By Eric Dahl
I was raised by a blues playing bass guitarist, so as a youth, my parents warped my mind predominantly with that genre of music with their albums and 8-tracks. But as I came of age through the 1970s and ’80s as a guitar-playing teenager, it seemed that no guitarists were carrying on or pushing the envelope of blues music for my generation, and it was left in obscurity to past blues legends – until Stevie Ray Vaughan hit the scene. Besides incredible showmanship, endless inventive blues licks, and a knocked out rhythm section in “Double Trouble” that never faltered, SRV brought fire and a passion to a somewhat neglected form of music that made it new again for all music fans! Like Clapton, Vaughan sought to spotlight the blues musicians he idolized, like Lonnie Mack, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy. During his unfortunately short life, Stevie was best known for playing the guitar referred to as “Number One,” a heavily modified and altered mongrel of a Fender Stratocaster. Although he personally referred to it as a 1959 (due to its pickups), it comprised a ’63 body and a ’62 neck.
The story goes that SRV traded the black strat he owned for “Number One” at Ray Henning’s Heart of Texas, an Austin, TX-based music shop. Vaughan would use this guitar on many of his recorded albums, and it is easily recognizable during live performances. SRV was known for collecting and playing an assortment of guitars such as “Lenny” (a gift from his friends and wife Lenora), Gibson ES335s, custom-built Hamilton’s, double neck Robin guitars, Guild 12 strings, and a Fender Esquire that recently went up for auction. But the one most associated with Vaughan is “Number One,” and it was far from coddled or a stock collector’s piece. Modifications to the strat (some planned and others by accident) included: retrofitted left-handed tremolo, gold hardware, SRV initial stickers on the pickguard, cigarette burn on the headstock, “Custom” sticker behind the tremolo (from a truck stop), and Pearloid machine heads.
Due to Stevie’s heavy-handed playing and the use of extra heavy gauge strings (small E string was usually a .013), it was necessary to shave the fretboard and re-fret the neck once a year with jumbo frets. It had numerous bone and ivory nuts installed during its years of use. A few weeks before SRV passed away, he played a show with Joe Cocker, and the stage collapsed on his guitars and broke the headstock off of “Number One” – said to be an omen by some. Fortunately, his longtime guitar tech, Rene Martinez, had already replaced the neck on this instrument with the “Red” strat neck so that its heavily gouged rosewood fingerboard could be repaired at a later date.
Sadly for blues music lovers everywhere, the repair was not achieved during Stevie Ray Vaughan’s lifetime. Still, Martinez did put the correct ’62 neck back on the guitar after he died, and the instrument now belongs to his brother Jimmie Vaughan. In 1992, two years after Stevie’s passing, Fender released the signature model they had been perfecting with Vaughan towards the end of his life. It is still in production and features: 21 frets, Oval shaped neck, Pao Ferro rosewood fretboard, Gotoh vintage-style tuners, poly finish body, gold hardware, 3 tone sunburst alder body, pickguard engraved with SRV initials, left-handed tremolo, SRV signature on the headstock and Texas Special single-coil pickups.
As an owner of this model since 1997, I can say that it is an incredible instrument and a testament to Vaughan’s input on building and the guitar building skill of the Fender Company. In 2004 Fender offered only 100 of the “Stevie Ray Vaughan Limited Edition Custom Shop Stratocaster” which was a much more precise remake of “Number One” by top Fender luthier John Cruz after the Fender team took precise measurements and images of the guitar at Jimmie Vaughan’s home in Texas. Besides the much different price tag, these sold for $10,000 each, the Limited Edition SRV models sought to include every flaw, scratch, ding, drill hole, the exact weight of body & neck, pickups, and playwear that Vaughan left upon the guitar from his years of use. This signature model came with an anvil flight case, SRV DVD, special gig bag and strap, 2 tone sunburst paint job, certificate of authenticity, and SRV photo.
In 2007 Fender also recreated 185 of Stevie’s “Lenny” Stratocaster, similarly after Guitar Center purchased the original at an auction three years earlier. Stevie Ray Vaughan gave 100% of himself to his music, and he expected no less from his bandmates or the instruments he played. Much like “Blackie” that Eric Clapton assembled, Vaughan was drawn to this guitar in a music store and then continued to leave his fingerprints on it just as he left his mark on blues music. You and I may never get the chance to see, play or hold SRV’s “Number One” in person but thankfully, Fender has done a commendable job in their tribute instruments.
So whether you call it a ’59, ’62, ’63, “Number One,” or the “First Wife” (as SRV sometimes did), this well-loved and played Fender Stratocaster that once belonged to Stevie Ray Vaughan holds a special place in guitar history! As collectors and connoisseurs of instruments, many of us seek out the most pristine and stock examples for our collections. Still, in this case, Vaughan sought the best tone and playability in a musical tool that he wielded with ferocity! Each scratch, dent, crack, finish rub, and cigarette burn tell a story of the artist who loved this instrument and coaxed the impossible from two pieces of bolted together wood and some plastic and metal parts. Leo Fender didn’t design the Stratocaster to be locked away in a museum; he built them for players like SRV.