The Lesser-Known Guitars of Stevie Ray Vaughan

Few guitarists have had more written about them than Stevie Ray Vaughan. At the peak of his success, SRV represented a miraculous multicultural revival of the blues. He wove together the styles of Albert King and Jimi Hendrix with Dick Dale and Duane Eddy in a way that's been endlessly discussed and passionately imitated ever since.

Yet for all that is known about him and the many debates and conversations that center on his life and music, there are plenty of details that aren't explored often enough. We could fill a whole series of articles with amazing Stevie stories, but today, on his birthday, we’re going to talk about what he loved most: guitars.

Stevie Ray Vaughan is, of course, synonymous with the Stratocaster, but the truth is that he loved all guitars and played a variety of them on and off stage and in the studio. Below you'll find a brief overview of some of Stevie Ray’s most under-appreciated axes that go well-beyond the iconic Strats.

The 1951 Fender Esquire, Jimbo

When conceiving this article, we almost left this one off only because it has received so much attention as of late. But a conversation about Stevie’s guitars just wouldn’t be complete without taking some time for "Jimbo."

While it appears now and in most photos to be a Telecaster, this guitar actually has roots as ‘51 Esquire and didn’t even belong to Stevie. Technically, the guitar was Jimmie Vaughan’s (the Emperor of Austin Cool), and it was a begrudging loaner for little brother Stevie to use. The guitar famously gets its nickname from Jimmie’s jagged carving of the word "Jimbo" on the back of the guitar.

The 1951 Fender Esquire, Jimbo (Photo from Julien's Live)

Jimbo became Stevie’s main guitar until the end of 1970. SRV personally modified the guitar in shop class, stripping off the finish and routing the body for a neck pickup. Instead of a knob dedicated to volume and another to tone like a normal Tele, Jimbo reportedly has two volume pots.

The story goes that after making the mods, Stevie was nervous about his brother noticing the changes. Jimmi, like any exceptional older brother, often expressed his love for Stevie through force when they were kids, and that tendency is supposedly what inspired Stevie to trade Jimbo for this next guitar on our list.

1963 Epiphone Riviera

Like many guitar players, Stevie always searched for guitars that spoke to him on a personal level. And sometime in late-1970, that's exactly the sort of guitar that Stevie found.

Stevie was first spotted playing the red and white, semi-hollowbody 1963 Epiphone Riviera live on January 14, 1971, in the band Pecos. He was later photographed playing this guitar in other early projects, like Blackbird, the Nightcrawlers (where he opened for ELO, KISS, and ZZ Top), and Krackerjack.

1963 Epiphone Riviera

Before Stevie realized his signature fondness for Strats, the Riviera was one of Stevie’s main instruments and remained in his collection long after he stopped playing it regularly. Over the years, it was photographed live in various states with and without the original pickguard. Famously, it popped back up on video over a decade after Stevie first played it in a fiery live version of “Hideaway” with two pickguards — one for the top and one for the bottom.

Stevie traded for most of his famous guitars at Ray Hennig’s Heart of Texas Music shop, but the Epiphone was acquired through a private trade with a friend. Stevie reportedly regretted handing over Jimbo, though, and spent a lot of time over the next 20 years trying to get his brother’s loaner back.

Even though the Riviera may not have been Stevie’s favorite guitar, it’s still significant and just one in a series atypical "Stevie guitars” that he still made sound all his own.

‘50s Rickenbacker 360 Capri Prototype, “Stingray”

Also before Stevie became known as a Strat guy, you could find him making a Rickenbacker 360 flat-top prototype do things it shouldn’t be able to do.

‘50s Rickenbacker 360 Capri Prototype
(Photo from Rick Resource)

According to Craig Hopkins’ Day By Day, Night After Night — the definitive guide to SRV and one of the main sources for this article — Billy Gibbons was taken with the guitar the night he saw Stevie playing it in 1977 and went to try it, only to find it unplayable. Allegedly, in true Stevie fashion, the action was too high and the strings were too thick for Gibbons to get a handle on.

Based on all available photo evidence, this appears to have been Stevie’s main guitar in the Triple Threat Revue in 1977-’78 and during his stint as Hubert Sumlin’s sideman. Stevie eventually gave Sumlin the guitar as a birthday present though it was stolen soon thereafter.

Amazingly, when Stevie found out the guitar had been stolen from Sumlin, he set out to find it and ended up recovering it. Once he got it back, he personally walked into Antone’s in Austin and returned it to Sumlin before his gig that same night. No one can say that Stevie wasn’t a good friend.

Stevie-Designed Prototype Guitar

Perhaps the most forgotten guitar on this list is one that was designed by Stevie himself. And no, we’re not talking about Fender’s Stevie Ray Vaughan Signature Stratocaster. The guitar we’re referencing is so bizarrely shaped and conceived that it defies most explanation.

Stevie-Designed Prototype Guitar

Stevie sketched out the shape and prototype design of the guitar in 1982 and consulted with experts on the technical limitations he'd have to overcome to bring it to life — mainly, arranging the pickup poles in the shape of his initials. If we had to describe it, the guitar looks like a Telecaster was spliced with a Stratocaster and then merged with a rounder take on a Gibson Moderne.

Stevie was photographed with multiple takes on a single cutaway prototype body in 1984, as well as the double cutaway version in the mid-to-late-’80s. He was also captured playing a single-cut prototype live with an ill-fitting strat pickguard in 1988.

Stevie’s Tokais: The Texas Flood Springy Sound/AST "Strats"

Stevie’s Tokai vintage Strat copies are in many ways the oddest entry in this list. Stevie was rumored to play (and was photographed with) multiple Tokais in the ‘80s. Where this story starts to get interesting is the lack of available information on Stevie’s most famous Tokai: the sunburst, maple neck ‘50s-style Springy Sound model on the cover of Texas Flood.

Stevie Ray Vaughan's Tokai Ad (Photo from My Cool Guitars)

One of the most bizarre aspects of Stevie’s tie-in with the Springy Sound is that Stevie was never known by those close to him to have purchased it or have seriously played it live or in the studio. A popular guess is that Stevie bought the guitar while on tour, as he would often pick up guitars in the towns that he visited.

Outside of the cover, few — if any — photographs of Stevie playing this guitar live (or in private) are known to exist. With that said, there is a "live" photo of the Texas Flood guitar in Hopkins' book from 1982, so it appears that he did use it live up until a year before Texas Flood was released.

Craig Hopkins posits that an endorsement deal was being explored at the time, and five Tokai guitars plus a of couple basses were negotiated as a goodwill offering toward Stevie signing with the brand. A signed contract for a Tokai endorsement was found that corroborates Hopkins’ guess, but the signature and the information provided on the contract (dated December 30, 1984) appears to be forged, with his wife Lenora — “Lenny” — as the signed witness.

This potentially falsified contract was likely the basis for the creation of the ’85-’86 Tokai catalog and poster that featured Stevie Ray and Tommy Shannon playing Tokai guitars/basses. Stevie was known to have been infuriated by the marketing. Once, when presented with the poster by a fan, Stevie wrote “I PLAY FENDER” over the Tokai logo.

Another major complication to Hopkins’ explanation that the Texas Flood Tokai was a possible endorsement guitar is that the 1984-’85 timing of this deal puts Tokai in the middle of a headstock change for their American-distributed guitars. In fact, a Stevie-owned Tokai that sold at auction for over $20,000 (with COA and photographic proof) was, in fact, a Tokai AST, which featured an altered, non-vintage, Strat-style headstock.

This guitar that sold also appears to be one of the guitars Stevie is photographed playing in the infamous Tokai poster. All of this together points to the free promotional guitars given to Stevie as being the 1984-introduced ASTs instead of his earlier Springy Sound models.

To make this Stevie-Tokai situation even weirder, Craig Hopkins has stated that Stevie is also playing a Tokai on the cover of Live at Carnegie Hall. The photographic evidence from Chuck Pulin’s photoshoot that night lends credence to his claims, but the decal is neither conclusively a Tokai or Fender based on the available photographs.

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