In a career spanning more than four decades, Brian Setzer has made an indelible mark on rockabilly and big-band music. With his latest album, he’s now conquered instrumental music as well.
By Chris Gill
You won’t find many successful musicians forsaking Southern California’s balmy climes for Minneapolis’ frigid environs, but that’s just what Brian Setzer did. In 2005, the guitarist relocated to the city from Los Angeles, his home for two decades. The move apparently did nothing to slow him down. Since then, the former Stray Cats frontman has recorded several outstanding albums, including the rocking solo album 13 and his most recent studio effort with the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Songs from Lonely Avenue, a jazzy, sophisticated collection of self-penned material that many critics praised as some of the finest work in his 30-year career.
“Minneapolis is a good place to be,” says Setzer, relaxing among an impressive assortment of vintage and custom Gretsch guitars and classic amps scattered about his downtown loft. “It’s really nice up here, if you don’t mind the cold weather. The people are great, it’s not crowded, and there is no rush-hour traffic. You can drive 15 minutes and go fishing or enjoy any variety of outdoor activities. There’s also a really good music scene downtown.”
Although Setzer spent most of 2010 enjoying the comforts of home away from the road, he didn’t relax idly by the ol’ fishin’ hole. Instead, he recorded his first all-instrumental effort, Setzer Goes Instru-Mental, which is the album longtime fans of his guitar playing have waited to hear. While Setzer has offered a few tastes of his fierce guitar-playing skills on a handful of extended solos or a rare instrumental track on his albums with the Stray Cats or the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Setzer Goes Instru-Mental showcases his impressive talents and the breadth of his playing like never before. In the pantheon of great instrumental guitar albums, it deserves a prominent place alongside hillbilly jazz classics by Jimmy Bryant, Hank Garland, and Joe Maphis as well as discs by modern style-fusing virtuosos like Danny Gatton and the Hellecasters.
“I didn’t start off wanting to do a purely instrumental record,” Setzer admits. “When I started writing songs for this record, I quickly completed six or seven songs with vocals. All of a sudden, I started fooling around with the melody chords that became the foundation for my version of ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky.’ I thought it sounded really cool. People don’t really play that style of chord melody any more. Before I knew it, I had the whole song rearranged and redone. I ended up abandoning the other path I was on and started going in an instrumental direction. Then the ideas started flying.”
Although the album features a few covers, like “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” the jazz standard “Cherokee,” and the quintessential Gene Vincent rockabilly classic “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” most of the songs are new original compositions. “Far Noir East” tips its wide-brim Borsalino to moody crime jazz, while “Earl’s Breakdown” pays tribute to bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, with Setzer pickin’ and grinnin’ on a five-string banjo. “Intermission” has the smooth savoir-faire of a Jimmy Bryant barnburner, contrasting the gritty, reverb-drenched, surf-inspired “Go Go Godzilla” and “Hot Love.” The track “Pickpocket” showcases Setzer’s signature rockabilly-infused Travis picking at its finest, while his solo performance on “Hillbilly Jazz Meltdown” will likely earn him respect from a new following of guitar connoisseurs.
When told that several of the songs on the album feature performances that are reminiscent of classic instrumental tracks by Jimmy Bryant, Hank Garland, and Les Paul, Setzer admits, “I don’t really study other players, per se. It just comes out of me sounding the way it does. I’m Brian Setzer, but I am influenced by a wide variety of guitar players who make me who I am. Sometimes I think that playing so many different styles might hurt me a little bit; people generally want to listen to a musician or artist who does one thing straight down the middle. That just ain’t what I do. You could argue that it’s been to my advantage, and maybe that’s why I’ve been around for more than 30 years. I do it because I always like to try to do different things. I get bored doing the same thing. In this case, I realized that I had never made a record where it was just me playing guitar.
“All of the songs have a little taste of somebody else,” he elaborates. “The end of ‘Cherokee’ sounds a little like Les Paul, and ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ is my own version of that song, but if you’re a guitar player you just have to play Cliff Gallup’s solo. I didn’t nail it down perfectly note for note, but you have to get that same feel because it’s so classic and good.”
Speaking of classic and good, the guitars that Setzer used to record the album included several choice instruments from his collection that he’s rarely had the proper opportunity to record with before. “I finally got to use my 1963 D’Angelico Excel on ‘Cherokee,’” he explains. “That guitar is a god. It has a Rhythm Chief pickup on it, and I plugged it straight into a 1961 Fender Twin amp. The acoustic rhythm guitar is also the D’Angelico, but I unplugged it and recorded it acoustically with a mic. If you’re going to play an archtop, there’s nothing that compares to a D’Angelico. The D’Angelico is the Stradivarius of the modern age. It sounds like a piano. I’m lucky to have two D’Angelico guitars: the Excel and a New Yorker.”
Setzer played another iconic jazz archtop on “Lonesome Road.” “I used a Stromberg Master 400 on that song,” he says. “Wow! What a guitar. It has a big, beautiful sound that is unlike anything else. It’s a whole different beast than the D’Angelico, but it sounds great as well. I really love old archtops. I’ve always wanted a Stromberg, and I finally found some guy in England who had one for sale. I couldn’t believe it when I found it. I traded one of my guitars with him and gave him some cash.”
However, for most of the album Setzer relied primarily on his trusty Gretsch guitars. “For the rockin’ stuff, I’ve never been able to beat that Gretsch tone,” he says. “I bought my first Gretsch 6120 when I was a kid. When I plugged it into my Bassman amp I went, ‘There it is!’ That was the sound I was looking for. I’ve tried to improve upon that sound, and I’ve even tried playing through other rigs. I once tried playing a Les Paul through a Marshall, for example. But I never could beat that sound. It works for me.”
To record Setzer Goes Instru-Mental, Setzer initially planned to use that same iconic 1959 Gretsch 6120, which he has played on records since the beginning of the Stray Cats, plugged into his 1962 Fender Bassman amp piggybacked on a matching 2x12 cabinet. But his signature rig started giving him trouble as soon as recording got underway.
“A lot of my vintage gear broke down on me while I was using it,” he says. “I played my ’59 Gretsch through the ’62 Bassman on the first song I recorded, but halfway through the song I realized that one of the speakers was blown. Luckily, we miked the speaker that was still good. After that, the Gretsch started to fall apart. First a few frets slid out, and then the Bigsby broke. I guess I play my guitars pretty hard. I just said the hell with it and grabbed my new signature model Gretsch or one of my Gretsch Hot Rod guitars instead and used them for the rest of the record.
“It worked out because it inspired me to try different things. My tone on ‘Far Noir East’ is probably the best guitar tone I’ve ever gotten. I played my signature 6120 through the ’61 Twin and a 1961 Fender Reverb unit. The sound that came out of that rig was just beautiful.”
Setzer is an avid Gretsch fan who played a significant role in the company’s resurrection in the late Eighties and has helped the brand maintain and grow its popularity these last three decades. Although he’s collected a wide variety of vintage Gretsch guitars over the years, including several White Falcons, Silver Jets, and even a 1955 Roundup with a matching amp, he feels that the guitars Gretsch is making today are as good as they’ve ever been, if not better.
“Vintage Gretsch guitars need to be maintained and refurbished,” he says. “You can’t play a stock Gretsch from 1959. It probably won’t play in tune and the fretboard will probably be warped and pitted. You can get it refurbished to make it playable, but that takes away some of its value. The new Gretsch guitars are pretty much spot on. I’m glad we’ve got them playing right again. When Gretsch first came back in the late Eighties, they just weren’t doing them right. They lost their way and were making guitars with big, thick tops on them. I couldn’t get them to make the guitars the way people wanted, which is like the way they made them in the Fifties.”
Setzer credits FMIC (Fender Musical Instrument Corporation), which took control of the production, distribution, and marketing of Gretsch guitars in 2002, with taking the necessary steps to make the guitars the way Gretsch enthusiasts wanted them. As an example of Fender’s commitment, he tells the story of how Fender vice president Mike Lewis put a vintage Gretsch 6120 through a CAT scan machine to accurately replicate the distinctive trestle bracing used on that model during the late Fifties and early Sixties. “Mike wanted to do it right,” says Setzer. “He figured that a CAT scan was the best way to figure out how it was done.”
Setzer’s guitar collection features a handful of instruments that don’t fall into the Gretsch or jazz archtop category, including a 1964 Gibson Firebird V with a Cardinal Red custom color finish, a 1959 Guild Bluesbird, a 2003 Bigsby BY-50, and a 1956 Martin D-28. “That old red Firebird plays real good,” he says. “I have a lot of vintage guitars, but I don’t own any Flying Vs or ’59 Les Pauls. What I have is what I play. I’ve gotten rid of stuff that I don’t use. It doesn’t make any sense to me to keep a guitar in a closet and just look at it occasionally.”
Fans in Europe and Japan will have the opportunity to hear a few of Setzer’s new instrumental songs live when he brings his latest project, the Rockabilly Riot, on tour there this year. “The Rockabilly Riot is three bands in one that covers my whole career,” he explains. “It has two standup bass players, two drummers, piano, and me. We aren’t all on the stage at the same time until the end. I want to have two guys standing on their basses trading licks. I think that would be cool, and I don’t think that’s been done. I want to have a real rockabilly riot at the end.”
In the U.S., fans will have to wait until year’s end when Setzer will be reviving his annual holiday tour with the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Although Setzer once hinted that he was considering retiring his big band, after 18 years it’s still going strong. “I can’t kill the big band,” he says, laughing. “I don’t have any plans to record an album with them because it’s very expensive to record a big-band album. I have to be really confident about what I want to do with them before I enter the studio. The Christmas tour has become a standard, and people really missed it when I took a break last year, so I’m doing it again this year.”
Considering all the different musical avenues Setzer has cruised down these past few years, from recording faithful recreations of Sun Records rockabilly classics to reworking classical compositions with swing arrangements, it’s hard to predict which direction he’ll turn next. “I just stay true to myself,” he says. “Deep down I’m a rockabilly cat, but I jump in all these different directions, as cats will do. Looking back over the last 30 years, I’m very lucky. Not many people go that long. They burn out or just end being forgotten about. I’m very grateful.”