Part 5: John Mayer -- PRS, Strats, and Blowing the Vibratone

by René Martinez

Published on
March 6, 2023 at 3:43:45 PM PST March 6, 2023 at 3:43:45 PM PSTth, March 6, 2023 at 3:43:45 PM PST

I had been working with Stevie Ray Vaughan for five years when he was killed  tragically in 1990 in a helicopter crash...

I just couldn’t believe what was going on, but  I knew I’d lost a very special friend. After the funeral, as I began to get over the  shock, I really didn’t know if I was going to continue my touring work. I had no  reason to think I would, because after Stevie passed I figured, well, that was that.  And I always had my profession to rely on. I’m a repairman. That’s how I started in  this business—that’s where I come from. But there is no money to be made in guitar  repair, or at least not that I’ve ever figured out.  

So I carried on, and next I worked on a tour with Edie Brickell & The New  Bohemians. Toward the end of that job, a guy turned up one night and asked if I would go work with him the next night, but I didn’t know who he was, and he didn’t say. So I told him no, explained I was still busy here, and off he went. Turned out it was Bob Dylan’s tour manager, so that could have been interesting.

Anyway, I worked with Mick Jones, the ex-Foreigner guitar player, and then Clint  Black’s country western band with Wynonna Judd. There have been other gigs along  the way, but next I got a phone call out of the blue that led to a week’s work with  Prince—more on that in the next issue—and then a long stretch with Carlos  Santana—and, again, I’ll have more to say about that next time.

I was in the studio in Berkeley working with Carlos in 2004 when one of the  producers asked if I’d heard of a guitar player by the name of John Mayer...

I said no,  don’t think I have, and he said he thought the two of us should meet for a talk, and gave me a phone number to call him on. I was hesitant. I didn’t know who this person was. I let it go that evening, then next morning I called the number. John Mayer answered, and we talked for a good while. After, I thought, well maybe down the  road we’ll have the chance to meet properly.

We finished recording Santana’s All That I Am album with Carlos, then went on tour.  And I really was ready to take a break. I had thought about doing an online business  with some guitar products I had started making. I figured it was time for me to stop this whole touring thing and get my online business rolling while I had a little bit of  money. If it did OK, I could continue with it, or I could go back on tour with  someone if I needed to. Toward the end of the tour, I told Carlos of my intentions,  and I had my last show with him at the Greek Theater in LA in October 2004.

I went home and enjoyed not doing anything for a few months.

Then in December, I  got a phone call from John Mayer’s tour manager –  asked if I’d like to come out and  do a show with John at Webster Hall in New York City at the end of the month. I’d  just said goodbye to the touring life, and now here I am thinking about going back to  work! But it was just for two nights, no big deal. So I agreed. As we started talking  about the where and the how, it started to joggle in my head: I’m sure I know this  venue. And as I pulled up outside in the cab, it hit me. Of course I knew it. This was  one of the places where Stevie Ray played—it was called The Ri` back then—and I  remembered it especially for a particular problem we had there. Which we’ll get to.

So, I found my way inside, and I didn’t know what my role was going to be. I  walked toward the stage, saw a guy with a guitar, introduced myself, and he said he  was Craig Baker, John’s guitar tech. He was expecting me, showed me around,  showed me John’s amps on the stage, his pedals on the floor. Craig looked out front,  said that’s Chad Franscoviak over there doing front-of-house.

I asked if these were the amps John would play through. Far as I recall there was a  Fender and a pair of Two-Rock amps. I asked to listen to them, and Craig plugged in  and handed me the guitar. “Now don’t change anything,” he said, “Chad out there  has it all set the way he wants it, so don’t do anything.”

I thought to myself: So why am I even here if I can’t change anything or move anything? I  figured either I’m gonna get fired for changing stuff, or if I don’t do anything, I may  as well leave now. So, I’m still playing the guitar through the amps, and I thought:  He actually likes this sound? I didn’t say anything to anybody, and I tried not to make  a face. I proceeded to make some changes to the amps. I stood in front of them,  played the guitar, made my changes to them and also to the pedals. With the guitar  tech not looking at me! 

John came up later, and we met for the first time in person, and then they did the  soundcheck.

Then came the real kicker. After the soundcheck, I noticed that John  had a Vibratone up there, which was Fender’s take on the Leslie effect. I said to John,  “You know Stevie Ray used to use one of these?” He goes, “Yeah, but we’re having  problems with it, it keeps blowing speakers.” 

And that’s when the déjà vu hit me in the face. I asked if he was kidding me. He  goes, “No, it’s blowing speakers, can’t even use it for one song.” I said jokingly  maybe it’s this joint, and he asked what I meant. I go, this place has got to be jinxed  or something because I had the same problem with Stevie right here, same time of  year, back in 1988 or so. And all these years later, here you are having Vibratone  problems with speakers, just like Stevie and I did. I laughed about it and said, “Well, I  guess it’s not a spiritual entity interfering with us or anything.” John was real calm, told me not to worry about it. And we never did figure out the speaker-blowing thing. I’m a guitar guy, not an amp guy! 

The first show went well. I was standing stage right, taking everything in, listening,  and enjoying what I was hearing.

Because what I was hearing was so much better  than what I heard originally. Then Craig asked if I wanted to do a guitar change. I  said sure, took this guitar out to John, and he looks surprised, like: I’m getting a guitar  change from René Martinez! No biggie to me, but a biggie to him, I guess. 

It was a wonderful evening. The tone was really nice, and it brought back many  memories of the Stevie Ray Vaughan tone. This kid had some hands, you know?  And then I thought: He needs my help. That’s what was in my head and my heart. I  talked to him back up in the dressing room. “Golly,” he said, “I’ve never heard…  what did you do?” I told him I just do what I do. He goes, “Man, I have never heard  my amps sound like this, ever.” The second show went well, too. But that was it, I  figured, a one-shot thing. No more of this for René.

I was wrong. A month or two later, I got a call from Ken Helie, John’s tour manager,  asking if I was available. He told me John had put together The John Mayer Trio,  with Pino Palladino on bass and Steve Jordan on drums, and he wanted me to work  with John at the rehearsals for their performance at the Grammys early in 2005. I agreed, and off I went, working with Craig again, tuning and setting up John’s guitars.

They were rehearsing ‘Daughters’, originally an acoustic song that they were trying to rearrange in an electric version. They were having some difficulty, but John was  persistent. He asked Pino and Steve for their opinions, and then for some reason he  does a 180 turn to me and says, “I want know what René has to say about this.” I was on the spot, like why is he asking me? I’m just a crew guy. I said I think it sounds great with electric guitar! That was it—he said let’s keep doing it, and they found it. Next thing I know, there we are at the Staples Center in Los Angeles for the Grammys, and they performed that song.

And still that wasn’t the end of it...

Later into 2005, the new Trio were planning a tour,  and I agreed to work with them. I figured it was time to show what I could really do,  so off I went off to New York City. I didn’t know at the time, but this would be the  start of a 14-year stretch working with John. So much for me taking a break. 

John’s main Stratocaster he called ‘Black One’, built at the Fender Custom Shop, plus  he had some other Strats, and Martin acoustics, including his signature model. Black  One was made to look worn through, very much like Stevie Ray’s Number One  guitar. I guess he wanted some kind of reflection of that. 

Just like everybody I’ve worked with, John had his own unique setup. He’s an  aggressive player, and so frets and things start to wear out. I had to maintain those,  maybe replace the nut, clean some dirty pots, whatever it took. He wanted his  guitars to play even easier, which means bringing the strings down lower, and you  don’t want them to buzz or rattle. I had to be on my toes. I never let up doing my  ritual maintenance routines through all the guitars. And John would carry a lot. I  think I counted 40 guitars out there on one tour.

I first noticed John playing a PRS guitar with Dead & Company, the ex-Grateful  Dead band, around 2016.

I had met Paul Reed Smith during my time with Carlos  Santana, who is an important PRS player. Paul’s a very smart man as far as making  anything—guitars, pickups, amplifiers. He knows all the ins and outs.

It was a PRS Super Eagle that John had on tour with Dead & Company, and one time  he said to me: “Listen, what do you think?” This guitar had two humbuckers, plus  a PRS Narrowfield pickup in the center, and coil-tap switches for different sounds. I  said, “Wow! That single-coil sound, it’s your sound, John!”

I called Paul to congratulate him and said, “Dude, you nailed it, these pickups sound great. Paul… are you there?” There was a silence at the other end, then he says, “René, I am grinning from ear to ear.” And that guitar led to the one that John and Paul worked on together, the PRS Silver Sky.

By 2019, my back was playing up. I couldn’t even walk upstairs. They set up my  work platform to one side and on the same level as the stage, so I could do the guitar  changes without having to climb any stairs. That’s how I did it for my last year with  John. But it was a lot of work for me. I had to summon all the gumption I could to go  out there and do my job. My body was just saying: Enough

The last show I did with John was at the Manchester Arena in October that year.

In  fact, John called me out on stage at that show. He said he’d been with me a long  time, for 14 years, and thanked me for everything. I do not like being under the  spotlight, not at all. I never have. I wasn’t embarrassed, or nervous—it’s just that this  sort of thing is not René. And this time it really was the end of my touring career.