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 playing?
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 a trio?
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 on it?
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 own influences?
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 a pedal-steel.
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 rockabilly stuff?
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 land.
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 seasick!
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 sounding.
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 pickups.
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 this album?
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 different guitars?
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 Allman Brothers.
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!