Brian Setzer with
Gretsch G6120TV Hot
stocked with TV
Jones pickups. Photo
by Russ Harrington
With his trademark pompadour, flashy rockabilly licks, swingin’
jazz comping, and expert showmanship, Brian Setzer
is one of guitardom’s most iconic musicians. But he wouldn’t have
achieved such pinnacles of fame if he weren’t a deeply musical guitarist,
as is apparent from one listen to his latest effort, Setzer Goes
It’s his first entirely vocal-less outing, and the
disc’s exciting synthesis of rockabilly, bluegrass, and jazz make for
an instantly pleasurable listen.
Setzer, 52, has been playing guitar for four decades now. He
grew up in the Long Island, New York, town of Massapequa and
started playing his first instrument, the euphonium, at age 8 before
focusing on the guitar in his teens. While he copped licks from his
father’s rockabilly records, he also became fascinated with jazz and
periodically made trips to nearby Manhattan to sneak into clubs
like the Village Vanguard.
In the early 1980s, Setzer fronted the Stray Cats—a rockabilly
trio that became hugely popular in America after making a splash
in Europe. On hits like “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut,”
Setzer sang and mated hot rockabilly licks with the occasional fancy
jazz chord—a sound far removed from the diatonic electronic timbres
that came to rule the era.
Starting in the mid ’90s, Setzer realized a longtime dream,
one he’d had since visiting those New York jazz clubs where large
ensembles took residencies. He formed a 17-piece big band, the
Brian Setzer Orchestra, which specializes in the sort of swing and
jump blues heard on their 1998 breakthrough album, The Dirty
—which spawned a massive hit with the Louis Prima cover
“Jump, Jive an’ Wail.” Since then, Setzer has kept things eclectic:
His Christmas tours with the BSO are perennial favorites, and his
albums have run the gamut from roaring, gas-guzzling trio outings
like 2001’s Ignition
to the retro-rockabilly tribute of 2005’s
Rockabilly Riot, Vol. 1: A Tribute to Sun Records
, the jazzy interpretations
of classical gems on 2007’s Wolfgang’s Big Night Out
2009’s film-noir-inspired Songs from Lonely Avenue
We recently chatted with Setzer—who’s quite the amiable cat—about his preferred gear (vintage and new) and how his jazz, rockabilly,
and country roots figure into the excellent new Setzer Goes
I understand you’re a big-time gear aficionado. What guitars did
you play on the record?
I played a 1959 Gretsch 6120 on one song, and then it kind of
fell apart on me. But more on that in a minute. So then I played
my various 6120 signature Hot Rod models—whichever one was
tuned up and ready to go at a given time. On the acoustic side, I
mostly used my treasured 1963 D’Angelico Excel, as well as an old
Stromberg—which has a huge, booming sound—for rhythm tracks
in the Freddie Green style.
What about amps?
I mostly used a 1963 Fender Bassman. That’s basically my meat-and-potatoes setup—a 6120 through a Bassman, sometimes with
an old blonde Fender Reverb unit that matches the amp. When I
began recording the album, after I’d gotten a perfect track down,
I noticed that one of the speakers in the Bassman was blown.
Luckily, though, the other speaker had been mic’d, so the cut
came out okay. Regardless, I shifted gears and brought in another
Bassman—I’ve got a mess of them—also a ’63. I really like amps
from that one year.
Why is that?
Fender just seemed to get things right in ’63, when they put a solid-state
rectifier in the Bassman. Before that, it had a tube rectifier, which tends
to sound kind of mushy to my ears. The solid-state rectifier sounds
more tight and defined, giving me the clarity I need for my style.
Are your Bassmans stock or modified?
I got some of them in 100-percent original condition, and so I’ve
left them that way. I’ve updated others—including all the ones
I take on the road—that already had mods when they came to
me. I had everything rewired with heavy-duty cables and threw
30-watt Celestion speakers in there. That way, I can get a pretty
So what happened to that ’59 6120?
After I played a song on it, two of the frets slid right out, the bridge
was all out of adjustment, and I noticed that the neck had become
pretty bowed. It wasn’t pretty. But these things happen when you’re
dealing with a guitar that’s more than 50 years old.