“One small moment can make all the difference to your life.”
One night when I was about nine years old, my brothers and I were playing around after we’d finished homework. My dad was sitting and strumming his guitar, singing along, as he often did. But this time, something caught my ear. I said: Hey guys, I’m going to go listen to dad.
This was the moment that turned out to be the start of everything for me. It was the start of my life with the guitar, as a musician, as a repairman, and as a tech working with everyone from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Prince – from Carlos Santana to John Mayer. One small moment can make all the difference to your life.
I sat there and watched my dad, how he moved his fingers. When he finished the song, I looked at him and said: How do you do that on a guitar?
He showed me three chords, C major, F major, and G major. Soon, my mom ushered us off to bed. After a while I got up, snuck out, grabbed that guitar, and went back to my bedroom. Dad’s guitar was really hard to play – the strings on it were so high. But I sat there and learned those chords.
I couldn’t wait to wake up the next morning and show him what I’d done. He said: Okay, you want to learn more, we’ll call your cousin. He plays a little guitar.
That afternoon, my cousin showed up with a Fender electric guitar and amplifier. He showed me the blues, the boogie-woogie. He told me he couldn’t show me any more – that was all he knew. But I didn’t want to put it down. I had to continue.
From then on, I always had guitar in my head.
“I had no idea you could put new strings on a guitar.”
I grew up in Dallas, Texas, where I was born in 1952. I’m second generation Mexican-American. My parents always wanted the best for us – my grandparents even more so. They would say: you don’t need to be a bricklayer, you don’t need to be a manual worker, you need to get a job with a suit and tie. That kind of notion. When Mexican people came over to the States, they wanted to have a better life for their family, for their children.
Then in 1963, the Beatles showed up and shook radio waves across the US. I started taking guitar lessons at a YMCA, and I brought my dad’s guitar along. The teacher took one look at it and said: I think you need to get this string replaced.
A string had broken, and dad had just tied it together in a knot, which meant I couldn’t play the note on that one fret. When I went back and told dad, he took me down to the drug store. I thought we were going to get medicine or something. But when we get there, my dad says we are here for guitar strings. I had no idea you could put new strings on a guitar. This was another step in my guitar education.
I was getting good at moving my fingers to the next chords without looking at my hands. But I wanted more. I wanted to learn how to play ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and other songs besides The Beatles. But I couldn’t get that at the YMCA: I was on my own.
THE VENTURES AND A MAXITONE
“I was transposing in my head a song that nobody ever taught me.”
I was determined to learn how to play the songs I heard on my transistor radio as we rode the city bus back and forth to home from school. So I worked out the chords in my head by starting on the C chord I knew. When they changed the tone, I’d say to myself: This has got to be a G, this has got be an F, this has got to be an A. And so on. I was transposing in my head a song that nobody ever taught me.
Once I got home, I’d wait for the song to come back on the radio, and lo and behold, I’d learned it! I thought: Oh, this is easy. But not every song started out with a C chord, and I knew I had to go further.
One day, I was going through some LPs at a store, and a little booklet caught my eye. “Play Guitar With The Ventures!” was splashed across the cover. Inside, it contained finger patterns for four tunes. It had recordings to help you play along on rhythm guitar, lead guitar, or bass guitar. There was even a guy who’d introduce each part. I bought it and took it home immediately.
By now I had a cheap Maxitone guitar, which kind of looked like a Stratocaster. My father had bought it for me along with a tiny Kent amplifier. I tuned up my Maxitone and played along to ‘Walk, Don’t Run’ by The Ventures. I was so excited that I ran into the kitchen and told my mother: Look, I can do it!
That was the start of discovering music through books.
“Although I didn’t know it, this was the beginning of guitar repair for me.”
When I got to high school, I wanted to go to the private Jesuit College Preparatory in Dallas that all my mates attended. But private has a price tag, and at first, I didn’t think I’d be able to go. My dad was running a car repair business, and he said he would put me through this school if that’s what I wanted. I told him I’d do whatever I could to help him pay for my education. And he agreed.
My dad showed me how to do body work and fender repairs, which was alright. I didn’t like hitting things with hammers. But what I really enjoyed was painting the cars.
We painted with what was called straight lacquer – or nitro-cellulose lacquer – which of course is what the great old guitars used. Although I didn’t know it, this was the beginning of guitar repair for me. I got so good that my dad told me I could do all the paint jobs and he’d do the body work.
While I was working for him, my dad got a contract with a General Motors company to fix up repossessed cars. I started earning good money painting after that. With the extra cash, I decided to get some real guitar lessons, and I knew exactly what I wanted to learn: ever since a neighbor showed me an album by Los Romeros, flamenco was a done deal in my head.
“I took him outside to look at Darryl’s Benz, and the guy asked if I’d ever thought about refinishing guitars.”
I was about 19 when I found my teacher, Darryl Saffer, at Frets & Strings. It was the only classical-guitar shop in Dallas. Turns out that Darryl personally knew the Romeros. I remember thinking: How strange is that? Of all the shot-in-the-dark teachers I could meet, I find this one.
Well, that’s how my life has unfolded.
One day at a lesson, Darryl asked me what I did for a living. I told him about the car painting. A week or two later, I drove a customer’s car to Frets & Strings for my lesson so I could deliver it afterward. Darryl was impressed with my handiwork. He asked me to paint his old Mercedes-Benz, and I agreed.
When I went to deliver the refinished car to Darryl, he was in a lesson. While I waited, the guy at the register asked for my name. Oh, he said, so you’re René. Let’s go take a look at the car. I took him outside to look at Darryl’s Benz, and the guy asked if I’d ever thought about refinishing guitars. I said: Well, I don’t know how to do that. What kind of paint would I need?
He smiled. The same kind of paint that you put on this car.
That’s when I said goodbye to cars and hello guitars.
There wasn’t much refinishing work at first, so I’d just go into the store and hang out. The owner there was David Caron, who I later found out was the principal violin maker in Dallas. He’d been making fiddles forever. When there wasn’t much going on, he and the other guy working there would take me on tours around the shop.
At first it was the tools. I’d learn about sharpening chisels and knives and stuff. Next we got into french polishing, then working with color and matching cosmetic work. I got really good at putting color back after a repair and making it look like nothing had happened. I had been mixing paints with cars, so it came pretty naturally. I realize now that this was where I started getting into guitar repair. I told my dad this what I wanted to do, and he said: Go right ahead.
CHARLEY’S GUITAR SHOP
"I was moonlighting, playing the guitar and working at Charley’s."
Frets & Strings changed hands, and when David Caron left, I knew it was my time too. At first I started doing guitar repairs in the little apartment I had. I wasn’t getting a lot of business. This was going to take time.
One day in 1976, a guy called me and said he needed a guitar repaired. He said his name was Charley Wirz and he’d just opened a guitar shop. He came over with a 12- string Fender acoustic, said there was something wrong with it. I told him you can’t fix these necks, they’re either good or they go bad.
I was already proficient in repairing from my time at Frets & Strings. I could do anything: re-fretting and refinishing, setting up, re-gluing bridges, even fixing fiddles. Charley must have realized I knew what I was doing, and he hired me to do repairs at the new shop.
There was no other store in Dallas like Charley’s Guitar Shop. It was just him and me. We’d do guitar repair, we bought and sold, we traded – used instruments only.
My other big dream at the time was to be a concert classical guitar player, so my days were stacked. I was moonlighting, playing the guitar and working at Charley’s. I’d be at the repair shop from 10 to 6, then go and play in a hotel lounge from 6:30 to 9. The work was hard, but I didn’t mind – I was doing what I wanted to do.
THE SRV MOMENT
"I got to work on Jimmie’s guitar, and he told us about his little baby brother, Stevie Ray Vaughan."
I was at Charley’s for 13 years, and we met a whole lot of people during that time – people form all over Dallas, musicians who didn’t have a whole lot of money, well known stars, guitar rock’n’rollers, bands who rolled into the city from out of town like Thin Lizzy or Chuck Mangione. They’d all heard you could get a good used guitar or get yours fixed at Charley’s. We were fairly priced, and we did good work.
In 1981, I met Jimmie Vaughan there. He did some business with Charley, who waved at me, said: That’s René back there, he does all the guitar repair. I got to work on Jimmie’s guitar, and he told us about his little baby brother, Stevie Ray Vaughan.
One day, Stevie came into town to play at a local bar, and Charley said: Let’s go down there and check him out.
This was the first time I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan play.
…but that’s a story for another time.