Scotty Moore's Royal Legacy: Bearing Witness at the Birth of Rock and Roll

Revisit our interview with the great Scotty Moore, who would have been 86 today.
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Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Below, we offer a historic interview with Scotty Moore from the pages of Guitar Player magazine.

With all the mythology surrounding the night Elvis Presley strode into the Sun Recording Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, and recorded “That’s All Right,” it’s hard to believe that one man still walks this earth who was present in that room for, if not the birth of rock and roll, then most certainly for the lightning bolt that set the puddle of gasoline on fire. But it’s true: Tucked away in a picturesque recording studio/residence in the hills outside Nashville, Scotty Moore is alive and well—a real-life Yoda of rock and roll electric guitar.

Moore is most certainly the originator of the rockabilly guitar style, as well as many of the blues-meets-country licks that continue to dominate rock guitar to this day. He was also Elvis’ guitarist, bandleader, and first manager—the man who drove the man who would be King through the lonely highways of the Deep South, chasing a dream that Elvis alone would take to the bank. He is, more than anything, the archetype of the silent but steady sideman.

Moore is sort of the musical equivalent of the survivors of tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes. He is the man who lived through the cultural explosion known as Elvis Presley—who was, in many ways, crazier and more destructive than a tornado—and survived to tell the tale. There is nobody else who could have done what Moore did. Sure, there were flashier players who could have played the rockin’ stuff with more technical prowess, and there were jazz guys who could have played the ballads more smoothly. But, considering that the early Elvis material ran the gamut from gut-bucket blues (“Good Rockin’ Tonight”) to pop standards (“Harbor Lights”) to country swing (“Just Because”) and all points in between, Moore played what needed to be played in the moment, and the licks he came up with were absolutely perfect.

Calm, cool, and collected, Moore is notorious for being a master of understatement. The way he answers interview questions, you’d think you were talking to a local guitar teacher describing a recent wedding gig. It’s only when you play those amazing Elvis records—and listen to the groundbreaking guitar solos—that you begin to fully understand what Moore really did. If there were any justice in the world, Moore would be fabulously wealthy, living in a mansion, and driving a Rolls. His hands brought about a revolution. Moore’s first solo album was called The Guitar that Changed the World. The title couldn’t fit the man any better.

Who really inspired you on the guitar?

It didn’t matter. I’d listen to anything—whatever I heard on the radio. Early on, they didn’t have that many guitars in the orchestras, and when they played a song on the radio, they wouldn’t tell you who the guitar player was. The only ones they would directly tell you about were Chet Atkins and Les Paul. I didn’t know until after I got out of the Navy [Moore served between 1948 and 1952] that there were any other famous guitar players besides Chet and Les.

So Chet Atkins and Les Paul were really the first guitar heroes?

Well, I think there were some others out on the coasts who played in the studios. George Barnes was one, but he wasn’t as well known as Chet or Les.

When you got out of the Navy, you bought a Fender Esquire—a solidbody electric. Why did you buy a Fender at that time? Was it because of any famous players that used them?

No, no. See, I was in the Navy, and I got stationed on an aircraft carrier. We were going to Japan, and they were making these little small guitars—you know, the thin ones, like a Fender. I don’t know what they were using to make frets, but you’d play one for two or three days, and you’d wear the frets completely through. And when you’re on a ship, you’re always sitting down to play one. So when I got out of the Navy, that’s what I was used to—sitting down with these little flat guitars. That’s the reason I went out and bought a Fender. It wasn’t long after that when I was walking by the same store where I had bought the Fender—O.K. Houck Piano Company—and saw a gold Gibson ES-295 hanging in the window. I just had to have it, so I traded in the Fender, got the gold guitar, and started making payments on it. [laughs]

What did you call the music you were playing with Elvis Presley? I read in your book—That’s Alright, Elvis—that you didn’t consider it rock and roll.

Well, you see Bill Black was playing country music, and so was I. But in the bars we played in, it didn’t matter if you played R&B, country, or pop—so long as it was something they could dance to. As long as they could dance, well, they didn’t care. We just played a little of everything!

What can you tell us about how it all got started with Elvis?

I had already cut one record with the Starlite Wranglers [Moore and bassist Bill Black were both members of Doug Poindexter’s Starlite Wranglers, who cut a country album for Sun Records in May 1954]. And through that record, I got to be good friends with Sam Phillips. See, I was doing hats down at the dry cleaning plant, and I’d get off at two or three o’clock in the afternoon, and I’d drive by Sun. If Sam wasn’t working, we’d go over to Miss Taylor’s restaurant and have coffee. One day, we went to have coffee with Sam and his secretary, Marion Keisker, and she was the one who brought up Elvis. We didn’t know, but Marion had a crush on Elvis, and she asked Sam if he had ever talked to that boy who had been in there. Sam said to Marion, “Go back in there and get that boy’s telephone number, and give it to Scotty.” Then, Sam turned to me and said, “Why don’t you listen to this boy, and see what you think.” Marion came back with a slip of paper, and it said “Elvis Presley.” I said, “Elvis Presley—what the hell kind of a name is that?”

And that’s when you and Bill Black got together with Elvis and started feeling him out, right?

Right, we got together. Bill lived just down the street from me—in fact, Bill even kept his bass at my house. We got together with Elvis and ran through some stuff—pop songs, that sort of thing. Elvis would sing a verse or two, quit playing guitar, and then a chorus later, he’d start playing guitar again. That was Presley.

So I called Sam after Elvis left, and I told him I thought he was pretty good. You know, he sang a bunch of the old songs, but he didn’t know much of them—maybe just a verse and a chorus of each! So Sam told me he would set up a session at Sun to feel him out, but he said he didn’t want the whole Starlite Wranglers band [At the time, a six-piece hillbilly band with fiddle and steel guitar], just me and Bill. We went in there about six at night, and worked on stuff until at least 9:00 or 9:30. Sam got some stuff he could use, but everything was slow—pop ballads. Bill was sitting down on his bass, and I had already laid the guitar down in the case. We were getting ready to call it off, because, you know, we had to work the next day.

The door to the control room was open about half way, and Elvis just started beating the snot out of his guitar—acting the fool and singing—and Bill grabbed his bass and started playing along with him. Sam poked his head out of the door—this was before mixing consoles had a talkback button—and he said, “What are you guys doing? That sounds pretty good. Why don’t you keep doing it.” So I got my guitar, ran through it a couple of times, and that was it. That was the beginning of, how do you say it—all hell breaking loose!

So what you’re telling me is that the whole history of Elvis Presley and rock and roll is based on a spur of the moment decision to act the fool?

Right! [laughs]

When you started doing things like “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Baby Let’s Play House,” did you think that this was some kind of radical new music?

No. The only thing I ever thought was how unusual it was that it was just the three of us, instead of a full band. And I go back and listen to some of those things, and think, “Ooh, why did I play that there?”

I listen to those records, and I hear you throwing a little Chet Atkins or Merle Travis thumb picking in there, and then switching to a blues thing—often back and forth in the same song. Were you thinking, “I’m going to mix country and blues?”

I was just trying to fill in the holes [laughs]. Those were all the licks I knew, and when the tape started rolling, I knew Sam wanted something in there—something different. I just had to fill in the holes.

Have you always used a thumb pick?

No, I’ve used both. But now, I’ve been using the thumb pick for so long that it feels funny trying to hold a flat pick.

Did you ever find it awkward to play single-note licks with a thumb pick?

Yeah—well, doing the single-note stuff with a thumb pick was pretty stiff, so I learned to do a lot of that stuff with upstrokes [demonstrates fingers on right hand doing a banjo roll], working my thumb and all the fingers on my right hand.

Did you use your thumb and first two fingers?

Yes. Primarily, it was those first two fingers, but if I were doing a chord or an arpeggio, I’d use all of them.

You’ve said your playing advanced to a certain level, and then you got on the road with Elvis, and you got in a rut. If you had a chance to play whatever you wanted, what would you have done?

I don’t know! I remember when we were out in California, I would try to get the band to work up some new stuff, and Bill and D.J. [Fontana, Elvis’ drummer] would always say, “No, let’s go party!”

Strange, 50 years later and I’m still doing the same with my band. You can never get them to learn anything on the road. Did you ever get into jazz?

I always wanted to. I always loved guys like Tal Farlow and George Barnes.

Well, there are an awful lot of jazz chords on those Elvis records, so even if you never played jazz, you obviously spent a lot of time learning those chords, and sneaking them in whenever you could. Now, when Elvis got signed to RCA, all of a sudden, you were in the studio with Chet Atkins sitting next to you playing guitar. What the heck were you thinking?

I didn’t have enough sense to realize it at the time. On one of the songs, I did something at the end, and I asked Chet, “Is that alright?” Chet said—you know how dry he was—“I don’t know, I’m just playing rhythm!” [laughs] I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but on those records, you can just barely hear him. He’s playing rhythm in the background.

Backtracking to the Sun sessions, Sam Phillips put a lot of tape echo on those early Elvis records. Did you like what that effect did to the guitar sound?

Sam had just figured out how to make that echo in the studio—sort of by accident—and he started using it on the records. We did two or three records with that echo, and you’d get used to hearing it. Then, we’d go to play a live show, and I’d say, “It sounds empty.” So when I heard Chet with his EchoSonic amp, my ears perked up real quick! I said, “What is it, where’d he get it, and how is he doing it?” I called Chet and asked him about the amp, and that’s when I went up to see Ray Butts [designer of the EchoSonic] up in Cairo, Illinois. I went and got the Gibson L-5 and the EchoSonic amp at the same time—both of them financed through the O.K. Houck Piano Company. That’s why there’s so much damn echo on “Mystery Train.” I had just got that amp, and I hadn’t learned how to make the settings yet, so on that one—it’s really haulin’!

The Ray Butts EchoSonic was the first guitar amp with a built-in tape echo. Did you keep up on the maintenance of it when you were on the road? It’s hard to imagine the day when you had to clean and demagnetize tape heads, and make new tape loops.

Oh yeah, I always took care of it. I took care of all my own stuff. We didn’t have roadies back then. I was with Keith Richards in the studio, and he asked me how many guitars I used to take on the road back then. I told him one. I had to carry a guitar in my left hand, and an amp in my right hand—in and out of every show we played! He got a big kick out of that.

So what would you do if you broke a string? Would the whole show have to wait on you to change it?

I never broke a string.

What? How is that possible?

I don’t ever remember breaking a string.

That’s just incredible. It’s hard to imagine playing in front of 10,000 screaming girls and staying that relaxed. Speaking of which, something that cannot be denied about Elvis is that you guys invented the rock concert. Never before had a musical act performed in front of 10,000 people—and this in the days when none of the instruments were miked. Elvis would sing through some P.A. system usually reserved for wrestling matches or cattle auctions.

Well, that was why we hired D.J.—the screaming got so bad that we couldn’t hear each other. We needed D.J. playing drums just to keep the whole thing together with those noisy crowds. And, half the time, Bill wouldn’t even be playing. He would just be cutting up—which was a good thing, because it got the crowds into it at the early shows. And, of course, I always said we were the only band that was directed by an ass! [laughs]

Did you know what was making the girls scream?

Oh, yeah. The first live show we played with Elvis was at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis, opening up for Slim Whitman. Elvis was trying to sing and play guitar—he was sort of standing on his toes—and, you know, back then you wore these big baggy britches. And he started going, and his legs were shaking those loose pants around, and the girls were screaming. We did two shows that night, and when we finished the first show, Elvis asked, “What happened? How come those girls were screaming?” We told him, “The girls were going crazy because you were up there on your tiptoes, shakin’ your legs. Do more of it!” And that’s really where it started—that first live show.

When you see these big rock concerts today, do you look at them and say, “We invented that”?

Yeah, I guess. But on the other side of the fence, I can’t understand why you still can’t hear things—even with all these big-ass sound systems they have now. There are obviously some good players out there playing, but you can’t hear what they’re doing! It’s so noisy now.

I’m amazed that you don’t seem bitter about the money side of things. You got screwed. There’s no other way to say it.

I’m not bitter at all. There are some things that could have been done better, but when you start to get famous, so many people come in, and they tell you to do things a certain way, and, finally, you just say, “Let me out.” That’s really where Elvis’ head was at, too, and God knows what Colonel Parker was telling him behind our backs. Of course, old Parker is dead now, and I’m still here!

And I guarantee you that Parker won’t be able to spend any of his millions where he’s at.

Nope [laughs].

When you see all this Elvis stuff now—Elvis wine, Elvis lamps, Elvis velvet paintings—what do you think?

It makes me laugh. If Elvis was here, I know he’d laugh, too.

Do you have any advice for up-and-coming guitar players?

Get it in writing! [laughs]