Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Number One” 1959/61/62 Fender Stratocaster
1989 was a big year in my guitar obsessive ‘s timeline. It was the year I found another compelling reason to buy a Stratocaster… and the year I actually bought one.
I’m a bit ashamed to say I came so very late to music of the brilliant and unique Texas blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. Aside from a vague recollection of a cool-looking guy in a hat playing some interesting, bluesy guitar on Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”, I hadn’t heard as much as a note from those golden fingers until the end of 1987. By that time, Stevie was four albums and thousands of gigs into a career which, tragically, was already more than half over.
Autumn 1987 found me on the road with Automatic Slim, opening shows across southern England for Dr Feelgood – still fronted by Lee Brilleaux, but with Gordon Russell on guitar by that stage. I remember a big, empty old venue perched on the cliffs in Folkstone, Kent, where I stood listening to the music on the PA, waiting for the doors to open and Slim to go out and play. A song came on – “Texas Flood” I think – and I astonished by the sheer power, intensity and tone of the guitar-playing. The sound guy told me who the player was and all I knew was that I needed to hear more.
Next day, I bought “Live Alive” on vinyl (CDs were just coming in, but I still had a record player) and began a journey of discovery along a magical blues highway which would eventually take me all the way to Austin, Texas.
I devoured everything I could find about SRV, about the Texas club scene that spawned Stevie and about his big brother, Jimmie, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the host of other amazing blues musicians to be heard in Austin’s exotic-sounding venues. I quickly learned, too, of Stevie’s substance-driven demons and how “Live Alive” was pieced together from live recordings made when he and the band were at their very lowest ebb and patched up with overdubs in a substance-fuddled haze. “Live Alive” still sounded pretty good to me – to my ears, even if he played better sober, Stevie could still play powerful, convincing blues, pretty much irrespective of his state of sobriety. Countless live bootlegs tend to bear this out…
As I continued to hoover up Stevie’s back-catalogue, I came to understand, however, why “Live Alive” was maybe not his best work. In contrast, “Texas Flood” was as fine a debut LP as any bluesman ever issued, while the two studio albums that followed tore up the rules governing the way modern blues-rock should be played.
I came to believe that Stevie had it all. The chops, insightful blues knowledge, the showmanship, the clothes, the hats, the boots, even more important, the gear. He played a ton of rare, fascinating battle-scarred old guitars and plugged into a veritable wall of exotic, customised vintage valve amps, usually turned up to ten.
By the time SRV’s fourth studio album, “In Step”, came out in 1989, I was completely enthralled. So was my boy Owen, then aged nine and learning the guitar. There was never any question what kind of guitar I would be buying to sit next to my Telecaster…
The story of my very first Japanese Squier Strat can be found much earlier in this blog – read it here, along with that the tale the SRV Strat replica I built for Owen as a surprise Christmas present in the months after Stevie’s death.
My Squier Strat cost me £200 brand new from Guitar Village in Chadwell Heath, a purchase definitely inspired by the guitar Stevie is playing on the cover of “Live Alive” – apparently an early picture of the 1961 Strat Stevie christened “Scotch” because of the way the original (Olympic White, presumably) nitrocellulose finish had tarnished to a rather pleasing butterscotch colour.
Here’s an odd thought: When the “Live Alive” cover picture was taken, Stevie’s 1961 Strat would have been 26 years old. In 2020, my long-gone Japanese “Scotch” (wherever it is) is actually older… I wonder where that guitar is now – and how much the finish on it has tarnished and darkened over the years. What are the chances the current owner calls it “Scotch”? 🙂
For all that, I quickly discovered Stevie was far more closely associated with an entirely different Strat… It was a battle-scarred, one-of-a-kind, Frankenstein’s monster hybrid of late 1950s and early 1960s parts, its original Sunburst finish largely worn off by years of hard gigging. It sported a black pickguard, contrasting white knobs and pickup covers and, bizarrely, a left-handed tremolo bridge and Stevie variously referred to it as “Number One”, or his “First Wife.
Stevie bought Number One in Ray Hennig’s legendary Heart of Texas Music in South Austin in 1973, the day after Grammy-winning songwriter Christopher Cross traded it for a Les Paul, so the story goes. Hennig has spoken several times of that day and of telling him: “Damn, Stevie, that’s the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever traded for.”
Evidently, Stevie thought differently – Hennig says he thought it had the neck he’d been searching for years. You can hear Hennig telling the tale here in a 2017 interview.
Unsurprisingly, the first time I travelled to Austin, in 1997, Heart of Texas Music was one of the places for which I made a beeline. I’ve been back several times down the years and still have the black Astatic harmonica mic Ray Hennig himself sold me there in the mid 1990s. Ray’s was a fine old South Austin institution, its proprietor a constant presence at the counter. Heart of Texas was still going strong last time I was on South Lamar, in 2005, though I gather its future is now less sure. Sadly, Ray Hennig died earlier this year and I’ve read that the area where the shop stands is now likely to be redeveloped as part of the apparently unstoppable reinvention that has been rolling over the Texas state capital for the past 30 years.
That old Strat served Stevie unbelievably well. It can be heard on just about every album he recorded. He was prone to refer to it as a ’59, but the truth, it seems, is it was a mongrel. Rene Martinez, SRV’s guitar tech for the last five years of the guitarist’s life, explained in a MusicRadar interview: “Number One was a ’62 Strat, but Stevie was fond of calling it a 1959 model.
“The reason why he called it a ’59 was because of some wiring in it – the back of the pickups said ‘1959.’ So the pickups were a ’59, but the body of the guitar was a ’62. My attitude was, ‘Hey, it’s your guitar, you can call it whatever you want.
“The action on it was pretty high. The guitar was pretty beat up, even then, showing a lot of wear and tear. He had had somebody install a left-handed tremolo system, even though he was a right-handed player. I would imagine it was to emulate Hendrix, but I never really asked him. But that’s what he had done. Maybe he liked the way it moved.”
Evidently, keeping Number One on the road entailed constant work, partly because by then, the guitar was getting on in years, but mainly because SRV strung so heavy and played so hard
Martinez told the interviewer: “He started with a .013 and ended with a .060. They were big, yes, but that wasn’t the only thing; it was the action, the height of the strings. I used to adjust the screws down at the bridge to raise the height, and I would run out of thread – I couldn’t make the strings any higher.
“The term ‘repair’ can mean a lot of things. I refretted it and I put in a bone nut, or an ivory nut. I refretted the guitar maybe once a year, and I replaced the ivory nut probably as many times. You can’t use the same nut once you refret the guitar – the action would be too low.
“The last time I refretted it, I told him it would be the last time. He asked me why and I told him that I had to plane to fingerboard every time I put new frets in. He would really dig in; he not only wore the frets out, but he would wear out some of the wood as well. After a while, the fingerboard was getting thin and I told him I’d have to put a new one on. We decided to replace the neck and keep the original until I had time to made that repair.”
Presciently, the neck Martinez put on in the interim – from SRV’s other old standby, “Scotch” – was smashed in a freak accident in New Jersey just a few weeks before Stevie’s death.
Martinez recalls: “We were doing a co-headlining tour with Joe Cocker. For that show at the Garden State Arts Center, we were on first. The venue had these acoustic baffles for when orchestras would play, and they were monsters, maybe 20 or 30 feet tall and six or eight feet wide.
“They were all leaning against the wall and they were tied up, and at the end of the show, as we were changing sets for Joe Cocker, the stagehands were pulling the curtains and one of these huge baffles came crashing down on my workstation, where the guitars were set up.
“The guitars were basically holding the baffle up. It took a bunch of us to lift the thing off the guitars, and of course, the first guitar I checked on was Number One. Well, the neck had been broken – it looked like a Steinberger…the headstock was basically dangling.”
As a quick fix, Martinez got Fender to send him a new neck – Stevie had been working with the company for some time on a signature model, based on his famous guitar. The suggestion is that it was one of these necks he played through the last few shows before August 27, 1990, the fateful night when SRV lost his life in a helicopter crash in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin.
At some stage after the accident, Martinez fixed the original neck and put it back on Number One – so the neck seen on the guitar whenever it goes on show now is the original.
Steve’s brother, Jimmie, has Number One and some of his other guitars. He donated Lenny, the 1965 Strat bought for him by his wife in 1980 to a charity auction. The giant American Guitar Center chain bought Lenny – I’ve actually seen that guitar on display in the window of the Guitar Center on Sunset Strip in LA. It wasn’t there last time I was in LA, in January, but that’s the closest I’ve come to any of Stevie’s stuff.
Number One was put on show for the first time since Stevie’s death in 2012, in Austin, as part of the Bullock State History Museum’s exhibition, “Texas Music Road Trip”. It was taken out again for the touring exhibition, “Pride & Joy: The Texas Blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan” in 2017.
I’m sorry to say I missed the latter exhibition when it moved to downtown LA, with Number One very much its centrepiece. Owen did go along, though. He took photos and then rubbed my nose in it, the bugger!
Almost 30 years since Stevie last played Number One, it remains one of the most distinctive and most-copied guitars ever made. Any time you see a Sunburst rosewood-board Strat sporting a black pickguard and white control knobs and pickup covers, you can be pretty sure there’s a decent bit of SRV in its DNA.
Then there are the “replicas” – guitars lovingly crafted by fans in tribute to their hero, a good few cynical commercial cash-ins and various incarnations from Fender guitar company itself.
Fender was working on a production SRV signature model before Stevie’s death. That guitar sported the original’s fat baseball-bat neck and the gold hardware and engraved pickguard of the latter-day Number One – but with an incongruously unmarked paint job – and finally saw the light of day in 199. It’s still part of the company’s product range, retailing the in the UK for a shade under £2,000, or £1,200 on the secondhand market. If you can hack the big handful of a neck (I like mine rather slimmer), they’re actually pretty decent guitars.
In 2004, the Fender Custom Shop’s master-builder John Cruz produced a vastly expensive, limited-edition model. It was a lot truer to the original, in terms of hardware and relicing – right down to the cigarette burn on the headstock. Only 30 were made and they originally retailed (with a fancy leather gig bag, a replica of SRV’s famous “musical note” strap and a stencilled flightcase, no less).
(I actually held one of these rare beasts in my hands one dark and rainy night in a venue car park in North Yorkshire – it belonged to my friend, Californian guitarist Lightnin’ Willie. I was talking about the guitar after his show and he asked: “Hey, you wanna see it?” Willie just pulled it out of its leather bag and handed it to me – out there in the car park, as the rain came absolutely tipping down!)
When launched, they sold for around £8,000 but even at this price, they sold like hot cakes. They’re worth a LOT more these days – you could easily buy a genuine 1961 Strat for a good deal less! (A music shop in central London is currently offering one on Reverb for £39,999!)
Last year, Fender produced yet another take on Number One, the “Fender Custom Shop Stevie Ray Vaughan SRV Limited Edition Stratocaster Relic”, lightly reliced, but with a nitro finish Fender promises will wear down more quickly and convincingly than the original Fender SRV Signature. It sells for somewhere between £4,000 and £5,000, a hefty slice of change, but about par for the course for guitars from the Custom Shop these days.
Official Fenders aside, you’ll find any number of other copies out there, some very good and some pretty awful. Just after Stevie died, I built one myself as a Christmas present for Owen, ten years old at the time. 30 years on, he still has it and I’m proud to say he sometimes still plays it, albeit in modified form. It was one of the guitars he took on the road when the band he was playing for opened shows in football stadiums across North America three years ago for the Who! The full story is here…
These days, Owen builds amazing high-end relic guitars, both for his own use and to order, for paying customers. I was greatly amused when, a couple of years ago, someone commissioned him to build a Number One (as part of a twofer order with a Clapton Blackie).
So, in the unlikely event that I were to bump into Jimmie Vaughan and he were to put Number One into my hands, how would I feel?
Awed, obviously. Terrified of dropping it…well, maybe not – having seen the way Stevie abused Number One on Stage (check out the way he treats it on “Third Stone from the Sun” in the “Live at the El Morcambo” DVD!) it seems this guitar is truly indestructible!
The main thing, though, is that I’d probably find it pretty much unplayable. Those massive strings, that tall action…Stevie, though not an especially big man, had vastly strong hands.
My old Southend buddy Barry Martin (you may remember him better as Snail’s Pace Slim, guitarist with blues-rock trio the Hamsters) was a radio DJ in Austin in the late 70s and early 80s and remembers seeing Stevie play the clubs. He told me: “When I was there, Stevie was playing bars and was referred to as ‘Jimmie’s brother’.
“I was lucky to have an ‘in’ as I knew the Mike Tolleson, the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ lawyer, and Alexis Korner put me in touch with his old friend Chesley Milliken, who was managing Stevie.
“Chesley told me he was looking for a major record deal, but it was all the new MTV and Duran Duran at the time, and I was sceptical about a bloke doing Hendrix and Blues standards breaking through into the big time!”
Barry clearly remembers the first time he saw Stevie play – he was sitting at a table about six feet from the stage: “There were about 30 people in there. Fuck, he could tear it up! For the encore, he sat on the edge of the stage in front of me and did Little Wing.
“He showed me his gear one evening at Antone’s. He was very proud of the fact that his amps [Blackface Fender Vibroverbs] had the serial numbers 0005 and 0006 (I think those were the numbers, but he was chuffed they were consecutive! ).
“He said that he had the reverb and tones all the way up, and increased the volume from 8 in the first set to 10 in the second each night. He used a wah and a tube screamer and that was about it.
“He invited me to jam the next week, but his strings were so heavy (and I wasn’t really playing in those days), so I politely refused.
“It would’ve been well embarrassing!”
And if a player as fine as Barry Martin fought shy of taking on Number One, I truly don’t think it would be something for me to contemplate. If ever there was a player whose sound was truly in his hands and his hands alone, it was Stevie.