Brian Setzer - Struttin' with Stray Cats
Sporting leathers, tattoos, and a greasy bleached coif. Brian Setzer looks like he should be riding shotgun for James Dean, circa ’57. He smiles boyishly, dips his low-slung Gretsch towards screaming fans, and fuses country, jazz, and Chuck Berry licks into a sparkling lead. It’s a risky business fronting a bare-bones trio, since so much of the sonic spectrum depends on guitar. Brian handles the role with self-assurance, remaining true to the raw-edged aesthetics of rockabilly while increasing its vocabulary with his daring sophistication and refined technique. The guitarist’s pals—upright bassist Lee Rocker, stand-up drummer Slim Jim Phantom—could pass for expellees from The Blackboard Jungle. Their performances are about as timid as their appearance. Beneath the exaggerated ducktails and hip-twitching poses, the Stray Cats are masterful rockers. Their lyrics may be updated and their volume louder, but these young cats have captured-and capitalized upon-the spirit and look of ‘50s rockabilly.
Thanks to the Stray Cats, rockabilly has steamed back to the top of the charts. Their first American album, Built For Speed, reached #2. “Rock This Town” became a #9 single. In some neighborhoods, the band has ushered in a dress code that hasn’t been around since Elvis Presley went Hollywood. Girls show up at concerts in bouffants or ponytails; saddle shoes, bobby sox, puff skirts, and sweaters are back. Prom dresses and pumps accepted. Guys with hair slicked into shiny pompadours don bowling shirts, sleeveless sweaters, or rolled-up T-shirts above baggy cuffed slacks and loafers. Their faces shine clean-cut optimism. Even parents nod approval towards these Long Island rockers who seem like a deja-vu. People are bopping all over again to that Memphis-bred mixture of black R&B and hillbilly music first heard some 30 years ago.
If rockabilly cool could only be inherited, Setzer would have nothing to worry about. His parents were ’50s rockers in the baggy suit, hoop skirt tradition. His construction worker dad was partial to Hank Williams; his mom was a devoted Elvis fan. Brian was born in Massapequa, New York, on April 10, 1959. By the time he was old enough to toddle, the first wave of rockabilly had ended: Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran were dead, Gene Vincent was past his prime, and Elvis would never recapture the spirit of his first Sun sessions. Inspired by the Beatles, six-year-old Brian decided to become a guitarist. Years of lessons followed, with time on the side spent copping Chuck Berry and rockabilly licks off records. A loner, Brian made few friends at school. At 14 he bypassed all current fads to model himself after an old photograph of Eddie Cochran. A couple of years later he dropped out of school and started gigging around Long Island as the Rockabilly Rebel. Eventually he acquired one of rockabilly’s legendary combinations: a vintage Gretsch 6120 and a Fender Bassman amp.
Brian’s bar-band rhythm lineup kept shifting until a couple of younger greasers started showing up in ’50s regalia. The tall one, Jim McDonnel, pounded drums. Lee Drucker was a trained cellist who could slap upright bass. Using bare-bones equipment, the trio created an authentic rockabilly sound. They named themselves Tom Cats. About once a month Setzer would drive an hour west to Manhattan to play guitar for the Bloodless Pharaohs, a new wave lineup. The Tom Cats increased their following through New York shows at Max’s and Hurrah’s, but record companies showed little interest in them.
Encouraged by reports that rockabilly was still fashionable overseas, the Tom Cats sold their belongings for one-way tickets to London in the summer of 1980. For three months they took their demo tape around to clubs and slept in offices, all-night movie theaters, or Hyde Park. Changing their name to the Stray Cats, they started getting bookings at Dingwalls, the Venue, and other London clubs. Their popularity received a huge boost when the Rolling Stones and Dave Edmunds attended their shows. Brian jammed with Keith Richards and was invited to open some dates on the Stones’ U.S. tour.
The Stray Cats’ simple lyrics and danceable rhythms appealed to teddies, punks, skinheads, and rockers alike. As word spread, 1,500 fans began showing up for concerts with a seating capacity of 300. Arista/U.K. signed them and hired Dave Edmunds, an authority on the rockabilly sound, to produce their first single. The chord changes of “Runaway Boys” were modem, but its echo, beat, and slapped bass placed it in the rockabilly tradition. The song broke into the British Top to in December 1980. “Stray Cat Strut” and the anti-disco “Rock This Town” became hits the next year. The echoey, live-sounding The Stray Cats album, partially produced by Edmunds, soared into the Top 10.
Mainland concerts brought the Stray Cats to prominence in Europe. Their 1981 tour of Japan evoked a pandemonium seldom seen since the Beatles. The trio continued their global trek to the West Indies to record an LP at George Martin’s AIR Studios. Finding the isolated tropical island of Montserrat ill-suited for rocking, they cut Gonna Ball as quickly as possible. Lacking its predecessor’s energy and immediacy, the album drew poor reviews and sold moderately. Still, the Stray Cats remained important headliners in Europe.
At home, though, they were relatively unknown outside of a small cult following familiar with their import albums. The Stray Cats flew back to the U.S. in spring of 1981 to open a few dates for the Rolling Stones, then headlined on their own to small, enthusiastic crowds. The trio’s big break came at the end ‘of the year when they gave a stunning performance on ABC-TV’s Fridays. Within weeks, EMI Records signed the group.
Built For Speed, a compilation of cuts from the two British albums teamed with a newly recorded title song, sold 200,000 copies before “Rock This Town” became a U.S. Top-10 single. Credited with “strummin’ & croonin’’’ on the LP, Brian paid artistic tributes to Chuck Berry and the forefathers of rockabilly guitar, and proved himself an expressive slide player. His country-jazz solo in “Double Talkin’ Baby” was nothing short of brilliant. Generous exposure on MTV and other video programs boosted the band’s audience, as did their 1982 national tour and appearance at this year’s US Festival.
Earlier this summer, the trio released a double-pocket single (two discs) as a preview of their new album, Rant ‘N Ravewith the Stray Cats. Produced by Dave Edmunds, the LP showcases eight Setzer compositions and two band collaborations. A young a cappella group back Brian on the smoky ballad “I Won’t Stand In Your Way.” “Eighteen Miles To Memphis,” “Something’s Wrong With My Radio,” “Look At That Cadillac,” and “Sexy & 17” carry on in the finest rockabilly rebel tradition.
For guitarists, what are the essential elements of rockabilly?
It’s basically a feel. I think a lot of people put the cart before the horse with that. They think that they’ve got to go for the authentic slap-echo sound, that they’ve got to buy a 1958 Gretsch and an old Fender amp. All that stuff is great, but you’ve got to have that feel. The early rockabilly stuff is basically a country guitarist trying to play rock and roll guitar, which is a mixing of black blues and white country. I don’t like to categorize it too much, but rockabilly leans towards the hillbilly side of rock and roll. The basic setup those guys used was just a little echo machine with one slap repeat on it, straight through the amp. There’s no effects involved there. That was the first time the guitar came into prominence in rock and roll.
Why does rockabilly appeal to you?
Besides being really a guitar player’s music, it’s dance-oriented. It just grabbed me: Why doesn’t anybody know what rockabilly is? Blues has been done to hell. Everyone has done the blues—Johnny Winter, Led Zeppelin—but nobody even heard of rockabilly four or five years ago. I just thought, “Man, this has got to be done again because it’s so good.” It’s got all the aspects of great American music.
Historically, what are the great rockabilly records?
If you want to get into it, I would say buy any Sun record that you can get your hands on. When I first heard Scotty Moore play on Elvis’ Sun sessions, it blew me away. James Burton is one of my idols, too. Listen to all his Ricky Nelson stuff. Any old Carl Perkins record—you just can’t go wrong. There’s nothing bad. Those three guys just blew me away. I knew I wanted to sound like them when I was about 14. Buy Jerry Lee [Lewis], any Buddy Holly album. The Gene Vincent band was a big influence, especially his guitarist, Cliff Gallup. When I first heard him, he was kind of what I wanted to be—a mixture of a jazzy rockabilly player. He really sent me. Paul Burlison from the Rock And Roll Trio is another one of my favorites.
Did anyone teach you rockabilly?
I just picked it up from records. Nobody taught me how to play that. I don’t think there’s anybody around who does it too much anymore, except the original guys and a few new bands.
Have you ever met any of the rockabilly originators?
I recently jammed with James Burton in Los Angeles. Oh, man, it was great. He’s too much. He really helped me, too, as a player. Just watching him, I pick things up. I met the Blue Caps [Gene Vincent’s ‘50s band] down in Virginia, and they were really thrilled that the music is coming back. I also met Sheriff Tex Davis, who wrote “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” Those guys came out to see us when we played Nashville and places like that. They are all happy for us. It’s really a thrill to meet the originators of rock and roll.
How young did you start on guitar?
I knew I wanted to play guitar when I was about six years old. I bugged my parents, and after about two years they finally got me a teacher. I took guitar lessons until I was about 15. They were formal instructions out of books, like the Mel Bay courses. My first teacher was a saxophonist named Henry Scurti. He didn’t even play guitar, which I think is good in a way. He didn’t impose any kind of a style on me. Basically, he taught me out of books for six years, and in the meantime I was learning my Chuck Berry songs. My chords and sense of melody all kind of happened together little by little. I finished those books, and then took jazz lessons from a teacher name Roy Gogarty. He taught me a lot of nice chords, and 1 started listening to people like Django Reinhardt. I think it’s important that kids take guitar lessons. It really can’t hurt. Learning out of books enabled me to learn the music I preferred more easily, like Beatles songs, Chuck Berry, all that kind of stuff. It’s important that you have both.
Do you still read music?
Yeah. I try to write down most of the songs I compose. Mostly I make charts. If I have a melody, I’ll probably throw it down on the tape recorder. If I don’t have a tape recorder around, I’m still capable enough that I can write it out. I might not be absolutely correct, but at least it’s readable back to me. I’m really glad that I learned how to do that.
What were your first instruments?
My first guitar was a big, fat, old hollowbody that I couldn’t even hold. My parents rented it for me. My first guitar they bought for me was a Harmony Rocket, one of those old things where the microphones [pickups] are so bad you could sing through them if you wanted to. But I loved that guitar. I had it up until a couple of years ago.
Were your parents supportive of your desire to be a rocker?
Well, they were supportive in that they paid for my lessons. But they certainly didn’t care if I practiced or not. My parents aren’t musicians, and it was totally down to me. They didn’t care if I played or didn’t play.
Did you do rockabilly in your earliest bands?
Sort of. My earliest bands played covers of Chuck Berry and Allman Brothers songs. The Allman Brothers were very popular at the time, and we would cover them to get work. It’s funny, we were doing the Beatles covers of Chuck Berry or Carl Perkins songs, or Allman Brothers covers of Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters songs. So we were doing blues and rockabilly twice removed in my earliest bands. One of these was called the Massapequa Wildcats. I was primarily the guitar player: my singing came along later.
What inspired your image?
When 1 was about 13, 1 saw the black and white picture of Eddie Cochran on the Legendary Masters Series [United Artists, L WB-9959]. Something grabbed me about it. At school I was always kind of a rebel. I got a short haircut, greased my hair back, and tried to look like Eddie Cochran. I’ve looked like that since I was about 14 years old. My mom’s an Elvis fan and my dad’s a Hank Williams fan, so I had that growing up in the house.
What were your earliest rockabilly gigs?
Well, I went for a couple of years to Massapequa High School—I didn’t make it out [laughs]. When I was about 16 I started playing these corner bars. I called myself the Rockabilly Rebel. It was just me with a folk guitar and a rhythm box. These people would come in and look at me like I was from Mars. I used to wear black leather pants, grease my hair up, and do “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and “Baby, Let’s Play House” People looked at me like I was crazy, but once they heard my music, they’d stick up for me: “Oh, no, leave this guy alone. He’s a real good guitar player.”
Did you have a band at the same time?
I’d always had bands on and off, but I couldn’t get a gig doing rockabilly. Nobody would hire me. This was disco time, and there was not much live music. The live music that was around was mostly cover bands with spandex pants and the trucks and the million dollar lighting rigs. I couldn’t figure out how these kids got the money to actually buy those things. So I was doing these old-man corner bars that would hold 50 people. This was on the south shore of Long Island. When I actually started to get a following doing this, I said to the owner, “Look, my brother plays the drums. Do you think you could give me another 25 bucks and. . . .” I talked him into it and got my brother there. Eventually we found a standup bass player, and it finally all started coming together.
Was this the origin of the Stray Cats?
Yeah, that’s the origin all right—me and my brother and a guy on a stand-up bass in the back of a corner bar next to the pool table. People used to walk by me to get to the bathroom and knock the microphone into my lips. I’d have a bloody lip every night. At first we were singing through Fender amps; eventually we got enough to buy a little P A. The members would be rotating constantly. Some guys would just play for a couple of bucks and then leave. During the day I was working on an assembly line putting fake plants into pots. At night I was the Rockabilly Rebel.
How did the Stray Cats come together?
These two cats started coming down all greased up, looking real cool. It turned out to be Jim and Lee. Even funnier than that, it turned out that one guy played the stand-up bass and the other guy played the drums. One night my bass player didn’t show up, so I sent Lee home for his. He wasn’t even slapping it at that time; he was playing with a bow. If you’ve ever heard Bill Black play the bass, he slaps the thing. I lent Lee the Elvis Sun sessions with Black, and within a week he was slapping it like a mother. Jim started drumming, and we called ourselves the Tom Cats.
Why did Slim Jim start drumming standing up?
That basically came from old pictures in the ‘50s where they were standing up with one or two drums. I don’t know if they really played like that. We had a really small stage that couldn’t fit a whole drum set, so the drummer used to use two or three drums and sit down. Jim looked so good I said, “Man, I don’t like the idea of the drummer sitting back behind the musicians with like a hundred thousand drums and gongs and all this nonsense. Why don’t you try to stand up to play?” He gave it a shot and was a natural from the first day. He used the snare, the bass, and one cymbal. It looked great. Instead of sitting down behind us, he was a part of the band.
Were you performing original material then?
No, but we knew anything that anybody could hand us. We knew every Elvis song, every Buddy Holly song, even ‘50s standards like “16 Candles.” We had a pretty good repertoire. In those days, to get jobs we had to play mostly covers. We hadn’t started writing songs of our own.
You were also in the Bloodless Pharaohs.
Right, about 1978. That was like a new wave band. I was doing that in Manhattan and doing the Tom Cats thing to keep alive on Long Island, to make more money. I was making 50 bucks a night with the Tom Cats, and with the Pharaohs it was even less. When the Pharaohs broke up, I really got into the rockabilly thing. That was where my heart lies. But we were getting fed up because the record companies didn’t want to know about it. We had heard that in places like France and England rock and roll never died. We just decided to go over there for the hell of it. We sold everything we owned. Jim sold his ‘66 Pontiac. We went with nothing.
Did your hard times continue after your arrival?
Yeah. I had a period of hard times since I moved out of my house when I was 17 [laughs]. I can’t bellyache about it. We had a lot of fun. We had each other, and we were living. We slept in Hyde Park or in these kinds of bum hotels. It was all good fun. Our first big break came when Dave Edmunds and the Rolling Stones came down to see us. That’s when all the record companies started chasing us around, like, “Who are these American guys coming over to England without a record contract?” We created a buzz, and got our Arista record deal. We were really naïve, and they seemed like they were the most interested in us. They used to come to our house, drive us to the gig. We said. “Gee, these seem like nice guys. Let’s sign a record deal.”
How did things change when “Runaway Boys” became an English hit?
It was hard to believe, actually. To see your name in the paper was amazing, a real kick. We did our first British tour then started going to France, Holland, and places like that where rockabilly never died. Rockabilly songs are still on the charts over there. You’ll have a Stray Cats song alongside a “new” Gene Vincent release, like from a basement tape of his band. It’s amazing over there.
What was it like jamming with Keith Richards?
That was no big deal. I went to his house in the south of England, and he picked up an old Black Beauty [Gibson Les Paul Custom] off the floor and played “Baby, Let’s Play House” just the way Scotty Moore played it. He’s great. He knows all that real rockabilly stuff. We had a little jam session for a couple of days [laughs]. Later on we did three or four American dates with the Rolling Stones-Atlanta, St. Paul, and Iowa.
Was it intimidating to go from small clubs to stadium shows?
Oh, I was scared shitless at first. I was always worried. We only have one amp, and I was wondering if we would project in a big place. Actually, it sounds great because all that reverb and stuff is part of the sound of rockabilly. We do project live because we let the PA do the work. We love it now.
Are you still using the same setup you had in the beginning?
Yeah, almost exactly the same. Probably even less because now we’ve got it down to a science. We all go wireless. Lee plugs straight through the P.A. with the stand-up bass. I have one of those old white Fender Bassmans. Jim’s got two drums. That’s all we’ve got on the stage: one amp and two drums. It’s so funny to see. We’re thinking of getting a cardboard wall of Marshalls to put behind us, for a joke [laughs].
What are your favorite guitars?
Well, basically I play pretty much exclusively Gretsch. I’m into that twanging guitar sound, and the only two guitars I’ve been able to get that out of is a Fender Telecaster and the Gretsch. Onstage I use a, Gretsch 6120, the late-’50s Chet Atkins model. In the studio I use that one and an earlier single-coil pickup Gretsch. It’s the same thing, really, only it came with DeArmond pickups. I find that the single-coil pickups record a little cleaner than the humbucking ones. I bought my main 6120 when I was about 16. There was an ad for it in the Buylines, a local trading paper, for $100.00. In those days, you couldn’t give Gretsches away. Everybody wanted a Les Paul or a Strat. You can’t find Gretsches now. I saw the same one as mine in upstate New York. They wanted $1,000.00 for it. I said, “What, are you crazy? I paid $100.00 for mine.” I’m happy with it. It’s fine.
Do you ever have trouble with it feeding back?
No. I used to try doing rockabilly on a Gibson ES-175, and the damn thing would squeal like a pig. It played nice, but it kept feeding back. When I turned to Gretsch, it solved all my problems.
Are your 6120s modified?
No. I use my main one the way it came, stock. It had two little toggle switches, and I sunk one of them under the guitar. It didn’t do anything, and I kept hitting it. I also glued the tone-position switches. I play pretty rough live, and they used to turn themselves off. The only thing I work is the toggle switch and the volume control, so I left those alone. I use all three pickup combinations pretty much. Onstage I have a spare 6120 that is so different from the one I use most. It feels like an expensive Gibson jazz guitar, while the other 6120 feels like a Strat or something. It’s really weird, but they both sound exactly alike. So if I break a string on one, I’ll just pop up the other.
Do you change strings often?
I usually use them one or two nights. We use those Dean Markley strings, beginning with either a .010 or .011 high E. These are very good. They stay in tune, and I haven’t broken too many.
Do your Bigsby tremolos cause tuning problems?
I’ve never had problems with that—good old Bigsbys. As a matter offact.1 playa Strat on “You Don’t Believe Me,” and I’ve always had problems when I’ve used its wang bar. But never with the Bigsbys. They have an old-fashioned spring, so you can’t go down too far, but that suits me fine.
Are you a guitar collector?
No, I don’t have too many. I figure I’d let Eddie Van Halen buy them all [laughs]. Billy Gibbons’ nice ‘34 Ford coupe in the ZZ Top video is more my style. I’ve got one, too; that’s basically what I’m into. I should mention that I have a big, fat Gretsch Rancher acoustic that I use when I play folk guitar. Eric Clapton is pictured with one on the inside of the Layla album. I use it for all the acoustic things I do. My latest guitar is a 1952 Gretsch Country Club. I picked it up from Larry Briggs, who has a shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It originally came in Cadillac green; it’s not like those new two-tone greens. It looks just like my orange 6120s. I’ve kept the pickups and everything like that original, but it’s kind of hot rodded. It was pretty much a wreck when I bought it, so I had [Long Island luthier] Steve Carr hot rod it. He put on some Grovers and a gold Bigsby, and painted it black with flames like a car. It’s going to become a personal type of guitar. I hope to use it onstage because it sounds great.
Do you employ any effects devices?
I just use a little echo box; I think it’s an MXR. It’s a standard box that’s got two knobs and you stick a battery in the bottom. I used to use tape echoes, but the electronic ones are a lot more convenient and they sound exactly the same. How do you dial in good rockabilly sounds? For a twanging thing, I’ll use the middle pickup position. If I’m thumpin’ like on “Stray Cat Strut,” I’ll switch it over to the rhythm pickup. For the best sound, you should use a tube amp, whether it’s old or new. I usually turn the presence up full on my old Bassman, and the volume to about 4 or 5, to the point where it’s just about to distort, but hasn’t quite. It’s so low, as a matter of fact, I could play it in my bedroom and it would be fine. I usually put the bass around 1/2, and the treble up to about 8. That’s a comfortable setting for me. I set the echo for one repeat, almost directly after the original note-bop, bop. It’s pretty tight. Then I just plug in and go. When they wack all this up through the P A, it seems to work out pretty good for us.
What studio environments have you recorded your albums in?
Studios don’t thrill me. We try to keep it as simple as possible. The first one [Stray Cats, an English import] was done at a place in London called Eden Studios. We basically recorded it by just turning on a tape recorder, and we did a couple of overdubs. When we did our second album, which is an English import [Gonna Ball], we had a terrible time. They stuck us in Montserrat, which is in the West Indies. It was just awful. We didn’t feel at home; we didn’t feel rock and roll there. We did the album as quick as possible just to get out. We recorded half of our newest album [Rant ‘N Rave With The Stray Cats] in London and half in New York. We had a nice big live room with wooden floors. [Producer] Dave Edmunds likes to put up ambience microphones around the room to pick up that gymnasium snare drum sound. We fooled around with different microphones around the room, mixing them with the mikes on our amplifiers. That’s one of Dave’s recording secrets.
Have you ever considered recording in the same studios that Ricky Nelson or Elvis used during the ‘50s?
Oh, yeah. When we did that song “Built For Speed” for the compilation album, we recorded in an original all-tube studio that was built in the ‘50s—the RCA Annex in LA. Elvis recorded his first two albums there. The damn thing was that we thought, “Wow, it’s going to make a big difference,” but it sounded almost the same as a modem studio. And it was a real pain in the neck, because everything kept breaking down. We had to kick these big Revoxes to get them running. I was thinking we were going to go all tubes, just do it exactly the way they did it. But to he honest with you, I think your being relaxed and into making the record is more important than the room or how comfortable the studio is.
Are you happy with your new album?
Yes. I usually listen back and go, “Hmm, I could do that better,” but I’m really happy. I wrote all 12 original songs before we went into the studio, and I had never done that before. I’d usually get stuck writing in the studio, so I was pretty confident of what I was going to do w/1ere. There’s a lot of good rockabilly, some Hawaiian steel guitar that is kind of like real early rockabilly sound. There’s even one doo-wop song I wrote, another “Lonely Summer Nights,” featuring five guys called 14 Carat Soul. They’re from New Jersey and do original doo-wop. It’s a consistent album that wasn’t combined from two different albums.
Do you use any unusual guitar techniques on it?
Gee, I just basically plug in the amp and go.
Do you have any special methods for recording your vocals?
Yeah. I use an old ribbon microphone, one of the big tube ones from the ’40s and ’50s. They have a nice, very clean sound. Basically, my vocals are recorded and then we slap some echo on like Sam Phillips used to do—just one repeat, and that’s it. Everything else that we use in the studio is modern, except for our amps.
Does the whole band record at once?
Yeah. We usually have to seal Lee off in a little room; it’s pretty difficult to record that bass. But we all stand together so we can see and feel each other. Then we lay down the track. We’ll keep it even if it has mistakes, as long as it’s got the raw feel. The energy is more important. If you have a couple of mistakes, forget it. Patch them up or leave them. Then once we get that recorded, I lay down a vocal. Sometimes I do a live vocal. It’s just a little difficult to get that partitioned right because the vocals might leak onto the other instruments.
Do you ever splice solos?
I’ll overdub a solo. If I want rhythm guitar, I’ll just put a solo over it.
How is your guitar miked?
We have two microphones up in front of the amp. One is an ambient mike farther away, and one is right against the amp. I usually play at a pretty low volume to achieve that twang. I don’t want to get it too loud to where it starts to sustain. I want to keep it right between twang and sustain. When it’s just the right volume, (just turn on the tape recorder. Live, I use the Bassman amp with two 120. I record with an old tweed one with four 10s because it’s a little bit cleaner. They’re both stock.
What are your favorite Stray Cats cuts?
I like “Double Talkin’ Baby,” because I really let loose on guitar for that one. That was all live, even the singing. That was a first take for the whole band. On that solo, I go back and forth between fingerpicking and using a pick. I have a little technique where I tuck the pick under my 1st finger and fingerpick with the rest. Then when I go into a solo, I slide the pick down. Usually if I’m doing a Chuck Berry thing, I’ll just use all downstrokes and mute the strings on the bottom. But when I’m doing rockabilly picking, my fingers just do what comes to them.
Let’s discuss other parts on Built For Speed. What caused the tonal differences between “Rock This Town” and “Built For Speed”?
In “‘Rock This Town” I’m going almost direct into the board because I wanted a really squeaky-clean sound. On “Built For Speed” I’m using the amp very low. Maybe there was a slight change in tone because we couldn’t go through the board in that tube studio. “Little Miss Prissy” has a thick tone. There’s an overdub on there. I just cranked up the Gretsch in the treble position and turned it louder than I normally do. I got a distorted sound rather than a twangy sound.
Was the solo in “Stray Cat Strut” particularly difficult to cut?
No, that was live. Most of our songs are first or second takes. We don’t like to fool around. We like to keep the energy of the early takes, and if it doesn’t come out, we’ll leave it for the next day. That solo was just the top of my head. I worked out that little diminished run that goes up. I thought it would sound cool there, so I practiced it once or twice before we actually did it and put it together as we were playing it.
The solo in “Baby Blue Eyes” was close to Paul Burlison’s version with the Rock and Roll Trio.
Right. It was basically a takeoff on his solo, but I didn’t sit down and figure it note-for-note. It was a little of his and a little of me.
What is the slide guitar in “You Don’t Believe Me” tuned to?
Open G [D, G, D, G, B, D, low to high]. I use same technique for slide that I use when I’m playing standard—going back and forth between the pick and my fingers. I usually put the metal slide on my 3rd finger or pinkie I use my 1st finger to damp.
Do you play slide on stage?
Sometimes. It’s not on one of our more recognizable songs, so we haven’t been doing it too much. But when the new album comes out, I’ll be playing some Hawaiian onstage. I’ve got a 10-string Rickenbacker I use. When I was younger, I used to copy the Hank Williams slide guitar solos.
How do you construct solos?
I just do what pops in my head. I really don’t try to define it. If it’s a swinging thing, I usually try to base it around a scale. If it’s a bopping thing, I mix it all up. “Build For ;Speed” is more like a picking thing where ‘chord blocks fit in better than single notes, whereas in “Double Talkin’ Baby” you’ve got room to stretch out and play a single-string solo. You try different things; some of them fit, some of them don’t.
Do you ever surprise yourself?
Oh, yeah. There are times when I go, “Whoo, boy! That wasn’t too good.” And there are times when I go, “Is that me?”—especially on the blues. We do a blues song where I try not to play too loud because I don’t want my guitar to sound like heavy metal blues. I want it to have more of a Muddy Waters sound, a low volume thing without much sustain. Sometimes I do a slide technique with the Bigsby bar, and I’ll say, “Gees, was that me? No, that wasn’t me. Some black man came up for ten minutes and did that solo, and then I stepped hack stage [laughs].”
Can you duplicate all your solos?
If I heard the record, I could duplicate them almost exactly. I do them pretty close onstage, but I switch them around a little bit.
Do you play in styles that aren’t on your LPs?
I could sit down and play a jazz chord version of “Satin Doll” or “Cherokee.” I’m not that great at it, but I’ve learned enough that I can chord block things like that. I don’t play classical guitar, but I can do a little bit of bluegrass picking. That’s not too far from rockabilly picking.
Your records usually clock in at about three minutes. Do you stretch out longer in concert?
A little bit. I might take another solo, or I may jive a little bit with the kids. I usually go out and slap their hands, screw around a little bit. We pull them out a little live. We’re always doing a different set. We have pretty much of a rotating encore of songs that we like to do, just old rockabilly things. If there’s a cheering section yelling something out. we’ll probably do it.
Will you take chances onstage?
Oh, yeah. I took a big chance last year. I played some banjo, and I’m not too good, either [laughs]. But I thought, “What the hey, there’s no better way to learn. so I’m giving that a try.” I got some bad reviews on it, too, but I said, “Aw, what the hell. I don’t care.” The band always goes into uncharted territories.
What do you do if you make a mistake?
I kind of do what Woody Allen does when he trips: It’s like he meant to do it? I’m like, “Hey, I really meant to make that note. I meant to make it sound dissonant.” I’ll hit it a couple of more times, maybe [laughs]. We even keep some mistakes on albums. The energy is the most important thing.
Do you do anything special to warm up?
To he honest with you, before I go on live I just pace around the dressing room and drink two cups of coffee. I don’t jam or play scales; I just go straight on. I take an attitude like I’m going to rock their socks off. I just go nuts. I like to get going really peppy and ready to give them their money’s worth. In the studio, it depends. If we’re doing a ballad, I’ll probably do it at night. I did “Lonely Summer Nights” when it was late and we turned the studio lights down. We tried to set an environment. If we’re doing a real kick-ass rockabilly song, I like to get in there fresh and just bam—knock it out.
Do you enjoy being on the road?
I love it. for me the best part is that hour and a half onstage, playing rock and roll. That’s what I live for.
How are the Stray Cats received in Japan?
Japan is rock and roll crazy now: I think they are going through the ’50s American period. Whereas America discovered rock and roll in the ’50s, they’re just discovering it now. They’re nuts about English and American can rock and roll, just crazy about it. It looks like a scene out of a ’50s movie. I mean everybody’s got greased-back hair, and they all carry around ghetto blasters, blasting Stray Cats, Gene Vincent, and Eddie Cochran. It’s an amazing place. The audiences are very polite. They will applaud and then stop very quick. They’re suppressed in a way by these bouncers. We played some gigs and almost had semi-riots because the kids wanted to dance and the bouncers would push them down. We would make an announcement: “Hey, take it easy,” and the kids would get up. It was a bit nuts. We weren’t used to that type of gig. At the gigs we play, all the kids go crazy. I think they are loosening up now over there.
Do you do much practicing on your own?
Yeah, I do. I don’t practice out of books too much. Just last night I was knocking my head against the wall trying to get the solo to Chet Atkins’ “Oh! By Jingo, Oh! By Gee” [from Now And Then, RCA, VPSX-6079]. I’ll do stuff like that. I can’t let that guitar sit for more than a couple of days. I start to get itchy and have to pick it up.
How do you compose?
I’ll wake up at 3:00 in the morning out of a deep sleep with an idea for a song. They just pop into my head. I have inspirations, like I write a lot of songs when we’re touring by bus. I’ll see an old car go by or an old diner, and think, “Oh. man, that’s great!” and get some ideas for lyrics. A lot of things can inspire me. After I write the songs, I’ll give Lee a cassette, and he’ll think up a good bass part. We’ll have a couple of jam sessions, and they’ll interject their ideas.
You have an interesting preoccupation with the ’50s. If you were a teenager back then, maybe you would have embraced the music of the ’20s or ’30s.
Well, the guitar was exploding then, so I probably would have been involved with it. But I might have looked different than they looked in the ’50s; maybe I would have worn a zoot suit or something [laughs]. It’s like that even with cars and motorcycles: You always go back. In 1957 you wouldn’t want a ’57 Chevy, because your grandmother drove one. You had a ’32 Ford then. That’s probably half of it with vintage guitars: They’re unobtainable, which makes them more desirable. It’s like that with a lot of things.
Has success been what you imagined?
Well, it’s got some great points and some bad points. I can’t really complain. I’m very happy. The drawbacks are the legal part—dealing with lawsuits, lawyers, accountants, people who don’t know anything about rock and roll and could care less about it. All they care about is the money part. But of course the good well overrides the bad.
Do you have any advice for young rockabillies?
I think it’s great that all these new rockabilly bands are coming out now. It’s certainly a healthy move away from the Styx-Foreigner big band type of lineups. I would say the main thing is not how expensive the guitar or amp is, or anything like that. It’s the feel of rock and roll. If you want to hear the original masters, go out and buy everything from Chet Atkins through the ‘50s with people like Carl Perkins, up to Dave Edmunds and the Stray Cats. Listen to that stuff, but don’t rely on it too heavily. Try to build your own style. Lessons are definitely a plus. They can’t hurt, and you don’t have to worry about playing just like your guitar teacher. They help you understand what you’re doing. That’s the best advice I could give.
Reprinted from the September 1983 issue of Guitar Player.