• Home
  • Blog


René Martinez

Published on
January 23, 2023 at 4:25:10 PM PST January 23, 2023 at 4:25:10 PM PSTrd, January 23, 2023 at 4:25:10 PM PST

In the last episode, I was at my first gig, in 1985 with Stevie Ray Vaughan, who asked me to go on the road with him to set up and maintain his guitars. That gig on a riverboat in New Orleans marked the start of five eventful years I spent working with Stevie, right through to his tragic death in 1990.

I came right out and told Stevie and his production manager, Mark Rutledge, that I didn’t know anything about the road.

I knew nothing at the time about ohms, about amperes, and all that, because I’d never had to deal with these technical things about electronics at Charley’s Guitar Shop in Dallas, where I worked beforehand. Charley Wirz had done all the electronic stuff there.

I really didn’t know what I’d gotten myself into! I thought I was just going to tune guitars, set them up, and that was it, because that’s what Stevie told me about my new job. He said, “You’ll take my guitars, make sure they’re in playing order, that they’re set up the way I like them and tuned up—I play in E-flat. Just make sure everything works on them. And that’s it—that’s your job.” And I knew those things very well from the years I’d spent repairing and maintaining guitars at Charley’s.

As for electronics, though, it was a matter of adding to my knowledge – hands-on, first-time. I’d get a schematic, and talk to somebody who wired these things. I started learning the language of electronics. So my job was also to ask questions, a day-by- day learning process. It was electronics 101, and the beginning of an enjoyable learning curve for me.

Every guitar setup I’ve done from the very beginning is based on measurements...

...so that I could improve the instrument to make it better for a particular guitar player. Some people would say, “well, if you’ve been doing this for so long, how come you can’t do it without measurements?” I would say, “it’s like going to your automobile, opening up the hood, and just hugging your car to find out what you have inside your engine.” Just hug it, and oh, it feels like I’m a quart low, or half a quart low. No! You pull the dipstick out, look at the measurement on it to see how much oil is in there, and then fill it up if you need to. It’s the same thing with a guitar. You can’t go by feel alone.

I had a set of regular string-height measurements I used—I even printed them on the back of my business card, but no one seemed to notice. They would be good for you, for me, for John Mayer, for Carlos Santana, all these guys; and that’s what I still use today. But that’s not what I used for Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitars, because he was unique and he liked super-high action. I wouldn’t have printed those particular measurements, because they wouldn’t apply to the everyday guitarist.

Before I set Stevie’s string height, though, I had some other things to do.

This applied to Number One, the Stratocaster he used mainly at this time, as well as his other Strats. First, the tremolo bridge had to be flat on the body. He had it where it was tilted a little bit, and I told him it needed to be set straight flat on the body. He asked me why, and I told him because he can have more tone. When I said that, he was all over it!

I said the more mass you have coming out, the more it’s going to be reflected in your amplifier, or whatever you’re plugged into. I said we needed all five springs in the back of the tremolo, and this thing had to be tightened up really good, so it’s flat against the body—but not so tight where you can’t use the tremolo. That was a new thing for him. We tried it, because once I did things he had to try them, to see if I was correct or not. He tried the arm, and he said this isn’t hard at all, it’s great! I said sure, it comes right back, and you still have more tone. You could hear the difference without even plugging it in.

With the neck straight, the tremolo in place, now I could start employing the measurements.

I saw that by lowering the bridge down to the body, the strings had come down in height. Stevie said he didn’t like the way that felt, they were too low. So I kept raising them up to give him what he wanted. Finally he said hey, this feels great, and I knew we were at the right place.

I’ve had the question many times about his left-handed Strat tremolo and why he used that. But I never probed into why people did things. It was none of my business. I felt that if Stevie wanted to tell me why he did that, well, he would. He never did, and I never asked. I just assumed, like everybody else is assuming, that he wanted to do it for the Hendrix tone. Hendrix had his tremolo bridge reversed, because he was a lefty playing right-handed guitars.

I had to employ a few more things to get Stevie’s Strats playing right for him.

You have to press down on the strings at the saddles with your thumb, because the big strings he used—he used around a .013 up to a 58 or 60— those lowest ones were fat and round, and when they came over the saddles they actually arced. They needed to be pressed down so they went straight out, perfectly, from the saddle point all the way to the nut point. He didn’t know this, and he would tell me how he kept getting this strange frequency when he hit a string, this nyeeur, nyeeur sound. So pressed down on the big strings, and once again he heard the difference and started to understand. And Stevie was no dummy, he was really smart.

Using my trusty six-inch ruler marked in 32nds and 64ths, I’d set the string heights for Stevie. At the nut they were 1/64th of an inch from the top of the fret to the bottom of the string. The only one different would be that big E—which was 1/64th- plus. I gave it that name because it wasn’t 2/64ths, it was 1/64th of an inch... plus. It was just underneath, in between the 1/64ths and the 2/64ths, so I just called it a plus.

At the 12th fret, the measurement for the big E was 5/32nds, same for the A and the D. Comes to the G-string, that was lower, at 4/32nds, and the same for the B and E- string. So 5/32nds for the big ones, 4/32nds for the little ones.

And if you don’t think that’s high, you’ve never had a guitar in your hands!

But when you’re playing in E-flat like Stevie did, and you have those big strings it’s really not that bad.

Then I’d strobe it out, put it in tune intonation-wise, because if you didn’t do that, everything that’s gone before is worthless. I’d push the saddles back toward the end of the guitar to set the intonation, so that the harmonic at the 12th fret matched the note there, using the strobe tuner.

As for his frets, I can tell you that he had certain frets that came with the guitar, whatever they were, because Fender made guitars with a smaller fret and a bigger fret. But he would wear out his frets. I told him the best thing to do was to use the biggest fret we could put on there, and I had to refret Number One several times. With those bigger frets on, I told Stevie it would work for him, that it would be easier to play.

The Stratocasters he used employed the later five-way switch—they were made with three-ways a long time ago, and then the five-way came into play. So I would listen, and then I’d raise the pickup on the bass side or the treble side, listen again, and I’d make sure I got five distinct tones from each setting—the middle, the bridge, the neck, the neck and middle, the middle and bridge. Then when I got that, and heard that everything seemed to be neutral as far as tone, all the way across, I knew I’d got a good starting place to get the pickup heights Stevie liked.

He would still want to raise them up, though, because he thought he’d get more tone.

I’d go well, it’s not more tone that you’re going to get, you’re going to get more volume. And I said but do remember those magnets are strong, and they will pull the string and not allow it to waver properly. He didn’t understand that at first, and then he said, “Ah, so I’m doing something not right—I’m making the tone go away because the magnet is so close to the string?” I told him that was right, and that when we got it as close as we could without it bothering him, that’s the right height. And I said to use his amplifier. Turn it up! Don’t mess with the guitar.

Now, with the neck straight, the bridge set down properly on the body, and the guitar in tune, I’d take a look at the nut to make sure it was cut properly, that the strings were sliding back and forth there, all the way across. If they got stuck at the nut, it would go out of tune really bad. I’d already created my special lubricant before I went out on the road with him, and that was what I wound up using for Stevie.

Stevie asked me, “What is it you’re putting in here?” I’d first seen the violin maker, David Caron, in Dallas putting pencil lead in the grooves of a fiddle’s nut and bridge to help the strings move back and forth. But I found pencil lead tricky to use. Then I was in an auto parts store and I saw graphite powder for sale, to help stop your car door from freezing up. So I bought some, but it still wasn’t quite right—it was so powdery that even a little breath could take it away. I mixed something in to cure that, and it stayed in and worked great for guitar nuts. That’s my GraphitALL guitar lube, which I still make and sell today.

Once we had his Number One set up, he would look at me and say, “Hey, man, just keep doing what you’re doing!” He knew that whatever it was I would do, it worked for him, that the guitar worked the way he wanted it to. It was one less thing for him to worry about when he was playing.

I’m not going to say I was special, because that seems like an ego thing. I don’t want to do that. I just want to say that I’m a repairman—and until I came along and he hired me, he didn’t have a repairman with him on the road. I’m not a guitar tech. To me, a guitar tech is a guy who brings the gear out, pulls the guitars out, tunes them up, changes strings if they need them, and then hands them to him.

Stevie told the crew he didn’t want me to be handling cases and moving equipment.

He told them my hands were too valuable and he didn’t want them getting hurt. So, I guess I’m a repairman. I’m able to fix things and make them work. Until I started working with him, Stevie didn’t know anybody who could do that. And that’s what I call my magic.