Right Hand Man: René Martinez You mentioned briefly that strings should be pure nickel. Would you care to weigh in on the whole nickel versus plated controversy?
I have played plated nickel strings myself, and my clients have used them too. All guitar strings sound great when you first put them on, but as you play they start to stretch out and mellow – that’s when you can hear a difference. With pure nickel, you can hear more brilliance that lasts longer, and that’s what I really like. You can hear a lot of twang on the electric guitar with pure nickel strings, especially a Stratocaster or Telecaster. It’s the best way to go.

I’ve just always been into the “best,” and when you’re on a professional stage, you’ll see all of these expensive guitars and amps, but with cheap strings and plugged into a cheap cable. Some people are like that. I got my taste of that a long time ago when I was a kid; some guy had a brand new Fender Precision Bass, which at the time would have cost $800 or $900, and he was complaining about the strings, which cost $25. They’re the same people that complain about expensive guitar cables. “Why should I pay $80 for a guitar cable?” Well, because they sound good.

Do you have any tips for our readers to keep their guitars running in top shape?
Always make sure your guitars are set up. Even if you set it up once, it doesn’t stay there all the time. To make sure, go buy yourself a 6” ruler with 32nds of an inch marked on it, and go by the height of the string at the first fret. Make sure that it’s the same all of the time. If you do that, your guitar will always play the same and play well.

I would also suggest finding a good repair guy and keeping a ruler handy, because it works. I always have guys tell me, “I just go by the feel. I know how it’s supposed to feel.” Well, I’ve been doing this for many years and if I didn’t have a ruler I could still set up a guitar, no problem, but the ruler is my gauge. It tells me for sure that I’m not lying. So if someone ever says, “Are you sure it’s at that height?” the ruler settles all the questions.

Something else that’s easy to do is change your strings often. I mean, not every day like I do, but it will do your guitar good if you change them frequently. Even for people who don’t have a lot of money and would rather change one string at a time – just change them all at once! Don’t leave them on there and keep playing them, because the guitar will sound like crap. People will say, “My strings are buzzing,” and when you find out the strings are six months old, that’s an easy fix.

When you’re out on the road and you guys are in the middle of a tour, how often do you set up a guitar? If you’re going from Omaha back down to Texas, and there’s a climate change, are you setting the main guitars up every day?
Yes, that is my job; I keep on top of my guitars. If you don’t, sometimes the guy will feel something and say something about it in a middle of a show. Then you’re trying to set up that guitar and it breaks your concentration. You’ve got plenty of time beforehand to pull that ruler out and check everything – intonation, height. If I’m a professional technician, then that’s what I do. This is the way I do my thing, this is why people hire me and it’s why I stay with people for a long time.

When you’re setting up a guitar, how close do you get the intonation? Do you get freaked out about it, or do you just get it close and let the player tune it in?
I’m not real anal about it, but I do know how to make it work. There are times when you can’t get a string in tune and it’s as simple as that. As far as intonation is concerned, you’re supposed to get the chime at the 12th fret and a note at the 12th and match those two, but if you hear something out of tune, the problem is likely the magnets pulling too much and making it sound off. If you can’t get it in tune, you should know why and what to do, because it’s got to be dead on.

Right Hand Man: René Martinez You’ve developed a product called GraphitALL, which is a popular nut and trem lubricant. What was its origin?
It came from the first years of my repair work. The violinmaker I worked for would always grab a #2 pencil and pencil in the nut on all of the fiddles. He explained that strings sometimes get caught in the ebony in the nut, and the graphite made it easier for the strings to slide over. I started to use a pencil on guitar nuts, but they were impractical because I sometimes couldn’t get the pencil inside the first and third slot. So I came up with powdered graphite and put it in there, but then it would just blow away, because it was powder. Then I came up with a concoction mix and GraphitALL was created.

We also saw that you offer a 6-way signal splitter for different amp configurations. Do you still hand wire them?
I build them all myself and test each one before they’re sent out, so if anybody calls because something happened, I’m to blame if they don’t work. It is a simple, passive device – it doesn’t require batteries or electricity, and it’s the same thing we used when I worked with Stevie.

What other products do you hope to debut in the future?
I would like to do some other things with strings, other than the electric guitar strings that are out right now. I do have some bass strings that GHS offers called Taper Core, and I’m working on a set of flamenco guitar strings that’ll hopefully be out sometime next year. I’d like to do a lot of other stuff, as far as products are concerned – I just haven’t found the time because I travel quite a bit. I just dream about these things when I am on the road. If I have a problem with equipment, I’ll say, “Man, I wish I had this to fix it,” and that’s how my products get created.

You’ve had quite a career in the business. Do you have any wisdom for young techs?
Don’t be a know-it-all. It’s tasteful to not know everything, but to find an answer to everything that’s wrong. If you have a problem you’ve never encountered before, the only way to fix it is to get in there and figure it out – that experience will help you out in the future. Believe me, in the years I’ve been in the business it’s happened a few times and everyone thought I was a god, but it’s just because I’ve already encountered those problems. Don’t get a fat head about it and just try to remember what you learned.

If you weren’t working on guitars, would you still be working with your hands?
Yeah, I learned my calling in life from a young age. By the time I was 18 I wanted to be involved in music. I asked myself when I was 18, “What’s the easiest thing I can do right now?” I had a guitar in my hand and I thought to myself that playing the guitar was the easiest thing I knew how to do. With that, I knew that it was my calling and I would do it the rest of my life. And so far, I think I was right, because that’s what I’m doing.

René on Pickup Height
Pickup height is one of those instrument tweaks that has managed to spawn two major schools of thought: those who think it is intimately intertwined with tone and those who prefer to set it and forget it. While René Martinez straddles both camps, he has one foot firmly in the latter, saying, “I tend to let the pickup do its thing. When I was working with Stevie, I would set the pickup height for certain things and we would constantly change it, but really, people need to let the pickup do what it’s supposed to do: pick things up.”

“Sometimes the tone and the magnet are two different things. What I mean by that is sometimes the magnet is stronger than the tone you want – if you get the magnet closer, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get a better tone, it just means the magnet is going to pull on things more,” René says. When it comes to setting up a guitar, he basically sets the pickup as low as it will go and brings it back up until the pickups produce a nice, full tone. “That’s just the guitar at that point and that’s how it’s going to sound. If you still don’t like what you’ve got there, you may need to try a different pickup.”

René Martinez