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Under Investigation: Eddie Cochran

March 13, 2013
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BELIEVE IT OR NOT, THERE ONCE WAS A TIME WHEN EVERY NEW ELECTRIC guitar came factory-equipped with a wound third string. These telephone cables had a fat sound but limited any expressive G-string bending to a semitone or less. Ouch. But by the early ’60s, most British blues-rockers were gleefully bending and having their way with unwound Gs. So how did that happen?

You can blame it all on Eddie Cochran. Cochran was the first to lighten his load by re-stringing his trademark orange Gretsch 6120 (now on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) with a plain G string. After Cochran’s one and only U.K. tour in 1960, word spread like wildfire, and soon nearly every English guitarist had adopted E.C.’s secret recipe, with Americans not far behind. Cochran also swapped out his original neck pickup for what he felt was a fuller-sounding Gibson P-90, which distinguished him as the first rocker to modify his own instrument.

Born in Minnesota and raised in Oklahoma, Cochran was a highly accomplished if not revolutionary singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer whose career was cut tragically short. He was in the public eye for barely four years before his untimely death in a British taxi crash in April, 1960. Though Cochran attained near- Elvis status in the U.K., his work was and remains criminally overlooked in the U.S., bolstered mostly by popular cover versions of his songs and torch carriers like Brian Setzer. Notable Cochran covers range from the obvious (“Summertime Blues” by the Who and Blue Cheer) to the obscure (Krautrockers Guru Guru with their “Roken Mit Eduard Medley” hilariously sung in phonetic English). Listen closely and you’ll discover bits and pieces of E.C. lurking in the music of Led Zeppelin, Marc Bolan, David Bowie, and a host of others.

Cochran released only one album during his lifetime (Singin’ to My Baby), but you’ll find nearly everything he recorded in the truly awesome 8-CD box set, Somethin’ Else [Bear Family]. Immerse yourself in it, and you’ll uncover a staggeringly rich motherlode of performances, outtakes, rehearsals, and demos in a surprisingly wide range of styles. Particularly astonishing are Cochran’s multi-tracked and varispeed- effected cuts, many of which rival the best work of Les Paul. It’s also interesting to note the absence of guitar flash on most of Cochran’s hits—the songs just didn’t call for it. (For those on a tighter budget there are many worthy compilations available.) Cochran also appeared in several films, including The Girl Can’t Help It (performing “Twenty Flight Rock”), Untamed Youth, and Go, Johnny Go!

Eddie Cochran’s techniques, licks, and fretprints are indelibly ingrained in the language of electric guitar as we know it today, which is why we’ve placed him under investigation.

RAISING A FUSS

Big, bold, single-note and chord riffs powered many of Cochran’s hits, including “Summertime Blues,” “C’mon Everybody,” and “Weekend.” He sets the mood for “Summertime Blues” (which didn’t chart until a year after his death) with the Bigsby-inflected, low-E-string riff transcribed in Ex. 1a. This prefaces the 12-string acoustic power-chord riff shown in Ex. 1b, and quite interestingly, Cochran plays the ensuing IV-chord (A5-A6) rhythm figure using the pinky dance notated in Ex. 1c versus the standard alternating third-and-fourth-finger method. Cochran illustrates the power of simple barre chords in Ex. 1d (reminiscent of “C’mon Everybody”), while Ex. 1e confirms the glory of flailing open E and A voicings a la “Weekend.” And don’t forget to add those all-important handclaps to each of the above!

CROSSING STYLISTIC BOUNDARIES

Cochran also had a talent for cross-dressing similar licks in different styles. Ex. 2a’s lead line aptly defines a typical I-VIIV- V doo-wop progression by essentially transposing the same move, or motif, to four different positions. (Check out “I Remember.”) The same concept resurfaces with a nastier attitude in the instrumental “Guybo” (named for Cochran’s longtime bassist, Connie “Guybo” Smith) with the rocking I-IV-V-I run illustrated in Ex. 2b.

IMPERSONATING A BAND

Pre-dating one-man-band studio wizards like Todd Rundgren, Paul McCartney, and Prince by one or two decades, Eddie Cochran played all of the instruments on many of his recordings, including “Summertime Blues” and 1957’s “Twenty Flight Rock.” (Fact: “Twenty Flight Rock” was the song that cemented the long-lasting Lennon/McCartney partnership that began after Paul played it perfectly on the guitar for John.) Ex. 3a, inspired by the instrumental “Strollin’ Guitar,” reveals how Cochran would arrange three guitars—a low-register melody (Gtr. 1), an upper-register counter-line (Gtr. 2), and an emulsifying, chugging rhythm figure (Gtr. 3)—into an infectious and memorable shuffle. On the other hand, Ex. 3b arranges a pair of overdubbed figures from Cochran’s first hit, “Sittin’ in the Balcony,” into a singular part made playable for one guitar. (Tip: Check out “Meet Mr. Tweedy,” “Hammy Blues,” and “Song of New Orleans” for a taste of Cochran’s Les Paul influence.)

BENDING THE RULES

As previously noted, Cochran was the first guy to slap on an unwound G string and open up worlds of new expressive possibilities. Coming off the V chord in the key of E, Ex. 4a combines cool, oblique B-string bends (some of which I’ve never heard before) with oblique double-stops (another trademark) and a succinct, wholestep bend made possible only by a plain G-string. (Tip: Listen to “My Way.”) Ex. 4b, also inspired by licks from “Guybo,” shows another pair of then-revolutionary single-note and double-stop G-string bends that have since become commonplace. Cochran cut several versions of “Milk Cow Blues,” all of which showcased his wild blues playing. The IV-I (C9-G7) run in Ex. 4c features a measure of bent high-D quarter-notes to which Cochran adds not finger vibrato, but exaggerated Bigsby-bar vibrato (be sure to pump that thing at least six times per beat), followed by five tritones that receive the same treatment. Crazy, man, crazy!

FINGERBOARD TRICKERY

The following fiddley bits and tricks— culled from “Eddie’s Blues,” “Chicken Shot Blues,” “Milk Cow Blues,” and “Don’t Blame It on Me”—offer proof that Cochran was well ahead of the curve in terms of technique. Ex. 5a features the same Les-Paul-style pulled-off triplets that Jeff Beck would later appropriate, but Cochran made them his own by starting each pair one eighth-note earlier than expected. The repetitive motif shown in bar 1 of Ex. 5b was one of Cochran’s favorite go-to blues licks, and here it precedes two bars of tremolo-picked double-stops, another E.C. hallmark. But sometimes the simplest moves are the most effective. Ex. 5c shows how Cochran created the illusion of a half-step whammy-bar dip simply by fingering the fretted notes of an open E chord a half step lower, and then sliding/hammering them into their proper position. (Tip: You can catch E.C. busting this move during “Don’t Blame It on Me,” available on YouTube.)

PLAYING WITH OTHERS

Another unique aspect of many Cochran songs is how he typically shared the solo spotlight, often preferring to trade a pair of two-bar phrases with his saxophone section before going at it alone. This is a great way to boost a tune’s energy level (just ask Brian Setzer), and Ex. 6 illustrates the process. Here, the sax section takes the lead and Cochran answers them with a pair of characteristic two-bar phrases that recall his cover of Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So.”

IMPRESSING YOUNGSTERS

The term “swipe file” usually refers to a piece of music appropriated from an earlier source, and here we’re definitely talking about the followers plagiarizing the originator. Cases in point: What devotee of the Who’s first album or Led Zeppelin II couldn’t link the “Teenage Cutie” and “Nervous Breakdown” rhythm figures paraphrased in Examples 7a and 7b to the Who’s “My Generation” and Led Zep’s “Living Loving Maid” respectively. Finally, we come to Cochran’s “Three Steps to Heaven” rhythm figure (Ex. 7c), which appears virtually verbatim (albeit in a different key) one minute into the “Overture” from Tommy. Pete Townshend simply converted Cochran’s raked sixteenth-note triplets to his own signature full-chord strums, and the rest is history

(Special thanks to Cochran scholar Ian Kimmet!)

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