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Part 3: My First Gig Working With Stevie Ray Vaughan

By René Martinez

Published on
December 7, 2022 at 10:39:35 AM PST December 7, 2022 at 10:39:35 AM PSTth, December 7, 2022 at 10:39:35 AM PST

In the last episode, I met Stevie Ray Vaughan for the first time in 1981...

...when he brought a Stratocaster into Charley’s Guitar Shop in Dallas, where I worked repairing guitars. I set up his Strat and he was pleased with my work. By the start of ’85, Stevie and I, along with Charley Wirz who owned the shop, were getting to know each other. Stevie would often stop by the shop to say hello when he was in town.

I sure was busy back then! I worked from 10 in the morning until 6 in the evening, Tuesday through Saturday, and then I’d leave and go to a local hotel where I performed on solo guitar in the lounge until 9 at night. I had a pretty full day. But I was young, it was no problem—I got plenty of rest, and I’d wake up ready for the new day.

Disaster struck at the shop in February.

We got a call to say that Charley had died suddenly while visiting the NAMM instruments trade show in Anaheim. It was a terrible time, but somehow we got through it. Stevie Ray and his brother Jimmie played ‘Amazing Grace’ on electric guitars at Charley’s funeral. Right after that, I was the only one at the shop, with a friend or two helping us out. Carol, Charley’s widow, wasn’t sure if she would keep the business going.

One time, Stevie Ray was doing a recording out at the Dallas Sound Labs studio in a local area called Las Colinas. He began showing up more, and I thought maybe he was missing Charley and wanted to be a part of the store. Once, as he was buying a guitar we had in the shop, he took me aside and said, “Let me talk to you real quick. Are you still playing over there?” I said, “If you mean at the lounge, then yes, I am.” He said, “OK, I just might pop in, say hello, come up for a drink.”

Not long after, I was playing again at the lounge...

...looked up at one point, and there he was at a table, just part of the audience. I did a very short set, put my guitar down, and went over to sit with him. I said, “Man, what are you doing here?” He said, “I wanted to come up and see you play. I want to talk to you about something. Can you come by the studio tonight after you get done?” I said, “sure.” 

Later on, I went over to the studio. He didn’t ask me anything right away. Ten’o’clock rolled around, then 11, and as midnight was popping up, I told him I had to go, that I had to go to work tomorrow, then play tomorrow night, and I’m tired. He goes: “Hold on a second, just give me a few minutes.”

And then he asked me, “Have you ever thought about going on the road?”

I asked, “to do what?” He goes, “For guitars. To help fix guitars.” I said, “nah, why would I want to do that?” He goes, “I’m talking about with me.” Oh, right!

I told him how I had a lot of customers at the guitar shop, that it had taken me 13 years to build up the clientele. But then he offered me a job, right then and there, just like that. He asked how much money I was making, I told him, and he made me an offer. I said well, I don’t know right now—but no, I don’t think so. He just said, “think about it.”

I left the studio around midnight, went home, went to work the next morning, did my thing, went and played that evening. Nothing changed in my head about what I had said. I wasn’t even pondering the idea because I had pretty much made up my mind that I wasn’t going to go do it.

I met a friend, we were talking about Stevie, and I told him what had happened. He says, “Why don’t you go do it?” I said, “no, I’ve got too much going on already.” And all my friend said was, “well, you can at least try it for a couple of days or a week, and you can always come back to what you’re doing anyway.” I hadn’t thought of it like that. And I guess that’s what persuaded me to go ahead and try it.

Later I called Stevie, said OK, I’ll do it, but I just want to try it out to see what I think. I was honest with him. And that’s how it started. We agreed I’d try it out at a show that was going to happen in New Orleans. It wasn’t far off, it was just one night, and then I’d fly back home. That was to be my first show to see how things were going to be, to see if I liked it or not, to see if I could deal with this.

I went to Carol at the shop, and said "I’ve got to do this thing with Stevie."

...only because he asked me to and I said I would. I said I hoped it wouldn’t hurt if she didn’t have a repairman for one day. And she said sure, you go do what you think you need to do —you’re doing everything here and working hard. I also had to tell the people at the hotel, and the manager said, “no problem.”  

At the start of May 1985, I flew out early one morning to New Orleans. The gig was part of the annual Jazz Fest there and it took place on a concert cruise boat, the Riverboat Princess, which would go up the Mississippi for a while and then back. Inside, the boat had a performing stage, lots of chairs and tables for the people to sit at, and there was space for them to dance if they wanted.

At the hotel, I ran into Stevie Ray’s guitar tech, Byron Barr, and we talked about the time we’d need to leave for the gig. Well, it turned out to be a real experience! Everything seemed good when we turned up and boarded the boat. They set me up with a work box with a tuner and everything, and we did a soundcheck while still at the shore. That went fine. I checked over Stevie Ray’s guitars, and he was happy.

I could tell Stevie Ray was a little nervous about the show...

...I could sense there was something going on. Byron, I guess, felt like he was out of place with me there. He wasn’t angry or anything like that, he seemed happy to see me, but I felt something was just a little different. The new kid on the block, that kind of thing.

And I was nervous, too. I was in the deep end. I had never done a real professional show before, and I wanted to make a good impression. I didn’t know how Stevie Ray was going to handle the guitar. I had to learn everything from step one all the way through.

Stevie Ray had a couple of Strats that I set up ready for the show...

...as far as I recall they were the guitars later known as ‘Number One’ and ‘Lenny’, and possibly also the one called ‘Yellow’. I would set up and tune the guitars, give them to Byron, and he would do all the guitar changeovers.

Everything in the soundcheck when we were still docked went fine, and Stevie Ray came over and just gave me a big hug and said he was so glad I was there. Next, it was a matter of waiting until the show started. People started coming in, and then the boat took off on the water and moved away from the shore. And that’s when my problems began.

The band came out and started performing...

...and Stevie Ray was not too ecstatic about what was happening. I didn’t understand why, but I could see the look he had. After the first song, he turned around and grabbed the guitar and said something to Byron. Then Byron gave me the guitar and goes, “he says the guitars are not in tune.”

I was puzzled, but I said OK, and I looked into it. I had the band’s strobe tuner, a Peterson-420 (I still have this tuner and still use it today), and the guitar was fine. The other guitar came back, Byron comes over, and again, “he keeps saying the guitar is out of tune.” I didn’t know what to think or what to do. The tuner could not be wrong.

Stevie Ray struggled with tuning right through the first set.

Their break came up, and there was time to spare because we’d stopped back at the shore to let off the first-show people and bring in the new audience.

The production manager, who was also doing front-of-house, talked to Stevie Ray, and then he came over and talked to me. He said that there’s something going on with the tuning, that Stevie Ray says the guitar and the piano are not in tune. I replied that I didn’t understand, that I’d checked my strobe tuner and everything was fine.

What I hadn’t considered was that out on the water we were on generator power and no longer on shore power.

Those terms—shore power, generator power—were unfamiliar to me. But I quickly understood! I said, “Why didn’t anybody tell me?” I asked where the generator was, and we went off to find it. It had a gauge on it that showed the output in volts. I checked out the number, and it was about three points less than it should have been for regular voltage. I said OK, let me try something.

I went back to the stage, and when the boat started and we were taking off, I reset the vernier control on the strobe tuner to compensate for the drop in voltage I’d seen on the generator. Then I re-tuned the guitars. When I did that, and the band went on, Stevie Ray turned around and looked at me. He mouthed slowly, “this…is… much…better.” I could read his lips. And I was feeling better too!

I thought well, I’ll be damned, that worked! Where do you find this sort of information? In a book? You don’t. I hadn’t come across this in any of my prior experiences, but we got through the night. Stevie Ray came back after the show, and goes, “Oh René, that was so much better—what did you do?” It was like: Did you pull out a magic wand or something? He goes, “Well, you did it!” 

And that was my first show.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have cared if Stevie Ray had let me go that night, because I didn’t need to do this job. I could have gone back to my shop and fixed guitars. But no. This turned out to be the start of something really big in my life.

Still to this day, I’m always looking to find out how to fix something. If there’s a problem, maybe I will go through some frustration, maybe I will beat myself up with a stick for a few minutes. But I’ll always shove right back and ask myself, well, what could I have done to fix this? I think that’s how I’ve gotten along with all the artists that I’ve ever worked with in my subsequent career. Not only Stevie Ray, but Prince, Carlos Santana, John Mayer, and many others as well.

The gig on the Riverboat Princess marked the beginning of the five years I spent working with Stevie Ray Vaughan—and I’m forever grateful that I managed, on that special night, to figure out the difference between shore power and generator power.