Stevie’s guitars were all pre-’63 model Fender Stratocasters, except for “Charley” (outfitted with the Danelectro “lipstick tube” pickups, it was made from kit parts at Charley’s Guitar Shop in 1984). They all have names, too: Number One, Red, Butter Scotch, Charley, and Lennie. The only significant change from the stock on these Strats has been the addition of 5-way switches and a good coat of shielding paint in the control cavities. Number One, the beat-up sunburst that we all know, is Stevie’s main squeeze.
With all the guitars, neck straightness (or relief) is the first thing I checked, sighting down the fingerboard. A fingerboard should either be dead flat or have a slight up-bow, known as relief, in the direction of the strings’ pull. Stevie’s guitars had approximately .012" of relief around the 7th and 9th frets, and then leveled out for the remainder of the board.
Stevie tunes his guitar down a half-step and uses GHS Nickel Rockers measuring .013, .015, .019 (plain), .028, .038, and .058. On this particular day, Rene had substituted an .011 for the high E to keep down the sore fingers that blues bends can cause. Rene changes strings every show for each guitar that gets played.
If you’re trying to evaluate action, it’s nice to know what size and shape of fretwire is used on any guitar. Number One’s frets measure .110" wide by .047" tall. These frets would have started out at .055" tall when they were new, and were probably either Dunlop 6100 or Stewart-MacDonald 150 wire.
I measured the distance from the underside of the strings to the top of the fret at the 12th fret on both E strings. Rene Martinez describes “I set up all of Stevie’s the same: 5/64" on the treble E string and 7/64" at the bass E.”
Knowing the radius of the fingerboard can help in setting up a comfortable bridge saddle height and curve. Stevie’s Number One was somewhat flatter than the vintage 7-1/4" radius. Rene has refretted the neck at least twice, and in the process the fingerboard has evolved into a 9" or 10" radius in the upper register. This isn’t the result of a purposeful attempt to create a compound radius, which allows string-bending with less-noting out; it just happened.
Stevie’s Number One wants to break high E and B strings at the saddle every chance she gets. Rene showed me why the strings break, and how he takes care of the problem: As a string breaks out of the vintage Strat tremolo block/bridge top plate, it “breaks” or contacts, the metal directly; this causes a slight kink that weakens the string. With the bridge saddles removed, Rene uses a Dremel Moto-Tool to grind the holes edge until the lip is smooth and gradual, and any binding is eliminated.
Number One uses vintage replacement saddles (the originals wore out long ago), and they’re not all alike — some have a shorter string slot than others. The high E and B strings may contact the front edge of this string clearance slot as they rise toward the “takeoff point” at the saddle’s peak. The kink formed by the contact stretches into the saddle peak during tuning, and breaks right at the crown. Rene elongates the slot, again by grinding, and then smoothes any rough metal edges. Finally, he slides a 5/8"-long piece of plastic tubing (insulation from electrical wire) over each string to protect it from the metal “break points.” He uses the heaviest piece of tubing he can get that still fits down the tremolo/block hole. Even with this, the high strings still cut through the plastic quickly (sometimes in one set), and when they do, the strings break. Rene plans to try a Teflon wire insulation if he can find the right size.
Stevie’s Number One, Lennie and Charley have standard Fender-style nuts, but Rene makes them from bone. Stevie prefers the sound of bone, although for studio work he had Rene make brass nuts for Scotch and Red.
Vaughan’s standard vintage tremolo uses all five springs. Rene prefers the durability of the stainless steel Fender tremolo bars. He puts a small wad of cotton at the bottom of the tremolo-block hole to keep the bar from over-tightening and becoming hard to remove if it breaks. He emphasizes the importance of lubricating all the moving parts of the tremolo system, preferring a powdered graphite-and-grease mixture (the grease holds the graphite in place where it’s needed). He lubricates everything that moves: mounting screws/plate; all string “breaks” and contact points, including the saddle peaks; where the springs attach to the block and claw; the nut slots; and the string trees.