DALLAS—Hey, Stevie Ray Vaughan fans: Has Fender got a deal for you!
Starting Dec. 12, you can buy a Lenny.
The Fender Custom Shop will produce 250 replicas of Lenny, one of the late guitarist’s two primary performance guitars. It got its hands on the axe courtesy of Guitar Center, which bought it for $623,500 at auction in 2004, and is re-creating every inlay, etch mark, crack, wear spot and glue smear in the copies, which will cost $17,000 each. (Find more information on the guitar at www.fender.com/lenny).
“I think it’s way cool,” said Lenora “Lenny” Vaughan, the guitarist’s widow. “Doesn’t it blow your mind?”
The replicas represent a recent trend in guitar building toward “the relic,” which is a new instrument that’s artificially aged. Think of frayed, torn and stonewashed jeans you can buy at clothing stores.
The Lenny guitar is only the fifth famous instrument that Fender has given this Tribute Series limited-edition treatment to, following axes owned by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Rory Gallagher and Andy Summers. Fender Custom Shop director Mike Eldred said that this project was particularly challenging because of how customized Lenny was before Vaughan acquired the used 1965 Stratocaster as a birthday gift on Oct 3, 1980.
“There were things with that guitar that were really quirky,” said Eldred, who disassembled Lenny while a team headed by master builder Jason Smith documented its features. “For instance, the pickup in the middle position had been routed out for a humbucking pickup. I don’t think that Stevie had done that.”
What surprised Mr. Eldred the most was Lenny’s neck, which had been given to Vaughan by ZZ Top guitarist Billy F. Gibbons. At that time, Eldred worked at Charvel, an emerging custom guitar builder in the 1980s.
“It was a Charvel neck,” he said, “I used to work at Charvel; my job was to shave necks. It should have had my name on it, but I knew right then that it was one of the necks that we made for Billy F. Gibbons ... we’d always write his name in pencil on the heel if we knew it was for Billy. And his name was on Lenny’s neck.”
Vaughan didn’t prefer Lenny because of any technical or sound feature, as many would assume. It was preferred because of its sentimental value: Lenora Vaughan and six others pooled together $350 to buy it from an Austin pawn shop, and that first night of owning it brought Vaughan some magic.
“He could talk and play at the same time,” Lenora Vaughan said. “He was hanging out at home with some friends after a gig, after we’d given it to him. I think I had to work the next day, so I went to bed. So he came into the bedroom that morning and said, `What do you think of this, honey?’ And he played something, and I was blown away. Then he said, `What do you think it’s called?’ and I said `What?’ and he said, `Lenny, of course.’”
Both the song and the guitar were called Lenny from then on.
“Stevie could pick up any guitar and make it sound amazing,” Chris Layton, drummer for Vaughan’s backing band, Double Trouble, said about Vaughan’s two workhorse Stratocasters: Lenny and No. 1. “They were both really good guitars, and they worked really well, sure. But he developed a spirituality and loyalty to them. It was a war-buddy kind of relationship.” That, and Lenny “would not go out of tune with the wang bar, no matter what he did to it.
“That thing was beat up, and it looked like it’d been sanded by a gorilla. But that makes it that much more beautiful to me. It’s kind of like the ugly duckling story, really.”
“Stevie wasn’t that cute, either!” Lenora Vaughan said with a laugh when asked about Lenny’s gig-beaten and oddball appearance, which is characterized chiefly by a sub-par dark refinishing job, smoke-stained plastic, metallic mylar SRV stickers on the pick guard and a stylized inlay behind the bridge that Eldred thinks is from a mandolin-like Greek bouzouki.
“To me, he was beautiful, though, and it was beautiful, too,” she continued. “For me it was so beautiful that it was really hard to listen to him play that song. I had to go to the bathroom because I’d cry every time he played it. It wasn’t a sad cry; it was a loving cry.”
“When he played Lenny, it sounded like a million bucks,” Layton said. “But what’s to say that maybe the guitar wasn’t all that special after all? No one else ever played it, so no one else could really say for sure. Even from where I sat—pretty darn close, night after night—who’s to really say why he loved it so much: practically or spiritually?”