Morphing out of country and western-swing music in the late ’40s, rockabilly became the rollicking style that, with its glorification of hot rods and reckless juvenile abandon, was sort of the “gangsta rap” of the 1950s. Kids dug it, parents feared it, and record companies—in particular, the Sun label in Memphis that launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others—made bundles on it.
By the early ’60s, however, rockabilly was a rusting relic of the past—sadly out of touch with the new sounds invading from Britain—and probably headed for the scrap heap as bands and musical styles evolved in the coming decades. That is, if it weren’t for a trio of skinny dudes with tattoos and pompadours called the Stray Cats, who with some help from U.K. producer Dave Edmunds, dropped a modernized form of rockabilly on the punk/new wave scene in 1981 with a game-changing, self-titled album that yielded the hits “Rock This Town,” “Runaway Boys,” and “Stray Cat Strut.”
A subsequent ’Cats album released in 1982 called Built for Speed went double platinum in the U.S. and Canada, securing the status of the “little ’ol band from Massapequa, New York,” as bona fide movers and shakers of the era. Masterminding it all was guitarist/vocalist Brian Setzer, who basically picked up where Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent left off, and went on to create a new chassis for rockabilly where savvy songwriting, catchy melodies, and rocked-up, jazz-infused riffs captivated a new generation of listeners.
Setzer’s Riot inciters—(from left) pianist Kevin McKendree, bassist Mark Winchester, and drummer Noah Levy.
Setzer, of course, has done many things since then, including playing in Robert Plant’s Honeydrippers, performing the role of Eddie Cochran in the 1987 film La Bamba (based on the life Ritchie Valens), and, ultimately, revitalizing his career in the mid ’90s by launching the Brian Setzer Orchestra—an 18-piece swing band that punched into the Top 10 on the U.S. charts in 1998 with the album The Dirty Boogie, which featured the hit single—a cover of the 1956 tune by Louis Prima—“Jump, Jive an’ Wail.”
Since that time, the three-time Grammy winning Setzer has released a steady stream of solo and BSO albums, including Rockin’ By Myself (1998), Ignition (2001), Nitro Burnin’ Funny Daddy (2003), Rockabilly Riot Vol. 1: A Tribute to Sun (2005), 13 (2006), Brian Setzer & the Nashvillains (2007), Wolfgang’s Big Night Out (2007; which featured Setzer and his Orchestra doing revved-up versions of classical tunes), Songs From Lonely Avenue (2009), the live album It’s Gonna Rock … ’Cause That’s What I Do (2010), Don’t Mess With a Big Band—Live! (2010), Setzer Goes Instru-Mental (2011), and Rockabilly Riot! Live from the Planet (2012). Even leaving out a few BSO Christmas albums and compilation releases, you get the point: Setzer is one hell of a prolific musician.
The point of this interview was to talk about Setzer’s new record, Rockabilly Riot! All Original. But since he was recently invited to play on Johnny Winter’s latest, and unfortunately final album, Step Back, I couldn’t help but ask him about his recollections of Winter.
“The first thing I ever heard was his collaboration with Muddy Waters,” says Setzer. “I loved that record with ‘Mannish Boy’ and all that. I first met Johnny when we did this thing called ‘Guitar Greats’ in 1984 at the Capital Theater in Passaic, New Jersey. That’s when we played together onstage. And then just before he passed away, he asked me to play on his new record, on a tune called ‘Okie Dokie Stomp.’ He had such a nice sound, and that’s the thing that’s a little bit lost now. It’s hard to hear players who have their own tone, and Johnny had that. I never knew what he was plugged into, but you always knew it was Johnny Winter.”
How does your new album compare to earlier rockabilly records you’ve done?
To me it sounds like a cross between early Stray Cats and the Ignition album I had out a few years ago. It has the energy of the early Stray Cats stuff—which was me writing the songs anyway—and I just tried to get back to really good songwriting done in the rockabilly style. Not really in the ’50s style, but more how the Stray Cats sounded.
How do you go about putting a modern spin on rockabilly?
You know, I just write songs, and when I play them, they become rockabilly. If you look at the stuff that was done in the ’50s, it was mostly I-IV-V blues. I don’t think some of these songs could have been written back then, but the way I play them, they just turn into rockabilly.
Do you think that’s how Elvis Presley originally created the rockabilly sound?
It’s funny, because when people talk about rockabilly, they never mention Elvis. And I think the reason is it’s such a given. They always talk about Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, but I think the gold standard for rockabilly listening is the Sun sessions. Elvis was the kingpin of it all, and when Scotty Moore started playing that stuff along with Bill Black on the bass, that was a whole new thing. It was like, “Where did this come from—Mars?” It was the first example of rockabilly, so that’s what everybody looks to now.
Did Scotty Moore have a big impact on you?
Yeah, when I heard him and Cliff Gallup playing that style, it was like, “Wow!” I would say those guys shaped my playing more than anyone else. I realized they were fingerpicking, but there was also single-string stuff going on, so that really got me thinking, “How can I do both?”
I’d have to say the first records I heard were the ones my dad brought home. And he only heard them because he was in the army and had met some country guys who liked this music. I mean, he was from Long Island, New York, and that music wasn’t prevalent there. Everybody of the older generation knew “Blue Suede Shoes” and things like that, but my dad brought records back from Korea, and he told me about these country guys who were playing this music that he liked. It was Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. I distinctly remember playing those three records as a kid and thinking, “Why doesn’t anybody know what this is?”
When you started taking guitar lessons, how did your teacher respond to your interest in country music?
I’ve never been asked that. You know, I was so lucky with my first teacher, because my parents weren’t musicians and they didn’t have a lot of money. I didn’t even get lunch money—my mom just made me a simple lunch—so for them to spend five bucks a week meant, “You’d better play that thing!” They just picked someone out of the yellow pages, and he happened to be the best guy they could have ever found. I remember him saying, “You can play all this modern music, but you have to learn how to read and write. You have to let me teach you the right way.” And that’s what he did.
What was his method?
We went through the Mel Bay books, and when I got through with them, we went on to some more advanced ones—there were like eight levels of those books. They were invaluable. By the way, he didn’t play guitar, he played saxophone. And after he told me he couldn’t teach me anything more, I remember taking a bus miles away and walking probably another mile or so downtown to a teacher named Ray Gogarty, and he started teaching me jazz. We didn’t have country guitarists around there in New York—it was mostly jazz. So that’s how I learned how to read and really get advanced with the theory and all that kind of stuff.
What made you start using sixths in major and minor triads, as opposed to the seventh?
can point to some jazz guitarists that I loved, but I can’t say I heard it coming from Joe Pass or Cliff Gallup. It just kind of comes into my head, and I make it up. Everybody likes to think I take things from different players and put it all together, but that’s not the way it happens for me. This stuff just comes into my head from nowhere. I can’t really describe it to you. It just kind of happens from noodling around on the guitar and stumbling across things. You substitute things and come up with different chords, and it’s like little lights go off in your head.
So that’s how you came up with all those cool chord changes on “This Cat’s on a Hot Tin Roof”?
Yeah, and I kind of covered all the bases on that one. It’s a country/rockabilly/jazz shredfest!
On “Let’s Shake” and “Rockabilly Blues” from the new album, you play solos that sound like you’re melding different styles and influences. Did you wing it on those tunes, or did you work out what you were going to play?
That’s a good question. Some of those solos are kind of halfway figured out—like I have a loose idea of how I want to build them— and some are by the seat of my pants. I’ve found that by trying to figure out the whole thing you kind of lose some of that energy and live feeling. Like on “Let’s Shake,” [plays the intro part of the solo] I was putting a nod to Eddie Cochran. I love quoting old songs like that—just putting a little bit in from my favorite solos. The second part [plays another lick] is something I wanted to include, too, and I thought, “I want to keep that in my head and throw it in the solo somewhere, but not have it strictly arranged.” It’s just kind of how you build solos, really. I mean you can’t just start on 11.
Can you tell us about the recording process for the new record?
I went in to meet [producer] Peter Collins with about 16 songs, and he listened to them, and said, “We’ve got an album.” I like to leave it up to a producer’s skills to say when you’re ready. We talked about the guys we were going to use, and once we cleared them—because they’re pretty busy dudes—he said, “This record has got to be live. No overdubs. You’ve got to play this record, because you’ve got the best rockabilly band in the world here.”
So we spent a lot of time in pre-production arranging the songs—which is quite tedious. Peter likes to knock the drums out, bring the pianos in, drop guitars out. That’s the way a real producer thinks, and there’s a lot of work and time put into it. So once we finished arranging the songs, we cut them all on a room mic. I handed out CDs to the boys and said, “I’ll see you in six weeks after the tour, and we’ll go in and make the record.”
By then, we had it all memorized, so we didn’t have to cut it track-by-track, thinking, “How are we going to do this song?” We had it all ready. I’d never really done it that way before, but I’ve had [bassist] Mark Winchester and [pianist] Kevin McKendree out at different times, and my drummer Noah Levy now plays with the big band, so they were all familiar with each other. I was out on my Christmas tour when they took this music home and memorized the arrangements. We just rehearsed the songs a couple of times before we started recording
The album sounds very live and spontaneous. Did you still have to do multiple takes to get the best performance?
Peter would be happy to hear that—just go out there and be a band, and that’s how you capture the energy. But, no, we didn’t do a lot of takes. I think on most of these songs we’d try it couple of times, and, by the third one, it would be nailed and we’d move on.
Can you give us a rundown of the guitars, amps, and other gear you used?
People will be disappointed, because there’s not much new to talk about. I used my ’59 Gretsch through the Roland Space Echo, which was plugged into my ’63 Fender Bassman. That’s it. So it’s really down to fiddling with knobs and deciding how much echo I want. For the rockabilly stuff, I just play quieter and turn the echo up. I also might adjust the echo setting for how slow or fast the song is. If it’s more rock-and-roll, I’ll turn the amp up. It’s really all down to that. I don’t need tons of guitars and amps to get my sound. It’s more about twiddling the knobs and adjusting my touch on the guitar.
So, really, just one vintage Gretsch 6120 for the entire album?
Yeah. It’s the ’59 Gretsch that I had on the road. In the past, I’ve used lots of Hot Rod and Signature Gretsches, but I made it a point this time to only bring the stuff that was working. I figured if I needed something else, I could always get it. See, I’d come off the Christmas tour when we went into the studio, and when that old stuff is working, you don’t want to mess with it. Just don’t touch it because who knows what’ll break?
As you’re basically printing tracks with echo, how do you judge how much to use?
It’s just a feel thing. I try not to waste the band’s time, but if I think there’s too much echo on a tune when I listen back, it’s as simple as turning it down and trying it again. Generally, I find that if I’m doing something a little faster and louder, a lot of echo gets in the way. If it’s a slower song at a lower volume, I like to have a little more echo on it. But the only way to really know is to record it and have a listen back.
Your cleaner tones, such as on “Blue Lights, Big City” really sparkle. Is that due to the Filter ’Tron pickups or is it more about picking dynamics?
For those kinds of tones you have to use your fingers and play with a lighter touch. It’s really down to the player, and not as much about the guitar itself.
Are you mostly using a flatpick and your fingers?
Yes, and I do that little trick where I tuck the pick between my index finger. I hide it when I fingerpick, and then I use my other three fingers. I use D’Addario picks—which are basically like a Fender medium—and I also use a stock .010 set from D’Addario. They seem to be the best strings I’ve come across. They don’t break, and they sound fine to me.
Johnny Hatton provides Setzer with more than just rhythmic support while Noah Levy keeps the beat.
Like Jeff Beck, you seem to be able to get away with a lot of bending and whammy action without going out of tune. What’s the secret?
You just have to play ’em. With my new guitars, I haven’t had much of a problem with tuning. The old guitars are a lot more trouble. I’ve got some old Strats and other things, and they all go out of tune. You know, it’s like you go out and buy a ’57 Chevy, and when you get it running, it’s fantastic. But it’s a lot of work to keep it running, and it has to be maintained a lot more than a new car. I’ve got a local guy here in Minnesota named Dave Rusan [Rusan Guitar Works in Bloomington] who works on my guitars, and TV Jones has also helped me a lot. Without those guys I’d probably have a lot more trouble keeping my guitars playing in tune. Really, though, if there are any tuning issues, just get some nut lube and put it in the nut slots and the bridge saddles. My guitar tech, Tyler Sweet, uses pencil graphite in the nut slots. That’s really all it takes to keep my guitars playing in tune.
Do you keep the hardware on your guitars stock?
Well, TV Jones likes experimenting with brass saddles, but I actually prefer the stock bridge that comes from Gretsch. The bridges on my guitars are pinned, too, so they don’t move when I play hard.
As you avoid using pedals, how do you get your more overdriven tones?
A lot of it is in the hands. First of all, an archtop is not a solidbody guitar, and when you get past that 12th fret, it sounds like a violin. You’re not going to get that incredible overdrive sustain at the 15th fret. It just ain’t there. I actually like that pizzicato violin sound, but if I do want a little feedback or want the high G to hold a little longer, I move in front of the amp, and the sound goes through the amp and back into the guitar and it overdrives those pickups. That’s how I do it. There are no pedals, and, again, it’s just a feel thing. You move the beast around!
What is it about old Bassman amps that keeps you using them?
Fender just got it right the first time, and you don’t have to mod them or anything. I don’t know how much more volume you’d need either, because they’re really loud. As a matter of fact, I’d like to find an amp with the same tone that has half the volume. The thing with those old Bassmans is to find a clean one. You’ll probably have to service it with new caps and tubes and all that, but that’s it. Basically, though, there’s just something about plugging a guitar straight into the amp. It’s the best sound for me. I’ve fiddled with pedals and all those things, and I’ve come to the conclusion we haven’t really heard a Strat since Buddy Holly, because every Strat you’ve heard from the ’60s onward was probably through an overdrive pedal. I think you can take any guitar—even a Gretsch— and make it sound like a Les Paul through a Marshall by using an overdrive pedal.
Eddie Van Halen has said he could get his sound playing straight into a Bassman, so do you think that once you have your tone down, it doesn’t matter what you plug into?
I’m sure Eddie could get his sound through a Bassman. So could Jeff Beck. Johnny Ramone said he could take a hundred guitars and make them all sound the same. I’ve plugged into Marshalls a couple of times, but the Bassman just sounds better to me.
When you were bringing rockabilly to the wider world with the Stray Cats, what was it like to suddenly be playing that music for huge audiences?
Back then, I used to think that people didn’t want to hear something they had to listen to. They wanted to hear the hammeron- the-anvil guitar—that overdriven guitar that just holds the notes for days. It’s almost like a shot of Jack Daniels—it hits them over the head and they go, “Yeahhhh!” But then it kind of changed once people decided they wanted to hear my guitar, or they wanted to hear the band. Then, they actually would listen to us. The punk and new wave people always dug us, so when we did festivals, it was usually that kind of day. We opened up for Willie Nelson, and we opened for the Clash. There are a lot of heavy-metal people that come to see us now, but we really didn’t venture to that side too often back then. Now I can play anywhere, but when we first started, it was something that people weren’t sure quite what it was. Back in the day, it was something new.
Launching the Brian Setzer Orchestra when swing was still an underground thing proved very successful for you, and it turned a lot of people onto another “new” sound. Did it just feel like the right time to do something that adventurous?
I just happened to line up right with the whole swing movement. I never think about when is a good time or a bad time to do something. I’d always wanted to start a big band ever since the old Johnny Carson show when I heard Doc Severinsen. I always thought, “Man, imagine if I could play guitar in front of that band—wouldn’t that be the biggest musical kick in the head?” And then when [arranger , composer] Mark Jones and I started writing those charts and stuff, it became a reality. It has been 20 years since I started that band. And then, luckily, all the stars were lined up, because it just happened to coincide with other bands that were hitting, like Royal Crown Review. That was fine with me because it brought us major success.
Can you talk about the difference between playing guitar with the big band versus a trio?
This is going to sound like a cop out, but it’s pretty much the same thing for me. The only difference is that the big band is making some jazz chords, and you have to play with those chords—you can’t just play a pentatonic blues scale against a minor 7 flat 5 chord that’s going by. I have to be aware of the chord that’s going by, and I have to hit notes that make sense in there. With the three-piece, though, I can play whatever I want, because it’s just a bass hitting a root note.
Obviously, you have way more dynamic range at your disposal with the big band.
Yeah, and, dynamically, all that’s written into the chart. You have to be able to read music to do that, because you have to know when it’s coming—unless, of course, you memorize it. Bottom line, the big band is like driving a Cadillac, and the rockabilly trio is like driving a hot rod. They’re different animals, but both are a lot of fun.
Tyler Sweet on Maintaining Setzer’s Gear
Thanks to his almost complete use of vintage gear—a late ’50s Gretsch, old Fender Bassmans, and discontinued Roland tape echo units—working with Brian Setzer presents a unique set of challenges for a guitar tech, who has to ensure that this aging set of tone tools will work perfectly every time he hits the stage. So we checked in with Setzer’s guitar tech Tyler Sweet to find out what it takes to keep his gear running smoothly night after night. —AT
Can you give us a timeline for a day on the road with Setzer?
I usually get Brian’s gear on stage in the early afternoon, and check the rig out before the four o’clock soundcheck. That way, if anything is wrong with the equipment, I can replace it with the backup amps and echo unit that we bring on tour. I’ve only had to do one amp swap in the eight years I’ve been with Mr. Setzer, but I always set up another complete backline behind his main rig, just in case we have a failure.
What do you do on a daily basis to keep his guitars in shape?
I always let the guitars acclimate to the room before doing string changing, intonating, or fret dressing. Brian likes the sound of old strings, and he has a super-light touch, so string changing is actually very limited on his guitars. In fact, I only change the strings when they start showing signs of pitting.
Are there specific things you do to keep his amps running at peak form?
We carry four Fender 1962 Bassmans with us on tour, and they are thoroughly tested before they go out. The ’62 Bassman has to be one of the most stable amps ever built, so maintenance is pretty straightforward. I replace the 6L6 power tubes at around 100 hours of use, and the high mu [high amplification factor] 12AX7s get replaced every 200 hours. I also clean the tube sockets and pots as needed before tube changes.
What’s involved in maintaining his Roland Space Echoes?
The six Roland RE 301s we take on the road with us are in all great shape, so basically all I do is change the tapes and clean the heads as needed. Roland stopped making the Space Echo in 1986, so parts are getting hard to come by, but we have 12 of them kicking around, as well as a few more that can be stripped for parts.
Do the Bigsby vibratos on his guitars present any particular challenges?
Not really. Just keeping the axle oiled is the only thing you really need to do. Other than that, if the bridge saddles and nut slots are set up properly, she’ll keep you happy!