In the last episode, I talked about the time in the 80s when I was working as the repairman at Charley’s Guitar Shop in my home town of Dallas, Texas. One special day, Stevie Ray Vaughan came into town to play at a local bar and Charley Wirz, the shop’s owner, suggested we should go down and check him out.
I’d already met Stevie’s older brother, Jimmie.
Now, everybody thinks Jimmie and Stevie were from Austin, Texas, because that’s where they wound up residing later in life, but that’s not actually where they came from. They were born, and grew up in, a part of Dallas called Oak Cliff, which is perhaps the reason they may have been inclined to visit Charley’s. Jimmie had walked into Charley’s one day in 1981, along with his bass player, Keith Ferguson, and Jimmie wanted me to do some work on his Stratocaster.
He asked me to fix some problems with the frets, and he needed it done quickly because he and The Fabulous Thunderbirds were performing in Dallas. As it happens, Charley’s was just the right kind of store—one that would cater to the traveling musician who needed some work done, usually in a hurry, so they could perform and then move on.
Jimmie told his baby brother, Stevie, that he liked what I’d done to his guitar and that he should check out Charley’s Guitar Shop when he had the chance. Stevie called the shop and said he was playing in town at a local bar—as far as I recall, this was probably 1982, and the bar was likely the New Bamboo in Dallas. So naturally, we all went down to see Stevie and Double Trouble play.
The club had a small, kind of triangular stage in one corner...
...with just enough room for Chris Layton’s drum set; Stevie in the front, and bass player, Tommy Shannon, off to his right. I remember there was a small Fender combo and a Marshall combo up there. The club had a little dance floor, a few tables, a bar — and that was it.
This was my introduction to hearing Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble play. It was amazing. Here was this young man, younger than me, playing electric guitar and having this huge sound come out. I’d gone along simply to see some band perform, as you do, just going to a bar with some friends; I didn’t know anything about them or what they did. It wasn’t “hey, here’s this fantastic Jimi Hendrix-guitar-playing-guy.” It was just “Jimmie Vaughan’s younger brother.” And it was awesome.
During the break, Stevie came up to Charley and spoke with him, and this was like meeting any other band in a club—a quick “Hi, how you doing?” But we got to meet properly the next day when Stevie came into the shop. That was a better way to meet; a much calmer situation than trying to speak in a bar.
As time went on, Stevie would call in...
...or the band’s tech, Byron Barr, would come over and buy some strings and other supplies; this is how we all got to know each other. They were always traveling with everybody together in a van—the band, the equipment, the tour manager, the tech—and they would drive from city to city doing their shows. Byron did everything; the all-around man. He handled the equipment, he did the driving, he did all the technical stuff.
One day, Stevie came into the shop and had a guitar with him. He was talking with Charley – I was in the back repairing – and Charley called out, “Hey René, Stevie needs some help with his guitar, can you help him out?”
Stevie brought his guitar back to me, so I put down what I was doing and talked with him. He opened up the case and took out a sunburst Stratocaster with a rosewood neck, the guitar later known as Number One. I asked what seemed to be the problem, and he said he needed to get this thing to play better. I said, “OK —you want me to set this up for you?” And Stevie said yes.
I didn’t know anything about the guitar other than what I saw.
I asked my normal questions. What tuning do you have? He told me he tuned his guitars to E-flat, and I asked him why. He said it was because he had a hard time singing in regular E. What gauge strings do you use? He pulled out some sets of strings from the little box inside the case to show me.
You have to remember what we had to work with in this era. We didn’t have the intricate gauges of strings that we’re used to now. As far as I recall, Stevie had a .013 on his Stratocaster as the first string, then for the second he would have maybe a 16 or 17. His third string was plain, not wound, and that would have been a 20 or 22. And then it was wound strings, with the increments something like a 24 or even a 28 for the G, a 36 or 38, maybe, for the A, and then the biggest one, the low E, he used a 58 or 60. It’s hard to remember exactly what he had then, but if I said from 13 to 60, I imagine that would be about right.
Then he passed me the guitar. I tuned it up, took measurements, looked at the neck—all the things I’d normally do before I start working on a guitar. Then I handed it back and said: “You hold it, play it. Tell me what it’s doing, what it’s not doing, what you like, what you don’t like.”
That’s how Stevie and I met, for the very first setup...
...right there in my space at the back of the shop. And it was like any other guitar player that would bring in a guitar to have it set up. He told me that it just didn’t feel right and didn’t play right. Being a player as well, I understood what he was looking for.
I asked Stevie if he’d ever taken it to anybody to get it to do what he wanted it to do. He goes, “Oh yeah, I’ve taken it to a lot of places.” I asked what they did to it at these places. He tells me, “Well, they would do this and that, I’d play it, and I’d tell them it still doesn’t feel right.” He said they would get a little frustrated because they’d been working on it for more than two or three minutes!
He said they just told him that’s it, that’s all they can do, and it should be fine. But he wasn’t satisfied. He was still unhappy, but he just had to leave with his Stratocaster the way it was; with whatever they had done to it. I figured he was trying to tell me they just couldn’t give him what he wanted.
I carried on making my checks. I had a six-inch ruler to gauge height and give me information about a guitar so I can do what I do. Stevie looked at me with this ruler and asked what I was doing. I told him I was taking measurements so that if I made any changes and there was anything he didn’t like, I could put it back the way it was. That way, at least he’d be able to pick it up again and play it the way it was. I guess he thought it was cool that I would take measurements of a guitar first, and not just dive in and start turning buttons and screws and pitches and all that.
Stevie said he’d like me to do something to this guitar right then and there to see if it could improve anything.
And I noticed some things on it that weren’t quite right, so I said to give me a few minutes and then I’d bring it out to him.
I noticed that the neck wasn’t straight, so I straightened it out. Then I tuned it back to E flat. Next, I took a look at the measurements of the strings, and they had lowered down – when you straighten the neck out, the strings come down a little bit because it’s not bowed. So when I gave it back to him, the action was a little bit lower. I said try this. He goes, “Can you raise the action up?” So I started raising it up, little by little, tuned it up with my strobe, and gave it back to him. And that’s how we started to set up this guitar.
He was still asking me to take the action up, more and more, and I knew I would have to change something else to keep going up without running out of room. You only have so much height on the screws to raise up the saddles at the bridge to bring the strings up. So I had to get some taller saddle-height screws, and I had to change the neck angle.
These were just the things that any technician ought to do.
But I thought to myself “ah, so this is what the other techs didn’t want to do.” They didn’t want to change the angle of the neck. It was just a presumption on my part, but I figured they didn’t want to do that.
I told Stevie again that this was going to take me a little bit longer, to bear with me; he was fine with that. “I’ve got all day,” he said. So I took the neck off, put a shim underneath it—Fender also does this, it’s not unusual. I simply wanted to give him what he wanted.
A couple of hours later, I was able to get the height where he liked it. Finally, I said to try it out. When he played it, he said, “Ahhh, that’s it. How did you do that?” I said well, I’m just doing what I need to do, that’s all. And he was so pleased.
I said to let me put on a new set of strings now, because it’s important to start fresh. So I went back and put new strings on it, and then I strobed it again to make sure everything was in tune. This was the final part of the setup of a guitar that I would do with every customer—new strings.
I handed his Stratocaster back to Stevie...
...out in the shop, and he started playing it, going, “Ah man, sounds good!” I told him I was going to take care of some things in my space. “You go ahead, take your time and play with it some,” I said. I went back, and I could hear him and Charley talking as he was playing. Charley asked what he thought, and he said, “Oh man, I didn’t think this could be done.”
Stevie came back over to me. He had the guitar in his left hand, and he put out his shaking hand, his right hand, and he said, “René, thank you so much for taking the time.” I said you’re welcome, no problem. “Everybody else,” he said, “I guess they didn’t know what they were doing.”
That’s how Stevie and I began our guitar relationship with each other, our working relationship. It didn’t take long before we were working much more closely together; but that’s a story that will have to wait for next time. As things went on, we got to know each other much better; we became closer, we became friends, all the time right through to his death. And Stevie didn’t care about how I looked, the color of my skin, or anything like that. He respected my mind. And I was a Texan! Stevie really liked his fellow Texans.