WITH HIS BLAZING CHOPS, TAKE-NO-PRISONERS
SHOWMANSHIP, AND HOT-ROD TINKERER’S MENTALITY,
BRIAN SETZER HAS NOT ONLY REIGNED OVER THE
KINGDOMS OF ROCKABILLY AND BIG-BAND SWING
FOR DECADES, BUT HAS CONTINUED TO REVAMP ’50s-style rock and roll in ways that make
it exciting and relevant for modern audiences.
The fascination—fanaticism might
be a better word—with rockabilly, which has
led to cult-like worship of the style throughout
much of the world, is largely due to the
success of the Stray Cats over 25 years ago.
It’s also fair to say that Setzer brought swing
music back from the grave with his 1998 bigband
release, The Dirty Boogie, which won a
Grammy for “Best Pop Performance by a Duo
or Group with Vocal.” (Setzer also earned
a Grammy for “Best Pop Instrumental Performance”
for his rendition of “Sleepwalk”
from the same album.)
“I remember when I had the hit with
“Jump, Jive, an’ Wail,” says Setzer. “Trombone
players were coming up to me at shows—
I’m talkin’ geeky kids with glasses—and
they were going, ‘You know what? I’ve got
a date tonight!’ Horn players were cool for
a couple of years.” And even when swing
mania calmed down again, Setzer kept on
making ever more challenging BSO albums,
re-inventing the big band concept in ways that
would have probably been unimaginable to
bandleaders of the ’40s and ’50s.
You can bet your hubcaps that when Brian
Setzer releases a new album it’s going to
have some cool and unexpected twists. But
where does a cat like Setzer go after having
done seemingly everything possible with a
rockabilly trio or a big band? The answer lies
in hybridization, which is something that
Setzer has employed very successfully over
the years to keep himself in the lead position
on the rockabilly sled.
Ironically however, on his latest Surfdog
release, Setzer’s decision to put the focus
completely on his extremely hybrid guitar
style was not something he originally contemplated.
“I didn’t start out writing an
instrumental record,” Setzer explains. “I
started out writing songs, and I had six or
seven with vocals. But once I started fooling
around with ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ and
going down that path, suddenly I had a bunch
of instrumental tunes that were a mixture of
all the styles I like to play—rockabilly, rock
and roll, country, and jazz.”
The result is a potent collection of tunes
that, while covering everything from an everso-
chill version of “Be-Bop-A-Lula” to a surfrock
strafi ng attack on “Go-Go Godzilla,” has
allowed Setzer to mod the arrangements by
blending styles that travel from California to
the Appalachians to the Big Apple. It’s typified in “Hillbilly Jazz Meltdown,” which,
with its Merle-Travis-meets-Steve-Morse
sequence of slick guitar moves, could easily
have been the title track for the album. As
Setzer puts it, “The wiring is just wrong in
my head, and that’s why it made sense to
me to combine flatpicking and those crazy
jazz chords. I thought it was just weird—like
who would come up with a song like that?”
This album has such a cool vibe—like you just
set up some mics and went for it. Is that basically
how it was recorded?
Yeah. If you have your sound in the right
gear, you can just toss up a couple of good
microphones and do it. Initially, I went in
the studio by myself and just started playing
songs with a click track. For my guitar sound,
I mainly plugged into the Roland Space Echo
and a Fender Bassman. When it came time to
get the bass and drums going, I called my two
favorite players here in Minneapolis: Johnny
Hatton and Noah Levy. Of course, it’s really
not as easy as it sounds. With a record like
this it’s more about the arrangement of the
songs. I didn’t want to repeat myself doing
too many licks that I’ve used before. Even
though there are certain things that people
expect to hear from me, I wanted to come
up with a lot of new stuff.
How much does improvising factor into your
Improvising on a record like this is at least
half of it. Actually what I do is sit down with
a pencil and paper and write the music out in
standard notation. I will come up with licks,
and I’ll think, “Well that’s a really good one,”
and I’ll capture it on a crappy 1970s Sears
tape recorder. “Hillbilly Jazz Meltdown” is
a song that I threaded together with lots of
little ideas that I’d come up with—like that
chordal walkup in the middle section—and
has very little improvising on it. Sometimes,
though, it’s easier for me to write a part
down than press a button. Also, if I just put
something I’ve come up with on tape, I might
forget how to play it later on. If I have it written
out, at least I can read it back.
Do you have more freedom to improvise with
Not really. A trio is what I cut my teeth
on back to my roots with the Stray Cats. The
big band is a whole different beast. Although
I play the same style and don’t really change
anything that much, the difference is that
there are a lot fewer holes to plug.
How do you turn a bluegrass tune like “Blue
Moon of Kentucky” into something with your signature
What that song is about is melody chords,
and you don’t hear anybody play that style
of melody chords. I was copping Elvis’ version
of the song, not Bill Monroe’s, so once
I substituted all those jazz chords I thought,
“Wow, this is a unique animal now.” It’s got
a jazz sounding background, but I’m still fingerpicking
the rockabilly stuff. So it becomes
its own thing.
Your arrangement highlights the connection
between bluegrass, jazz, and rock and roll. Did
you intend to make it sort of a tribute to your
Funny you mention that, because I was
thinking about calling the album Under the
Influence or something like that, because I do
hear my influences coming out in all these
songs. I hear shades of Les Paul and Charlie
Christian in something like “Intermission,”
and I hear Cliff Gallup in “Be-Bop-A-Lula.”
There’s a lot of that on this record.
So you consider Les Paul an influence?
Not like when I first heard Scotty Moore
or Eddie Cochran, which was like wow!
Those guys really banged me over the head,
whereas Les Paul was more of an outside
influence. He played in New York all the
time where I grew up, and when I was a kid
he was still on the radio. He had his own
style and his own tone, but like all the great
players, it was mostly in his fingers. I don’t
think it really mattered what kind of guitar
and amp he used, and that’s the same with
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. A lot
of the guys I meet think they need the same
exact guitar that Cliff Gallup used, and the
same type of strings and picks. But none of
that matters as far as getting a great sound,
because it’s all in your fingers.
Your use of harmonized melodies sounds like
the stuff Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant did in
the ’50s. Were those records an influence on you?
I loved Jimmy Bryant’s stuff. They called
it hillbilly jazz, and I first heard it later in
my career when I was on the road and somebody
slipped me a tape. I think he was on
the same train of thought, where you’re not
going, “I’m from Tennessee so I play country,
or I’m from New York so I play jazz.” It’s
more like, give me a piece of Charlie Christian
or give me a piece of Chet Atkins.
“Be-Bop-A-Lula” has such a different vibe compared
to the versions I’ve always heard. Hearing
it without the lyrics makes you really appreciate
the coolness of the melody.
You know, the hardest thing to do on that
song was to not rush it. Coming from a rockabilly/
punk background as I do, it’s always
a race to the chorus. To really lay back and
hold back the beat—that’s such a hard thing
for me to do. I couldn’t believe that no one
has ever done an instrumental version of
“Be-Bop-A-Lula.” I wanted get around Cliff
Gallup’s guitar solo, but to me it doesn’t
matter if it’s exactly the way he played it. I
try to tell people, “Man, you don’t have to
get it exact, just go for the feel.” I’m happy
with that song. I got a nice tone, it’s in the
pocket, and I dig that part on the end where
I pick those four strings and it sounds like
In the past you’ve said that seeing the Thad
Jones/Mel Lewis big band as a kid in New York
steered you into jazz. Were there particular guitarists
you heard that further got you into using
substitute chords and melodies to jazz up your
Around New York we had Joe Pass and
Chuck Wayne. I got see Chuck by sneaking
into a jazz club, but I never got to see Joe.
They were definitely influences on me, but
I don’t know as far as substituting chords—
I just sort of did stuff like that by myself.
On the first choruses of “Cherokee” you sound
sort of like Tal Farlow, and then you start rocking it
up, and it takes the song in a completely different
direction. Did you plan these stylistic and textural
shifts or was that a spur-of-the-moment thing?
I’m glad you noticed that. I only wish
I could come off like Tal Farlow. I was just
playing my old D’Angelico though a Fender
amp for a straight jazz sound in the beginning,
and then in the end, I come in with
that honkin’ twang thing. I just wanted to
give it a kick to show how it doesn’t have
to just stay in trad-jazz land. Listen to how
it can go into this weird rockabilly, jazz, fingerpicking
Is that also why you added the jazz guitar parts
to “Earl’s Breakdown”?
Yeah, and that’s what makes it valid. If
you just play “Earl’s Breakdown” the way
Scruggs did, it’s great—but you can’t play it
better than Earl Scruggs. So I came up with
these crazy jazz chords behind the melody,
and now it’s something very different.
You’ve played banjo in your live shows for
years, but is this the first time you’ve played it
on a record?
It’s probably only the second time. I used
it on a song years ago called “Lonesome
Man.” I call it punk-rock banjo because I’m
not a great banjo player—but that’s okay. You
know, people have to get over telling others
that they shouldn’t try a particular instrument
because there are so many great players.
I find this happens a lot in these little
cliques on the Internet, and it’s especially
prevalent in the banjo world and the pedal-
steel world. They should be encouraging
people to try different instruments instead
of saying, “Well, he’s no Earl Scruggs.” My
attitude is just go for it and don’t worry
about being as good as Paul Franklin or Earl
Scruggs. If you don’t get there, you’ll still
have fun trying.
Do you play pedal-steel?
I just fool around with it and I’m pretty
darn average. I pulled it out onstage once,
and boy was I sorry. I think I made the audience
What was your setup for “Far Noir East,” which
has that great sounding tremolo?
Man, I could put that tone in a bowl and
eat it. I’m using a ’61 Fender Twin Amp,
which, of course, doesn’t have reverb, so I
was using the matching reverb unit with it.
Fender was really at the top of their game with
that thing, and I just love how it sounds. But
the Twin Amp does have a beautiful sounding
tremolo and that’s what you’re hearing.
The arrangement on that song is very cinematic
I always think of movie themes, so in
the middle section there’s a crazy little part
[sings the line] that’s like an orchestra part
without the strings and horns. It’s that cinematic
noir thing with dissident notes that
you just don’t hear that often. And when
you do, it’s with a full orchestra on a film
like The Man with the Golden Arm or Vertigo.
Another old-school touch is the vibraphone
on “Intermission,” which sounds great with your
guitar. How did you find someone who could drop
in and play something like that?
That part was played by a guy named
Steve Yeager. Here’s the funny thing about
living in Minneapolis: I can get players who
are as good as those in L.A. or New York,
but there’s no two-week waiting time to
get a phone call back. They could be in the
middle of dinner, and they’ll go, “Let me
finish supper and I’ll be over in a half hour.”
It’s a pleasure to make a record in a place
like this because it’s easy.
How do you work in the studio, and what do
you look for when scoping out a place to record?
I don’t have a lot of patience in the studio,
so if I’m ready to go, it’s like, “get the mic up
and let’s hit it. I don’t even want to bother
tuning my other guitars.” That’s just how
I work. As far as the studio itself goes, if
you’ve got wood floors you’ve got a good
room. Whenever I see carpets or partitions,
the warning signs go up. Carpet is a sound
deadener, and it kills the tone. You’ve got
to get some natural ambient sound, which
comes from the slap back off the wood. Even
when playing live I carry a big piece of wood
to put under my amps, because the stuff they
cover stages with just eats the sound. I set
my amps on this piece of wood so the sound
has something to slap against.
All of the rock guitarists in famous trios—
Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan,
and Billy Gibbons—have been primarily solidbody
players. But you’ve been using hollowbody
guitars almost exclusively since your Stray Cats
days. Why is that?
Because I can’t get a good sound out of a
solidbody. I’ve used a Gretsch Duo Jet on a
couple of things, but I had to have TV Jones
work on the pickups because I just couldn’t
get a good sound from them. People think
feedback is a big issue with hollowbody guitars.
It’s funny—with Gibson hollowbodies,
you’ve really got to corral the feedback,
but I’ve never had a feedback problem with
Gretsch guitars through any kind of amplifier.
You’ve also avoided guitars with single-coil
Well, the DeArmonds would always
squeal, and I could never make them sound
right. I guess you can call the Filter ’Tron a
humbucking pickup, but that’s not a totally
fair description, because when you think of
a humbucker, you automatically think of a
big Gibson pickup. Filter ’Trons have smaller
coils, so it’s the perfect pickup because it’s
right between a Fender and a Gibson—it
can give you both or neither of those sounds.
And then TV Jones came along and perfected
the Filter ’Tron by figuring out what kinds
of alloys they were made of and correcting
little discrepancies from the ’50s, such as
the placement of the polepieces. For me,
it just doesn’t get better than the TV Jones
Filter ’Tron. I also like that it’s not very big.
When I play a Gibson guitar with a humbucker,
it gets in the way with my fi ngerpicking.
Same with a Strat. How do you get
past that middle pickup when you try to pick
with your fingers?
Did you use any of your vintage 6120s on
I used my ’59 on one track on this record,
and, I kid you not, two frets just slid out of
the fretboard! So I put it away and grabbed
my Hot Rod model, and it did the trick. A
vintage guitar is something beautiful, but
you’ve got to get the thing to play right,
and it’s a lot of work. I had to do a lot of
modifications to make them rock. TV Jones
had to do all kinds of stuff to get the pickups
right, and Mike Lewis [former Gretsch
product manager] even put my original ’59
though a cat scan machine in order to figure
out what was going on inside the body. We
pinned the bridge on the Hot Rod because
those damn floating bridges always moved,
and we also added Sperzel locking tuners
and removed the zero fret.
What’s the advantage of taking out the zero fret?
I could never get along with a zero fret
because grooves would wear into it, and then
the strings wouldn’t slide over it properly.
Even 30 years ago, we would take a chisel
and bang those things out. So if you want
the original-style Chet Atkins model from
the ‘50s, Gretsch still offers it—but if you
want to rock with it and have it play in tune,
I think my model is the logical alternative.
Think about what a 6120 was used for in
the 1950s—it was guys who were trying to
play like Chet Atkins. And that’s why the
old Gretsches are usually in pretty good
shape. Basically we’ve tried to duplicate a
’50s guitar, but add all the things I’ve done
to them over the years to make them rock.
Included in the guitar collection on your website
is a late model Bigsby solidbody. What’s the
story with that?
I do have one, but I’ve never used it. It
sounds like a Tele almost, but the neck kind
of sucks because it’s basically a flat slab. I
remember picking it up when I first got it
and saying, “Shouldn’t the fingerboard be
arched like violin’s? I’m just discovering a
lot of these things—like neck radius and all
that jazz. The reason they put a nine-and-ahalf-
inch radius on my 6120 is because they
copied the neck on my original guitar. After
years of having it worked on, that’s what the
radius had turned into.
There are a lot of different guitar textures on
“Lonesome Road.” Did you track that song with
Yes. The really clean guitar sound is a ’63
D’Angelico Excel with a DeArmond Rhythm
Chief pickup that I’m running straight into
my Twin Amp with no reverb. For the rockedup
stuff, I played my Gretsch through either
a Supro or a Bassman. The thumping rhythm
track is my Stromberg archtop recorded
acoustically—that tone is just king for me.
Your two surf-style songs, “Hot Love”—which
has that Link Wray vibe with a huge reverb—and
“Go-Go Godzilla,” with its harmonized melody, both
have such over-the-top arrangements and tones.
What can you tell us about those songs and your
infl uences in that style of music?
“Hot Love” is definitely “Setzer, step away
from the reverb, would ya?” I was thinking of
a ’50s hot-rod movie soundtrack for that one,
while I originally wrote “Go-Go Godzilla” for
Chris Cheney of the Living End. I told him
to do what he wanted with it, thinking he’d
maybe write some lyrics. But in the meantime,
I decided to record it instrumentally. I
had that great surf tone going with my 6120
into the Twin Amp, so I though it would be
cool to harmonize those parts and make it
sound real swampy and surfy. But as far as
my influences go, surf music was something
I’d hear as a kid on an oldies station—it just
wasn’t in my daily life. When I was growing
up, what was influencing me was the
Your guitar tones have always been way twangier
than the Les Paul-though-Marshall overdrive of
Dickey and Duane. Part of that is your Gretsch
6120, but what else has factored into the kind of
distortion sound you’ve always gone for?
With the Fender Bassmans I use, there are
just no pleasing tones beyond a certain point.
After about fi ve on the volume, those amps
just start to clip and sound crappy. What I’m
always trying to get is right between twang and
distortion. Because with distortion, the sound
gets loud up to a certain point, and after that
comes the mud. Then there’s no distinction in
the notes—you might as well save your ears and
just use some kind of pedal to get your overdrive.
On a different subject, what’s up with your new
line of Hot Rod Creepers?
Well I’m only five foot nine, plus I add the
pompadour and Creepers for another couple of
inches. I’ve always worn them, so the Creepers
company came to me and offered to do
a Brian Setzer model. So I thought, let’s get
some crazy colors and put a guitar on them.
They’re fun, but I haven’t seen anyone wearing
’em around Minnesota!