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How Brian Setzer wrings classic rockabilly sound from modern recording

brian setzer wrings classic rockabilly sound modern recording 1  photo by russ harrington

The avatar for authentic rockabilly looks exactly like Brian Setzer.

The perpetually pompadoured, once-and-forever cool cat has been waving the checkered rockabilly flag for four decades and counting, and his personal arbiter for quality is as strong as ever. “If something’s not right, I can tell you,” he says. “The actual feeling and the spirit have to be apparent in the recording.”

And make no mistake, the one true rockabilly feel cannot be faked. The essential elements of rhythm, groove, vocal twang, and especially the tape-echo delay that gives rockabilly instrumentation its unique and instantly identifiable sense of space must be in the sonic equation. And though Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, and Eddie Cochran honed and shaped rockabilly’s very aural definition, Brian Setzer has since perfected it — first with the Stray Cats in the ‘80s with such indelible genre classics as Stray Cat Strut, Rock This Town, and Sexy + 17, and now with the solo work he does with his ongoing Rockabilly Riot series.

The actual feeling and the spirit have to be apparent in the recording.

His latest HD foray, Rockabilly Riot: All Original, released today by Surfdog, reinforces how staying true to a genre’s roots when using modern recording technology only strengthens how real it sounds. All Original’s opening track Let’s Shake bristles with veritable twangtastic energy — and features a sweet, Jerry Lee Lewis-inspired piano roll — while the light-touch ballad The Girl With the Blues in Her Eyes embraces a tender-but-tough vibe, and Stiletto Cool growls with a confident come-on snarl.

Setzer, 55, recently sat down with Digital Trends to discuss the secrets to getting that genuine rockabilly sound, the importance of key changes, and the albums he feels are the genre’s blueprints. Ready, set, vavoom!

Digital Trends: One thing I can definitely say about Rockabilly Riot: All Original is that it could have come out in 1956 or 1957 — but I think that’s a good thing, don’t you? I mean, to my ears, a song like Blue Lights Big City could have been a lost Elvis track.

Brian Setzer: Oh, well, thank you! I really like the way that song came out. [Producer] Peter Collins said, “You know, we should put some background vocals on here.” And he was thinking Jordanaires [the gospel vocal group who backed up Elvis on many of his songs from 1956-72], but to me it sounded more like it should be a Marty Robbins Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs kind of thing [a 1959 album featuring background vocals by the trio of Tompall and The Glaser Brothers], you know? So the vocals shaped it to be more like that.

Let’s go over why All Original sounds so good in HD. A lot of that has to do with how and where you recorded in Nashville.

Yeah, we were in Studio A, at RCA. Chet Atkins had that studio built in 1964, and it had a special kind of vibe and feel for us because so many good, classic records were recorded there. But to me, a studio has to be up to date, because I like to mix the new technology with the old stuff.


It also comes down to the specific gear you use. And to get that proper rockabilly guitar sound, you have to have a Gretsch to put you in that Eddie Cochran kind of sweet spot.

The one I’m holding on the album cover, a Gretsch 6130, is pretty close to the Cochran style. The one I actually play, a 1959 Gretsch 6120, is a couple of years older. It’s pretty much the same thing, with some different pickups. And, of course, it has the Bigsby arm with what’s called a stop tailpiece. But when I was 17, I didn’t know the difference; I just wanted a guitar that looked like Eddie Cochran’s.

Lemme Slide has such a great echo on it. You use a Roland Space Echo for your effects, right?

Right. I don’t use pedals. I use the Roland and I fiddle with the echo, and I fiddle with the volume on the guitar amp. That’s my “pedalboard.” (chuckles) My amp is a ’63 Fender Bassman. That’s what works for me. When I made a couple of bucks in my career and tried some different amps, I still went back to it. You can’t beat that one.

That gear combo — the Gretsch, the Fender Bassman, and the Roland Space Echo — is your signature sound.

Yeah. I really created my own kind of sound with that combination. And the way I recorded everything was live. There are no overdubs except for the vocals, and there’s no punch-in solos, or splicing things in — it’s a live band in a room.

Let’s talk about that room, Studio A. How was everybody positioned? Where were you all set up, and what were your sightlines?

To me, a studio has to be up to date, because I like to mix the new technology with the old stuff.

That’s a really good question. I’m pretty loud with my guitar, so they have to keep me alone. They had to isolate Mark Winchester, my bass player, because he’s playing acoustic, which could raise some bleedthrough issues. They had to put up partitions and acoustical tiles to sound-deaden him.

But I have to be able to see everyone, yeah. Everyone has to be in my sightline. I don’t use a lot of gestures, but I’ll shout into the microphone, “Whoa! Go ahead and take another solo!” And then you just take it from there.

When you’re onstage, you don’t hear things perfectly either. You might get more bass or more drums in your monitor, so you have to feel your way through it. I’m not a big fan of saying, “I need a tad more hi-hat in the wedge.” If I can get the vibe and the feeling, then I know it’s there.

How many run-throughs did you do for each song before you cut them, or was it pretty raw?

Here’s what I think is a pretty smart way of making records. We arranged all the songs first, which is a lot of work. We spent a good week, week-and-a-half doing that. And Peter’s really good at arranging. After we chose the final arrangements, we recorded them, put the songs onto CD, and then I went on the road. I said, “Guys, just live with these for a month and a half, and when I come back, I’ll see you in Nashville.” By the time I hit Nashville, my guitar playing was great, my amp was sounding really good, and everybody knew all the songs. So we didn’t have to go in and learn them, like we usually do. We came ready.

Did anything change with the arrangements between the time you left on tour and the time you came back?

The arrangements were done, but the songs, they come into their own. That’s just the way the recording process goes. Some certainly surpass others: “Wow. This song wasn’t one of the top songs on the list, but now it is.” You have your favorites.

Which songs stand out as your current favorites?

The two that stand out right now the most are songs 3 and 4, Vinyl Records and Lemme Slide. They seem to just work really well together. I really like what I said in them, and I really like all the solos. Lemme Slide has the perfect guitar sound on it, just the way I like to hear it. Everything came out right.

Even in the digital era, song sequencing is still important for the flow of full albums. Did you have the All Original sequencing figured out early on?

You can’t do that. The songs have to take on their own kind of life. And then you can say, “OK, you’re done. Let’s see what kind of order you go in.” You want to create something with hills and valleys. You don’t want things all in the same key, or all the same tempo. You want to shuffle them around.


A good example of that is the shift we get going from Stiletto Cool to I Should Have Had a V-8.

Yeah, I think that works. We’re going from the key of E to G, and it’s more of a neo-rockabilly song going into more of a traditional-sounding song, with the acoustic guitar. That’s a good change of pace, I think.

What rockabilly albums are beacons for you in terms of the character of their sound and their overall sound quality?

George Harrison and Eddie Cochran, those early Gretsch players — that’s the sound I was going for. I had the first Beatles album [Introducing… The Beatles, released January 10, 1964, 10 days before Capitol released Meet The Beatles!], because my brother and I managed to get it. It was on the Vee-Jay label. I remember all the guitars on one side and the drums on the other, so it was easy to pick out the parts.

But the first record that really changed my life was Eddie Cochran’s Legendary Masters Series. That came out in the early ’70s [January 1972], and when I heard that, the whole thing just turned me on my ear. I thought, “That’s it. That guy had it all down.” That was the one that did it for me.

“There’s no punch-in solos, or splicing things in — it’s a live band in a room.”

And the look he had — I like looking cool too. That’s part of being a rock & roll star, you know — to have that cool vibe going. And I just thought Eddie was the coolest cat I’d ever seen. Unfortunately, we lost him in that car accident so early; he was only 21. [Cochran died while he was on tour in England on April 17, 1960.]

You also were friends with Joe Strummer of The Clash, another influence of yours.

Yeah, Joe Strummer and I were pals. I never really talk about it that much, but he and I never really spoke about music. We were friends who talked about cars, and where to get a good bite to eat. (chuckles)

But the feel and emotion in Joe’s voice — he did some of my favorite vocals. I really liked his work with The Mescaleros. I think there was some really good stuff there. And the early Clash — any of it is classic: White RiotLondon Calling.

One other record that’s still got to hold up for you is Elvis Presley’s The Sun Sessions [a collection of Elvis’ 1954-55 recordings at Sun Studio in Memphis that was released in 1976].

Oh gosh, that’s etched in my brain. When we first heard The Sun Sessions, we were like, “What? Why doesn’t anybody know what this is?” Everybody knew Hound Dog — which of course is brilliant — but nobody knew what Mystery Train was. That was the stuff that gave us the idea to play rockabilly.

Amazing. And now you’re now pretty much the go-to guy of the genre. Anytime one of your songs comes on, the ear automatically registers that it’s you before you even start singing.

Well, that’s great. That’s what I’m going for. That’s what everybody tries for in this world, so, like it or not, that’s me! (laughs)

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