Setzer rocks a bolo tie, a
signature Gretsch G6120SSL
(with dice-topped neck- and
bridge-pickup Volume knobs),
and an Opry-approved suit at
a September 2008
gig in Paris.
Photo by Andi Hazelwood
Bluegrass is also part of the mix on the new album—you play
songs by the likes of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs.
Yeah. A little bit of country and bluegrass sneaks its way into my
playing, too. Basically, all of the stuff that my ear likes—rockabilly,
swing, jazz, rock ’n’ roll—finds its way to my fingers. It just all
comes out. The bluegrass influence goes way back to when I was
a kid and my grandfather gave me a banjo. I taught myself how
to pick in the bluegrass style, because I thought it was the coolest
thing with all those speedy runs. All these years later, I’m playing
things like “Lonesome Road” and “Earl’s Breakdown.”
What was your writing and arranging process like for the record?
I wrote seven songs with lyrics, then I started fooling around
with the Bill Monroe song “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” just running
through the melody and chords on the guitar. At that point,
I decided to backtrack and make this an instrumental record,
since that’s something I hadn’t done before. As for the writing and
arranging, basically I just wrote out the melodies and chords in
lead-sheet form. For the chords, I fooled around on the guitar and
came up with a lot of substitutions—whatever sounded right to
my ear. For instance, in “Earl’s Breakdown,” where I broke out my
Scruggs banjo, one of the original progressions is something basic
like G–C–G–Em–E7, but I play G–Gmaj7–G7–Gm6—crazy jazz
stuff that happened to work really well. My bassist, Johnny “Spazz”
Hatton, and drummer, Noah Levy, were part of the writing process,
too, since they came up with their own parts based on my
What about the recording process?
When I finished writing the album, I wanted to go into the studio
and get everything down on tape as quickly as possible because I
was so excited about it—just like any other album I’ve recorded. I
like to keep things simple: Pull out the best old microphones, put
up the Neumanns, put up the Sennheisers, bring in my old gear,
and just play and start making a record. Most of the new record
was recorded live—just a few guys in a room—and for the selections
without drums, like “Far Noir East,” we used a click track to
keep things rhythmically tight.
The recording process would
have been difficult or even
impossible without players as
talented as Johnny and Noah—
musicians who can throw down
exactly what’s needed just by
looking at charts or taking a
few simple instructions. I don’t
have the time or patience for
guys who can’t read and learn
quickly. I’ve just got to get
things recorded quickly while
I’m feeling inspired.
What appeals to you most
about how Johnny and Noah
approach your music?
In a blue mood at a 2009 Nashvillains gig, Setzer routes a signature Gretsch Hot Rod through his ever-present
Roland Space Echo, a ’63 Fender Bassman head, and a matching blonde 2x12 cab.
Photo by Andi Hazelwood
Johnny has ADD, so whenever
I get his attention I know I’m
gonna get a great track out of
him. I’m just kidding [laughs
Let’s just say he’s easily distracted,
but he’s a guy who can play
the rockabilly slap bass and read
at the same time—a rare talent.
Reading is so key to these songs,
because it’s not just I–IV–V
music. A straight-up jazzer might
have been able to read the music
and play it cleanly, but without
the driving feel and the subtleties
found in rockabilly bass.
That sound is really key to the
music. Noah’s fantastic, too—a
really quick learner. Basically, I
play him the guitar parts and
he quickly writes his own parts
down in rhythmic notation,
corresponding to wherever I’m
feeling kicks or where I want to
lay back. He’s just really a natural
and requires almost no rehearsals
to learn new songs. Plus, he lives
about 15 minutes away from me
in Minneapolis and can usually
be available in about 20 minutes
for a recording session. That’s
so much different than being in
New York or Los Angeles, where you’d have at least a three-week wait
to get together with a player of this caliber.
How’d you end up in Minneapolis?
It started out because my wife is from here and we kept coming back to
visit her family. I quickly realized what a great town Minneapolis is. It’s
not a shuck-and-jive or business-type environment—it’s a real city filled
with real people, and I really enjoy living and making music here.
Your chops sound as sharp as ever. How do you maintain them?
I shoot a lot of pinball [laughs
]. That actually makes things
bad—don’t do that, because it gives you a tennis elbow or a carpal
[tunnel] type of thing. Seriously, I maintain my chops simply
by playing. After all these years, I don’t think a day goes by
when I don’t pick up the guitar. Even if I’m playing something I
learned when I was 15 years old, it’s really still a thrill just to sit
down and play the thing.
1959 Gretsch 6120 with TV Jones Classic
pickups, assorted Gretsch 6120-based signature
models with TV Jones-designed pickups, 1963
D’Angelico Excel, 1930s Stromberg archtop
Early-1960s Fender Reverb unit, vintage Roland
Space Echo units
Various 1963 Fender Bassman combos
—some modified with heavy-duty wiring
and 30-watt Celestion speakers,
1961 Fender Twin-Amp
D’Addario EXL110 strings (electric),
D’Addario EJ17 strings (acoustic),
medium D’Addario or Fender picks