We’re always searching for The Best, The Ultimate — The Perfect Blues Guitar Rig — and today, I’m going to share with you the center, and the chained core, of my most golden Blues playing experience.  It all starts and ends with wood: I’m currently loving on my mahogany Les Paul.

That said, my Clapton Custom Strat is also a great Blues axe and it excels at playing Grant Green, Eric, B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

The Les Paul is best for playing Wes Montgomery, Robert Johnson, Gary Moore and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

When I first started writing this article I was all-in on my Gibson.  This week, I’m hotter on my Stratocaster.  I suppose it’s good I don’t play favorites with my guitars — but sometimes that movement between muses can be seen as waffling by some.  If you have more than one guitar, I’m sure you understand my point.

Next in my Blues Chain are the strings.  The Gibson Vintage Reissue strings have that ancient warmth that matches the sound of “The Old Blues” you hear singing in your head.  They are magical and magnificent strings.

Your guitar and strings aren’t going to sound good without the proper connection to your amp.  That’s where Evidence Audio enters with their incredible Lyric cable.

It might sound silly to spend over a hundred dollars on a guitar cable — but once you experience the pureness of sound you get from Evidence Audio, you won’t be able to go back to using any other cable.  I gave up all my Mogami cables for Evidence — so you know there’s some serious money being waged and won in this ongoing battle for tone.

If you’re any sort of serious Bluesman, you know you can’t play clean all the time.  Sometimes you need a little crunch.  You need to get dirty.

I use the Ibanez TS808HW Tube Screamer to dial in my biting overdrive.  This Tube Screamer is all hand-wired and it brings forth that gnawing sound you cannot manufacture from fingers alone.

It took me some time to figure out the best settings for low-level Tube Screaming apartment playing with my guitar at around a five volume — Overdrive pinned full; Tone at One O’clock, Level at 9:30 — and now that the Screamer is dialed in, all I need to do is tap on the footswitch and I’m growling!

If you’re going to crunch — you’re also going to need to add some sweetness, too — and I use the Holy Grail Plus from Electro-Harmonix to bring me just an ounce or two of reverb:  Blend at 1:30; Amount at 3:30, Reverb on “Spring.”

I love reverb because it adds just a touch of an ethereal presence to any rehearsal or performance.  My Fender ’65 Princeton Reverb Reissue does reverb really well, but I don’t always use that amp when I’m cranking out The Blues.

We started this review with mahogany and we’re ending it in solid pine.

The final link in your golden Blues chain is the Fender ’57 Champ Custom tube amp.  Yes, it’s tiny.  Yes, it’s a little expensive.  Yes, it has a fantastic provenance as “The Layla Amp.”

Yes, you cannot live without the ’57 Champ because it is my amp of choice — I leave my volume set at just under four for apartment playing — because it instantly gives you that earthy, luscious, honesty of the classic Blues recordings.

All you do it turn it on, plug in your guitar cable, and you’re propelled back in time when music was authentic and moving.  You’re playing into a time machine and it sings with nostalgia and replies with melancholy.

I’ve taken you point-to-point through an inside look at my Perfect Blues Guitar Rig — and I hope you’ll be able to make a similar journey of your own.

If you have a Blues Rig that works for you, be sure to give us your thoughts in the comments to lead us down another avenue of expression in the perpetual human search for unachievable, Blues, perfection.

29 Comments

    1. The most important things in any electric Blues setup are the guitar and the amp. You need to spend some good money on both — everything else “in the chain” can come later. Many people spend too much on a guitar and have a cheap amp — others reverse that and spend all their money on a great amp but they have a lousy guitar. You really need excellence at both ends that match the ability of the other to get just the right sound.

    1. That’s an excellent question, Anne, and I guess one could argue this is a more “elite” Blues setup than one would likely expect from an amateur or a beginner. I do think that when it comes to musical instruments and gear you often get what you pay for and that directly results in the quality of sound produced. Sure, there are always exceptions, but good gear — more often than not — sounds better in practiced hands than cheap gear.

  1. Very cool rig….eerily similar to my own….either a
    natural ash, maple neck Strat or fairly ancient Les Paul through a
    tweed Deluxe, or my fave, the little Swart 6v6se Space Tone. Give
    me a cord and it’s all good.

    1. Hi Ross!

      Thanks for your comment. I love your rig! I’ve lolled back to my Clapton Custom Strat as my main Blues Guitar of choice right now — I can create almost any old “Blues sound” I want with just a few toggle switch movements and some volume and tone adjustments.

  2. Dave; I am currently darting back and forth between a DBZ Imperial(Premier series)& G&L S 500.I am currently using a Fender Jazzmaster Ultralight amp it is very light and has two “voices” Jazz amp+Twin voice.It is solid state but with tube emulation(?). I also have a [First Generation ] Fender Super Sonic 60w Combo but the clean channel has no Mid (just Treble/Bass) it also has two “voices”(’65 Vibrolux/’66 Bassman 10 on the clean side) the “Burn”channel has cascading gain +the full spectrum of tone controls i.e. treble ,mid, bass.but, I am thinking of trading for a Deluxe Vibroverb. I am in a situation where somtimes I need clean twang and somtimes I need blues crunch and sometimes some heavy O.D. I really appreciate every one’s insight and commentary

  3. I totally concur but would use the Champ 57 with a Two Rock 1 x 12 cab or a THD 2 x 12 cab. With either one, you will be weeping while your guitar gently sings… (an Avatar 2 x 12 with Celestion Blue Alnicos would be heavenly)

  4. Hello David;

    I am compelled to share with you a pick up upgrade for your Les Paul. It is the WCR Godwoods (wcrguitar.com). It will transform your instrument to a level like upgrading your cables to the Lyric HG. If you don’t have the pick ups yet, you will be totally blown away.
    Peace
    Peter

  5. Hey David.
    My 14 yr old son is a 2nd year player. He has a made in Mexico Fender Strat. with a Humbucker in the bridge. He is playing through a Blues Jr II. and a Barber LTD overdrive. Thoughts? What next?

  6. Hello David!

    I found this website and thought wow at least someone has some good suggestions. Other websites just confuse you by naming items that are either really expensive or now “rare”.

    I have a question, my 2 rigs is the following, Marshall Class 5 amp to a polytune-TS9 Ibanez-Holy grail and the other is Same amp, Marshall Bluesbreaker-Fulltone Mosfet-Aqua Puss. (Guitar: John Mayer SigStrat)

    I guess my question is what order of pedals would you suggest and is that amp any good? I’ve been using that amp for about 4 years now and my only issue is that everyone tells me to crank it up when in reality I can’t really do it unless I have headphones on. (I live in an apartment). Everyone talks about Fender Blues Jr. What do you recommend?

    Sorry for so many questions!

    And thanks in advance!

    1. Hi Luis!

      You ask some excellent and really specific questions — that’s wonderful, and I’m happy to answer as best I can, and I know there are other players here who have great insight to share with you, too.

      My rule in pedals is to always put the softest effect first, so Wahs and choruses, and tonal changes are first and crunch is always last. You want the crunch to change the sound you can hear in the quieter moments, and fine tune from there, and not the other way around — because once you start with crunch, you can’t really hear anything else.

      Marshall amps are always good. Blues Jr. — I have one here — is too big and loud for apartment living. I regret buying it just because, to get the best sound, I have to turn it up above 2, and I can’t ever do that because I live in an apartment.

      You need a non-tube amp for use at home with a headphone jack. I’m big on the Vox Valvetronix series because those amps have a headphone jack, I can adjust the power as needed, and there are lots of preset sounds for experimentation. I can use it for Country, Rock and Jazz without any trouble:

      http://bolesblogs.com/2010/03/15/vox-valvetronix-vt15-review/

  7. I´m not a guitar player YET. But this year my dad is giving me his ´67 Gibson ES 125 DC so I swore to learn guitar as soon as I get it. My favorite music is blues / blues rock and once I get the basics down good that´s the direction I want to go. Would the above amps, strings and pedals work good with the es 125 for playing blues? I hope that isn´t to dumb of a question. I was raised by a guitar playing father but I didn´t have the patience when I was younger to learn but now I´m anxious to get started!
    Thanks for any help!
    Bruce

    1. Lucky you! What a great guitar you have coming your way! Yes, everything mentioned in this article will work great with your gear.

      Patience is paramount. Sometimes these youthful endeavors are best saved for later wisdom. SMILE!

  8. Les Paul with 490T’s into TC delay (tiniest hint of slapback – can’t really her it, but you’ll ask what went away when you turn it off) into Strymon Flint spring reverb (just a hint like your EH) into Fender ec Tweed Champ. Champ volume on 7.5, Gibson neck pickup with guitar volume on 8. That’s THE blues sound for me. It’s what I hear in my head. Rich & dimensional.

    Want a Stones sound? Don’t touch the setup. Plug in a tele set to the bridge pickup, open G tuning, lose the low E string. Brown Sugar & Honky Tonk Woman for days.

    Erik