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So was it the original ’59 Gretsch from your Stray Cats days?
I’ve got a ’59 that I’ve been using for probably 20 years. It’s from the same year, maybe the same batch. I rarely take the Stray Cats one out. It got stolen for two years, so it’s been through the mill. So I’ve got that ’59, and I just recently got a new one that’s hot shit—it sounds amazing! According to Jay Scott’s book [Gretsch: The Guitars of the Fred Gretsch Company], it would be a 1960 model year, and it sounds incredible. I know Tom had to re-magnetize the pickup because they were a little weak, but whatever he did, it’ll be tough to beat. I just got it and used it in Japan and—oh my god! But some of them have it, some of them don’t. Even if it’s made in 1959, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a great guitar.
Otherwise, was it pretty much the usual setup—the Space Echo, Bassman with the 2x12, and the ’59?
Yeah man, that’s what I play.
What about acoustics?
I just got a ’56 Martin D-28. That’s my go-to—it’s a cannon.
Let’s get back to the album. “The Girl with the Blues in Her Eyes” is so laid-back with that Western shuffle and the lonesome steel guitar, yet it’s really beautiful. Your vocal delivery is particularly touching in that one. How did that song come about?
Well, thank you. There’s always this songbird that comes—I can’t wait for him to come again. Usually [on a song like that], I’ll start on a D and go to a G or something. But I went from a D to a Dm.
Yeah—I love how that minor chord is the key to the whole song.
Right? I went, “Ohhh, I haven’t heard that.” When you’re given that little gift, you have to finish it. I did the same with G to Gm—“Oh my gosh, there’s a song!” It happened like that. I wanted the lyrics to be touching, but not sappy. My friend Mike Himmelstein—I really respect his lyric writing—he gave me the song back, and it was great, but it wasn’t called “The Girl with the Blues in Her Eyes.” That was just in the lyrics. I said, “Oh no, Mike, there’s our title.” Rewrite it, and that’s the title. He only had to change a few things, and then he came back with the lyrics. I knew when he did that we’d got it.
Were you interested in singing when you first started playing guitar, or did you do it out of necessity?
No, I didn’t want to sing. I never wanted to be the singer. I wanted to be the guy standing in front of the amp so that I could let someone else have the spotlight. I wanted to fiddle with the amp and the knobs on the echo thing. I never wanted to do it, but we could never find a singer. I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” I don’t think I’m a great singer, but there was nobody around any better.
That’s pretty inspiring because, although you’re heralded most for your guitar and instrumental prowess, you’re a master of multiple vocal-delivery techniques. For example, the tight, perfectly harmonized background vocals on “Let’s Shake” and “Stiletto Cool” are as effective as anything else in giving those tracks that old-school vibe.
Well thanks. I’m lucky that I can hear those chords. If I have to do doubles, like the background vocals on “The Girl with the Blues in Her Eyes,” I can hear those harmonies. And I can change with the next chord. I think that comes from just knowing the guitar. And I love the way Eddie Cochran and Joe Strummer sing as much as I do Elvis and Nat King Cole. They’re two totally different styles of singing, so I guess you have to take what God gave you.
Hear Brian Setzer let loose with the new tune “Nothing Is a Sure Thing” in this May 2014 performance from Nagoya, Japan.
What advice would you give guitarists who are forced into the vocal spotlight like you were?
Well, first of all, it doesn’t matter what style you’re playing. You have to follow your heart. You’ve gotta do what you want to do—unless you’re in a cover band that’s making a steady paycheck where you’re playing a bit of everything. I realize that, because I used to do that. I can’t stress enough how learning to read and write music has made me the player that I am. I know that it’s hard, and I sound like a teacher at school, but if you learn how to read and write music, it connects the dots. It can show you how to play through a chord passage, how to connect those two chords, how to get out of that pentatonic scale. I hear blues guys just doing that constantly. There are so many ways to make yourself unique. I don’t care if you’re playing heavy metal—if you learn how to read and write music, it connects the dots and it makes you one hundred times the player you were without reading and writing. It just does. Everything makes sense to you.
You’ve mentioned the songbird thing a couple of times. That’s one of the toughest things for musicians, coming up with songs that really stick—that are worth something. How do you know when the songbird is really there and that it’s not just some throwaway thing coming to you?
Well, that happens, but you’ve got to see it through. Sometimes I start with things that I don’t know are that great. But I would say that you have to see it through. Finish it up. It might be the one. If it were easy, we’d have a thousand Rolling Stones around. It’s hard. But that’s the whole deal. It takes a long time. Don’t be anxious about it. Just let it come, let it happen. Once you get the first thing going, once that songbird visits, things usually snowball.