“I was 17 years old and found it in this local paper. It said, ‘Gretsch guitar, 100 bucks.’ I called the guy up and asked, ‘Is it like Eddie Cochran’s?’ He was like, ‘Who?’”: How Brian Setzer forged his trademark twanging tone

Brian Setzer performs with the Stray Cats at the Town & Country Club in London on October 6, 1992
(Image credit: Pete Still/Redferns)

Though he has played other electric guitars on occasion over the course of his four decade-plus career, it's difficult to imagine Stray Cats frontman and rockabilly legend Brian Setzer without one of his trademark Gretsch 6120s.

Of course, though, hardly any guitarists would begin their journey with that nice an instrument – unless they're incredibly lucky with a hand-me-down, to the manor born, or both. 

Brian Setzer fit neither of those labels, but he was able to – with a little bit of luck – land his first Gretsch as a teenager. 

“I was 17 years old and found it in this local paper, The Byline Press,” Setzer told Guitar Player in 2019. “It said, ‘Gretsch guitar, 100 bucks.’ I called the guy up and asked, ‘Is it like Eddie Cochran’s?’ He was like, ‘Who?’

“So, I went to his house, and there was the guitar, the 1959 orange 6120. It was exactly what I was looking for. He was going to refinish it and make it natural. He had all of the electronics for it in a shoe box. I gave him 100 bucks, took the guitar and the shoe box, and off I went. It was destiny.”

Of course, a guitar is only ever one part of the tonal equation, but luck once again came into play when Setzer landed on his guitar amp of choice, the Fender Bassman.

“The Bassman was another destiny thing. I thought it was just a really cool-looking amp,” the guitarist revealed to GP in the same interview. “I was into my image and wanted to look cool. I saw these blonde amps and just thought, ‘I need one of those.’ I didn’t even know how great they sounded.

“I answered another ad, this one from a jazz bass player in Weehawken [New Jersey]. So I bought the amp, and there it was: ‘Wow, that’s the combination!’”

At the time of the interview, the Stray Cats were fresh off the release of 40, their first album of new material in over a quarter-century. Though they haven't released a new studio full-length in the years since, the reunited trio remain a popular live attraction.

Jackson Maxwell
Associate Editor, GuitarWorld.com and GuitarPlayer.com

Jackson is an Associate Editor at GuitarWorld.com and GuitarPlayer.com. He’s been writing and editing stories about new gear, technique and guitar-driven music both old and new since 2014, and has also written extensively on the same topics for Guitar Player. Elsewhere, his album reviews and essays have appeared in Louder and Unrecorded. Though open to music of all kinds, his greatest love has always been indie, and everything that falls under its massive umbrella. To that end, you can find him on Twitter crowing about whatever great new guitar band you need to drop everything to hear right now.

With contributions from