the reissue Twin for a more classic Marshall-style tone. For the reissue Bassman, I think the best route to a Hendrix tone is replacement WGS 10" Veteran speakers. But a word of caution: Out of respect for history, you should never remove an original Jensen speaker in a vintage Fender amp unless it's seriously damaged.
Finally, we've come to the black-panel/silver-panel Fender Bassman 50-watt and the Super Reverb. Of the three black-panel Bassman circuits—AA864, AA165, and AB165—the AB165 distorts the most. But it lacks a British flavor unless you install a 25k mid pot in place of the fixed 6.8k mid resistor. The mid knob then acts as a crunch control, so it's definitely worth the effort of installation. The black-panel Super Reverb with Jensen P10R or CTS ceramic speakers is quite similar to the Tweed Bassman. If you dial the mids high, lower the bass, and push it really hard … you almost have a Tweed Bassman tone with combined distortion from the preamp, power amp, and speakers. As always, for more crunch at lower volumes you may disengage two of the speakers, use a 12AX7 V6 position phase inverter tube, and pull the V1 tube.
Go online to see my video exploring some of these sounds. Meanwhile, excuse me while I kiss the sky.
Do thicker strings make you a better player? Let's find out!
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 8-gauge strings.
- 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 Alive days.
- Carlos Santana: 9s
- Allan Holdsworth: 11s
- Eddie Van Halen: well-known for using 9-gauge.
- 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.