TQR AUG 2007
No one has ever complained that the music business was too buttoned up for larcenous freeload- ers to operate with alacrity. In fact, such characters are often viewed as mystical savants, and not just in the music world... Success is measured everywhere by accumulated wealth and power; how you get it is more or less irrelevant in a world where the line separating right and wrong has blurred to a dirty little smudge.
The underbelly of the music business can also reveal a lighter side tinged with pathetic hubris of such gross proportions that sane men and women can only laugh in the face of it. But it is arro- gant stupidity practiced as religion that ultimately renders the more grounded among us gasping for breath and shrieking with insane laughter. The cult of celebrity has become an embarrassment to our culture – a daily reminder of just how poorly we humans are built for handling it well, and rarely with grace. If you’re hanging aluminum foil in hotel room windows, it’s time to find anoth- er line of work. Surely man was not intended to live in a bubble, isolated from the world for his own safety. In some places, this is called solitary confinement – a fine place to go mad.
Yet we insist on placing our heroes atop gilded thrones set in quicksand, so it’s little wonder when they sink from grace, shamed by scandal, or simply for having the cheek to hang around too long. Nothing caps off a great career like a good overdose, but even this has fallen out of fashion. Our fan- tasies of imagined greatness ignore the truth; there are no gods walking among us, only moments when it would seem so. Everyone descends from the stage on equal footing, their lives destined to unfold precisely like the rest of us, alternate- ly colored by hope, doubt, joy, despair, indifference, reflec- tion, renewal, trust, betrayal and faith. No one is immune from their humanity – even those reborn.
And so the scene is set. Dead reckoning has brought us to this moment in time, leaning forward now in anticipation of a good and true tale... a story about life, renewal and fate, should you believe in it, and how so much in this world is not as it seems – even in the Quest for tone.
Southern Indiana is the better half of God’s Country. Cloaked in hoary hickories, red maples and dogwoods, meandering country roads lead to places where time has frozen like a rusted pump handle. You can leave this place, but persistent roots bond the souls of fortunate sons to its black, loamy earth forever. Witness John Hiatt, John Mellencamp, Steve Wariner, Lonnie Mack... hoosiers whose music reveals an organic weight that could never germinate in concrete. Terry Dobbs lives here still, best known to you as Mr. Valco. His addiction is Valco amplifiers, and he has owned nearly every variant ever made – not because of a supernatural intuition of their worth as appliances, but for the simple reason that for decades, they were all he could afford.
Collecting derelict amps with a question- able past requires they be put right, and when putting them right costs more than you paid in the first
place, you learn to do it yourself. Mr. Valco patiently learned the craft of fixing old amps during years of evenings and week- ends off from a southern Indiana box factory, and he became better than good at it. Amplifiers of all kinds came his way, and in early 2007 he received a long distance call from the son of a local repair customer, inquiring if he was interested in “pedals.” “Well, I might be... whatcha got?” “Oh, just a couple of things... an old Fuzz Face, a couple of Roger Mayer Octavias and a Vox wah. They’re pretty old,” the son replied. More ques-
tions revealed that the son we’ll call “Meth Boy” was living in Austin, Texas. Fated to play out the string, a road trip to Arizona was already in the making for the Valcos. A stop-over in Austin would be a welcome break in the 800 mile drive across Texas, and a rendezvous was thus arranged.
Nudging things forward with an encouraging grin and a keen nose for good cantinas and Texas bs was Riverhorse. Having become acquainted with Mr. Valco through the restora- tion of a National amp, he agreed to meet the Valcos in Austin to provide immoral support, act as a tour guide on 6th Avenue, and cast a long shadow while the deal was going down.
At the appointed date and time, Meth Boy appeared in a Super 8 parking lot with the pedals as described – a heavily abused Vox wah with a Japanese TDK
inductor; two Roger Mayer Octavias, and a modified Dallas- Arbiter Fuzz Face with a card inside from Strings & Things, Memphis, and a strip of rock & roll tape stuck to the base inscribed with “NPN BC109, SRV 4-12-90.” As Mr. Valco pon- dered Meth Boy’s curious stash, his concentration cracked when Meth Boy casually asked if he was “into amps...” Standing in the artificial twilight of the parking lot, Valco hesi- tated as a jolt of adrenaline jacked his pulse into double time. Lighting a Marlboro red, he sucked in a deep drag, letting the smoke float away on his words. “I might be... what is it?” Meth Boy shifted to low gear for traction, muttering, “Oh, it’s some kind of Vibro amp – pretty big. You want me to go get it?”
Valco stalled, his mind flood- ed with contra-
dictions as a slurry of chile rellenos con frijoles and four Negro Modelos soured his gut. This ain’t smelling right, but I’m here, goddammit... might as well see it through. Hours passed with Meth Boy’s parting promise to “be right back” still ringing in Valco’s ears when the car finally turned into the parking lot and Meth Boy slid his crapulent Taurus next to the Valco RV. Jammed into the trunk was a pro road case requiring two pairs of hands to pull it upright and out of the trunk. As Meth Boy and Valco set the road case down on the asphalt, the sodium lights high overhead illuminated a bright white spray painted stencil in a mildly threatening script that read like a warning... “STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN & DOU- BLE TROUBLE.”
Shoving another Marlboro into the cor- ner of his mouth, Valco peered at Meth Boy through the blue-orange flame of his
stainless Zippo. The expression on the kid’s face was a cipher... the vacant, yellow stare of a zombie woof. Mechanically moving around the road case, Meth Boy twisted open each hinged clasp to free the top, pulled it off and stepped back into the shadows. Valco stood motionless, dumbly staring at the cheerful script on the black faceplate of the big Fender, beaming at him like a neon sign. Vibroverb Amp...
Delayed and badly off schedule from Meth Boy’s two hour detour, Valco heaved the Vibroverb out of the lower padded compart-
ment, tilted the amp forward and peered into the back. A big- ass EV speaker was framed on the top by NOS tubes, an orange stump protruding from the rectifier socket, and an unusually large output transformer hanging directly over the center of the EV’s frame. The familiar ritual of looking over a strange new amp had a calming effect on Valco – even one belonging to dead legend. Casually leaning against the RV, Riverhorse hadn’t twitched nor uttered a word, yet Valco took comfort in the certain knowledge that his coyote remained coiled like a snake. Satisfied that the Vibroverb was what it appeared to be, Valco turned his attention back to Meth Boy. “Where did you get this?” “Well, it was given to an old guy named Benny Rowe, one of the original Austin guitar players. I guess he was a mentor to Stevie, so he gave him all this stuff and then Benny fell on hard times and had to sell it, and he sold it to me.” As Valco considered Meth Boy’s story, he also sensed that Mrs. Valco’s patience with their delayed departure from the Super 8 was reaching critical mass. Too much more of this and there would be a persistent shit hem- morhage dogging him all the way back to Indiana. Valco
motioned Meth Boy closer and popped the question. “What do you want for all of this?” Meth Boy looked at Valco with his vacant, road kill stare and offered a lagniappe... “Well, I also got some personal items... a strap, belt, some jewelry, and a notebook. You can have it all for $5,000.”
Sweating indecision, Valco suddenly felt sick and wasted from the bad juju hovering around Meth Boy like cheap after-
shave. A dozen questions seared his brain, but they wouldn’t be answered here. He needed to get back on the road and deal with the consequences later, reasoning he had three days to deadhead it back to Indiana from the Arizona desert – plenty of time to ponder Meth Boy’s bizarre story. Valco could at least sort out the hypotheticals on the long drive home.
I know he’s a wolf said Riding Hood but Grandma dear he smells so good...
With a meaningless handshake, Valco and Meth Boy closed the deal, the amp, pedals and ‘personal items’ were loaded into the RV, and Mrs. Valco finally swung the land yacht westward into the Texas night, $5,000 poorer for a one night stay at the Super 8. The room, the Tex-Mex and the beers were on Riverhorse.
Not long after Valco returned to Indiana, Riverhorse sug- gested to Valco that he render unto ToneQuest all that he had acquired from
Meth Boy for an official inspection to be documented in print. A week later, Valco arrived in Atlanta with Mrs. Valco and one of his local jam buddies – a hoosier hard trucker and guitar slinger we’ll call “Three More Hours.” We arranged to take the gear to Jeff Bakos’ Ampworks and studio for a visual and sonic probe. Mr. Valco had already digested the modifications made to the Vibroverb – Jeff would simply provide a solid second opinion. Riverhorse flew in from Houston to observe with only one request... “I have to go to the Clermont.” Not a request, really, but a firm declaration, as if he had said, “I have to go to the bathroom.” Of course, the subject of the true status of the Stevie gear was also discussed at length, and Valco would deal with that soon enough.
Before we launch into a review of Stevie’s Vibroverb (we were told that as many as five once existed), understand that our friendship with Stevie’s amp tech, the late César Diaz, provided us with the opportunity to discuss the modifications César made to his amps and effects pedals at length, and often. See the August 2000 issue of TQR for our cover story on Diaz. Fender’s successful development of the handwired, blackface reissue Vibroverb was done in close consultation with César, and he was quite proud of having personally shaped Stevie’s
tone. His strategy was based on mak- ing Stevie’s pedals more reliable – espe- cially the Fuzz Faces that operated with notoriously heat-sen- sitive germanium transistors, and forti- fying the amps to develop an extraor-
dinarily clean and punchy tone with virtually none of the sag and squishy low end that stock tube rectifiers, smallish Fender output transformers and ‘60s speakers produced. There was also some experimentation with speakers – first JBL D130s – and
when these proved to be inca- pable of withstanding Stevie’s withering volume and pick attack, they switched to ElectroVoice EVM-15L’s – notably robust, clean and capa- ble of handling high power and the transient spikes created with a .058 gauge low-tuned E string popped with two fingers through an amp and effects.
Here’s the scoop on the significant changes César made to Stevie’s ‘64 Vibroverb...
The original blue Sprague caps in the Vibroverb’s tone sec- tion were changed in Channel Two to Orange Drops. César also replaced the caps in the reverb return and the three main caps in the phase inverter to Orange Drops, changing the tone of the amp drastically with increased gain, highs, lows, and midrange – a bigger sound overall from the stock circuit. The 1 meg resistors in the phase inverter circuit were changed to a later ‘70s value that also gave the amp more clean headroom. César kept many of the blue Sprague caps in the tone section, which made the amp sound tighter. The bypass caps on both channels were changed to 33 mfd, adding a very small amount of bass to the Normal channel, but with very little effect on the Vibrato channel. The original grid resistors were changed to 2 watt carbon comps to make the amp more sta- ble, and he also installed 1 watt plate load resistors on Channel Two and in the reverb return for better reliability. Knowing César, these may have been pulled from a newer ‘70s Fender amp. The stock bright cap was left intact, as well as the midrange resistor. The Reverb In and Out jacks were changed from RCA’s to more durable 1/4 inch jacks.
The replaced output transformer is a larger 2 ohm from a Concert or Super Reverb that had to be moved to the center of the chassis to fit over the speaker frame, but the 15" EV speaker is an 8 ohm, producing a huge impedance mismatch – almost a dead short that works the power tubes much hard- er. It made the amp sound cleaner, and altered the tone. Up close, the Vibroverb sounded brash and tight, and the tone seemed to improve significantly from greater distances as the sound waves were dispersed in the air. This amp was set up to be played wide open, the tone was very trebly, and with César’s mods, super-clean with maximum headroom.
The Vibroverb was also set up for a Groove Tubes plug-in solid state rectifier with 220 mfd filter caps in place of the normal 70 mfd caps, increasing the bass response and mak- ing the amp sound cleaner still. César was trying to make the amp come up clean and hot. We found a Mesa Boogie- labeled Siemens 12AT7 in the phase inverter, again, for the cleanest sound, excellent Chinese 12AX7’s labeled Mesa Boogie from the late ‘80s, and a Tungsram – actually an early Yugoslavian EI from the ‘80s. Power tubes were American Philips 6L6s. The original grill cloth and baffle- board were replaced when the EV was installed, and the original AA764 tube chart is incorrect – Stevie’s ‘64 Vibroverb is actually an AB764.
Given the various service dates César had written on the end of the Vibroverb chassis, we know this amp was being used between February 20, 1989 and March 18, 1990, placing it in
the studio during the final In Step sessions. The irony lurking within Stevie’s Vibroverb is that for the average club player, this amp would be virtually useless. It’s too loud, completely unforgiving in the style of a powerful Showman, and totally void of subtlety or nuanced finesse. The EV speaker is a fraking sledgehammer in this amp, and the entire package was perfectly suited for Stevie’s heavy-handed style and the
large venues he played. With maxi- mum head- room and zero
sag, the Vibroverb could not only withstand Stevie’s blister- ing attack, but the additional gain created with the Fuzz Face, a Tube Screamer or the Octavia. Stevie’s rig was a cus- tomized house on fire, operating at extreme limits where the difference between spellbinding tone and an ugly meltdown
was paper thin. According to César, he was often required to change hot Fuzz Faces for cold ones kept in a refrigerator back- stage, while throw- ing amps on stand- by between songs to change power tubes with oven mitts. The Vibroverb was mod-
ified to function as a hot-rodded tool for a hell hot guitar player, but you wouldn’t want to play it at a typical bar gig any more than you’d drive a methanol dragster to a funeral. Wrong tool for the job.
César Diaz could be immensely generous with his time, but he could also be ruthlessly short with the endless stream of Stevie Ray Wannabes asking him how to cop “Stevie’s tone.” As both a guitar player, amp builder and tech, he knew instinctively that the power of Stevie’s playing came from the man far more than the gear. César’s job was to build and
maintain the tools Stevie needed to perform every night and sound his best. Buying the ‘right’ Tube Screamer, Stratocaster, Vibroverb, etc. wasn’t gonna get you there. In fact, one of César’s favorite responses to the Stevie questions was, “Well, if you were going to be as great as Stevie, you would have done it by now.” Conversation over.
Our hands- on experi- ence with the Vibroverb once again exposed the not-so- subtle promises lurking within the marketing messages that are often used to sell you gear. Without exception, they are bogus to the core. Gladly feed your fantasies – we all have them – but don’t swallow any- one’s implied claim that if you buy what they’re selling, you too can sound like someone other than you. We played Stevie’s amp, and nobody in the room sounded remotely like him. The Quest for Tone is all about finding your tone – one (or many) that can help you connect with the muse within. That singular idea is all these pages have ever been about, or ever will.
The Real Story
Of course, you’re wondering what has happened to the purloined stash rescued from Meth Boy... None of us were inclined to swallow the story about Benny Rowe having been given Stevie’s gear, although Benny Rowe does exist, or did. We found a link to a web site celebrating the early years of ‘60s psychedelic Austin rock in which
Rowe was apparently a founding member, but we never located Rowe himself. After drilling a few dry holes, Mr. Valco was finally able to contact Jimmie Vaughan, and he learned through an Austin police detective that Meth Boy and an accomplice had allegedly broken into the storage
facility where Jimmie kept gear belonging to both he and Stevie – not once, but twice. “Broken into’ may also be inaccurate, as a security guard at the stor- age facility is suspected of being involved. And this wasn’t the first time Stevie’s gear had been ripped off... René Martinez recalled an instance when someone aware of the location of Stevie’s storage space posed as a crew member and drove off with the con-
tents, while Tommy Shannon told us that a truck full of gear was once stolen. In addition to the booty sold to Mr. Valco, miscellaneous guitars, memorabilia and other pieces are reportedly missing, some of which had been offered to a Dallas auction company before the police apprehended Meth Boy and his pal on theft and related charges. As of this writing, the guitars have not been recovered, nor have they been described in detail publically in an effort to recover them. As for the return of the gear bought by Mr. Valco, the ball is now in Jimmie Vaughan’s court to arrange shipment back to Austin from Indiana. No offer of compen- sation has been made or requested.
Finally, we must men- tion the notebook – one of the “personal items” found with Stevie’s amp and ped- als. On the surface it appears to be an ordi- nary spiral-bound tablet, but inside were pages filled with strik- ing evidence of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s dra- matic recovery from addiction. A diary of sorts, the notebook was filled with hand- written song lyrics, notes from crew and management meetings,
detailed action plans for streamlining the SRV organization, diagrams of stage setups, lists of equipment to be acquired or repaired, and a very personal outline of Stevie’s commitment to maintaining his physical and mental health. He had also sketched out plans for “2-coil pickup placement with stereo application possibilities” involving the pros and cons of “single or double pole (separate for each string) pickups connected in series, and a “continuous string cartridge for SRV guitar” that would hold replacement strings coiled on six spring-loaded wheels inside a cylindrical cartridge. It was unclear how this would be mounted, but the idea was to have immediate access to replacement strings that could be quickly pulled through the trem block and guitar body and restrung in seconds.
The lyrics found in the notebook reflected Stevie’s profound appreciation for each day granted to him as he now lived his life in a state of grace and serenity. One song in particular, “Count Your Blessings” is clear enough in its intention. While some may view Stevie Ray Vaughan’s life as having been cut short, it is bitterly ironic that his spiritual rebirth occurred just in time for his passing. As César Diaz wryly observed, “Stevie was sanctified.” God bless them both.