The year 1978 was a damn good one for rock guitar.
Forget for a second all the amazing releases by AC/DC, the Stones,
the Who, Rush, UFO, Santana, and Thin Lizzy, and just think
about the debut albums from that year: the Police, Dire Straits,
Van Halen, and a band out of Boston called the Cars. Wow.
The Cars’ first record was bursting with vocal hooks, catchy
lyrics, state-of-the-art production, and absolutely killer, spoton
guitar playing by Elliot Easton. The young lefty did it all on
those nine cuts and introduced himself to the guitar community
as a player adept at Beatley pop, James Burton Tele twang,
bluesy Bloomfield bends, huge Les Paul crunch, sparkling clean
tones, and more. And then there were the solos. Easton dished
out classic, memorable lead breaks that sounded both composed
and reckless, with clever, unexpected note choices and a
bold, stinging attack.
As the ’70s turned into the ’80s the Cars star continued to
rise, even if Easton’s guitar presence was somewhat diminished.
After the Cars were put on blocks in 1988, Easton would
lend his 6-string talents to Creedence Clearwater Revisited, Lee
Rocker, Elliot Easton’s Tiki Gods, and the New Cars—a band he
formed with Cars alum Greg Hawkes, Todd Rundgren, Kasim
Sulton, and Prairie Prince. His playing in each of these outfits
was consistently great, but what Easton fans really wanted was
for him to do another Cars record, where he could play hooky
parts, get killer tones, and take wild solos. But with the passing
of bassist Ben Orr and the reluctance of leader Ric Ocasek
to restart the band, it seemed like the fans were out of luck.
Twenty-four years after the Cars’ breakup, however, those fans
got just what they needed. Almost.
Move Like This was released in 2011 and, not unlike the Cars’
first album, it somehow manages to come off current and retro
at the same time. The tunes are jam-packed with all the cool
guitar textures and riffs that you would expect but there are
practically no guitar solos, which is odd because many of the
chord progressions are right in line with those that Easton so
effortlessly blazed over in the past. And the
fans certainly get what he brings to the table,
as evidenced at a recent Cars gig where his
breaks in “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “You’re
All I’ve Got Tonight,” and “Touch and Go”
generated thunderous applause. A consummate
team player, however, Easton isn’t tripping:
“It took some adjusting,” he admits.
“It’s not a typical Cars record for me in that
way, because usually there would be six or
seven solos. But I think it’s a good record. I
just tried to be open-minded about the direction
that Ric was trying to go in and not get
uptight about it.”
You famously cut all your parts on the first Cars
record in one day. How long did you spend on this one?
Even longer [laughs]. This was a pretty
fast record. I guess we recorded for about
a week and a half in upstate New York and
then about the same in Santa Monica with
[producer] Jacknife Lee.
Were the tunes fairly complete when you
entered the studio?
Yeah. Ric’s demos have gotten more fleshed
out over the years, and when he presented
the songs to us, he already had a pretty good
idea of what they were. They weren’t necessarily
slated to be a Cars album. He was just
writing songs for a solo record or something.
How did you decide that it would turn into a
I called Ric up to say hi after not speaking
to him for quite a while. I asked him
what he was up to and he said he was writing
songs and that he was really happy with
how they were coming out. I asked him
what his plans were for them and he wasn’t
really sure. I said, “What do you think about
making a new Cars album?” He was a little
silent and then said, “You know, that’s an
interesting idea.” We ended up convening
in upstate New York where Ric has a house,
and there’s a studio up there. We rehearsed
for a few days and it was fun and everybody
got along and fell into their natural roles as
a band. The chemistry was still there. The
dynamics had certainly changed because of
the absence of Benjamin, but it still felt like
the Cars in the room.
The song “Blue Tip” has some of your signature
guitar moves: the stabs on the B and E strings, the
driving power chords, and the harmonized doublestops.
Can you talk about where some of those
influences come from?
The inspiration of playing double-stops
comes from both country guitar and R&B
guitar: Curtis Mayfield-type stuff, Steve Cropper
licks, Cornell Dupree, then, of course,
country players. Mostly it’s just a sense of
melody or space and groove. At this point
the influences are pretty well digested and
so the stuff just comes out. It’s all embedded
in the DNA.
You almost never go with the same guitar tone
for an entire song. This record has a lot of really
nice layers and different tones that come in and
out in a cool, orchestrated way. Can you talk about
your use of layers—clean versus dirty, chords
versus single notes?
I’m conscious of the fact that guitars
and vocals share a similar frequency spectrum,
so it’s important to get some different
tones on there so they don’t mask each
other. If you do, say, a crunchy rhythm part
that has a lot of upper midrange and a lot
of “nose” to it, then you want to come back
with something that’s more twangy with
more highs and lows to surround that frequency
so they’re not stepping on each other’s
toes. It really helps to change guitars,
change amps, and change tones so that they
don’t cover each other up. I try to visualize
what I’m going for before I reach for
a guitar, a pedal, or an amp. Does it have
modulation? Is it a swimmy sound? Is it a
bright sound? A twangy sound? A singlecoil?
A humbucking sound? Should I use a
Fender amp or would a Marshall be better?
Is it a Vox pokey midrange thing? Just from
experience and from knowing how all these
different instruments respond, you tend to
know what’s going to get the sound that’s in
your head. Nine times out of ten it’s right.
What was your rig for the big intro tone on
“Keep On Knocking”?
The guitar was a Gibson Custom Shop
’63 ES-335 I think, and I might have doubled
it with my signature SG. For the amp,
the studio had a really cool setup. They had
all these amp heads in the wall of the control
room with a switcher box. Then out in
the studio they had two different types of
4x12s and you could play any of the amps
through either of the cabinets. He had a nice
Marshall 50-watt there, Ampegs, a Hughes
& Kettner—I think we used the Hughes &
Kettner head for “Keep On Knocking.”
That tune has one of the few guitar solos on
this record, with a nice, creamy, fuzz tone. What’s
going on there?
I guess I was inspired by Clapton’s woman
tone. I wanted to go a little psychedelic with
that solo so I went for that classic Gibson tone
with both pickups on and the tone rolled off
on the neck pickup, to get that vocal kind of
“ooh” sound. Then I just played something
off the top of my head. Within a pretty short
time we had the solo.
How common is it for you to do a solo off the top
of your head? I always saw you as a guy who would
compose his solos before going into the studio.
That was often the case with previous
Cars records. In this instance there wasn’t
a lot of time to go back to my room and
think about it over the course of days or
weeks like I would do in the old days. I just
went in there and winged it, which I have
done in the past. The “Don’t Cha Stop” solo
was off the top of my head, as well as certain
How did you get that solo tone?
It was either the Hughes & Kettner or
the Marshall. I don’t think there were any
It’s got a lot of distortion on it.
I might have used my MI Audio Crunch
Box. I used that a lot. That’s like my little
Marshall in a box. I love that pedal. In fact,
I worked with Alfonso Hermida, who makes
the Zendrive, on a pedal that’s sort of based
on how much I like the Crunch Box. Robben
Ford calls the Zendrive a Dumble in a box. I
approached Alf with the idea of doing something
less Dumble-y, less compressed, and
more open and Marshall-y. He came up with
something that was even better that we’re
calling the Hermida Audio Tiki Drive pedal.
It has two levels of gain that you can balance
and cascade so you can get everything from
a Stones-y, small Fender amp kind of sound
to a real Marshall tone.
So where the hell are the guitar solos on this
It just didn’t seem to be what Ric wanted,
maybe because the songs were not necessarily
written with the Cars in mind. He
was listening to Snow Patrol and Phoenix
and bands with a lot of architectural
guitars and not a lot of soloing, and he
wanted us to go for something kind of like
that—a little more modern, a little more
streamlined. I’m sorry for fans that wish
there were more solos but at the time it
just seemed like that was the direction.
I didn’t want to lean on it too much. We
hadn’t been together in 24 years making
a record and it didn’t seem like the right
time to go, “Hey, I want more solos,” even
though I like to hear them and I enjoy composing
them. But I sort of look at it like
this: There are two solos on Sgt. Pepper
and they’re both by McCartney. It doesn’t
mean it’s not a great album.
When you guys first came out, it was a very
exciting time for guitar in pop-rock music. In
addition to you, we had Neil Giraldo, Neal Schon,
and others playing these wild guitar solos in hit
songs on AM radio. Who were some of the guys
that caught your ear around that time?
There were a lot of people playing tasty
things. I enjoyed James Honeyman-Scott of
the Pretenders very much. He was a terrific
player. I always loved Brian Setzer, although
he came a couple of years later. Mike Campbell
with Tom Petty played some nice stuff.
What’s next for you?
I’m trying to get the Tiki Gods going and
pursue that instrumental thing. I’ve just
done a track for Andrew Loog Oldham, the
original manager and producer of the Rolling
Stones. He’s doing one of his orchestra
records where he does different versions of
Stones songs. I did a Tiki Gods version of
“Under My Thumb.” It came out great. He
overdubbed some strings and now I’ve got
it back and I’m going to mix it. I just try to
What’s next for the Cars?
There’s been some talk of doing some
more recording. We had a good time making
the record. Not everybody in the band loves
touring but everybody in the band loves the
creative process and recording. I do enjoy
playing live and I hope that there’s more of
that on the horizon too.
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