Elvis Presley admires Moore’s handiwork on a Gibson L-5 outfitted with staple-poled P-90s in this undated photo from their early years together. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
At age 23, Scotty Moore joined Elvis Presley and became a lightning rod for the kinetic energy of early rock ’n’ roll. He took the musical influences of his rural childhood upbringing in Gadsden, Tennessee, and fused the country and blues elements into a unique style that relied on alternate picking, driving rhythms, and short busts of call-and-response licks—all juiced with the urban pace of his new home in Memphis, a melting pot on the Tennessee/Mississippi border where black and white musical aesthetics simmered and then sizzled into the Sun Records sound. The mating of Moore’s guitar and Presley’s voice made the latter’s defining early singles—including “That’s All Right,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Mystery Train”—a template for more than a half-century of musicians to come: from Gene Vincent to the Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, the Stray Cats, Springsteen, and beyond. Moore died on Tuesday, June 28, at his home in Nashville. Although the cause of death wasn’t announced at publication time, the 84-year-old had struggled with health issues for a decade. His final concert appearance was in 2007.
With his work at Presley’s side from 1954 to 1964, Moore became one of the original 6-string poets of rock ’n’ roll, developing its template and influencing guitar players who would grow to be giants. According to Moore (in his book Scotty and Elvis: Aboard the Mystery Train), Keith Richards famously said, “When I heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ I knew what I wanted to do in life. Everyone else wanted to be Elvis. I wanted to be Scotty.” That was doubtlessly due to the mystery in Moore’s dynamic guitar performance—a universe unto itself, conjured from the dark, gutbucket notes slinking under the verses, illuminated by languid, abrupt chiming tones, and gliding on swinging flat-four chords. And then there’s the “Heartbreak” solo—a flare that seemed to step out of the tune’s depths of loneliness to question the seeming inevitability of the singer’s doom. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page are also among those who’ve testified to the magnetic power of Moore’s musical mojo.
For Moore, who began playing acoustic guitar with his family and neighbors when he was 8, the primary beacon for his style was Chet Atkins. Soon after learning his first rudimentary chords, Moore started copping jazz and country licks from records. By the turn of the ’50s, when he was nearing the end of the four-year Navy stretch he’d signed on for at age 16, Moore was taking stylistic and technical cues from the era’s best jazz guitarists, including Atkins, Hank Garland, and Harold Bradley—all of whom were making names for themselves in Nashville country sessions.
Although Scotty Moore was best known for playing the Gibson ES-295, he favored Chet Atkins models and Super 400s like the one shown in this circa-1958 promo photo for most of his post-Presley career.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
After exiting the service and settling in Memphis, Moore was playing his own speedy version of Atkins’ fingerpicked licks in his band the Starlight Wranglers when he was spotted by Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips. Together with another Phillips recruit, bassist Bill Black, Moore entered Sun Studios with Presley in ’54. Soon thereafter, their scalding version of bluesman Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” propelled Presley and his Blue Moon Boys into the grueling lifestyle of road musicians, ricocheting through the South and Midwest in their sedan to eventually reach the national limelight. For a short time, Moore also managed Presley.
The key to Moore’s propulsive, percussive, yet melodic sound was his picking technique. He combined the use of a flatpick with his fingers to produce the rolling rhythm figures and slicing single-note juxtapositions on classic early Presley recordings like “Mystery Train” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” These instant radio smashes spread throughout the South, in particular, like magpies in flight, influencing a host of guitarists just a few years younger than Moore. Billy Lee Riley, Charlie Feathers, Sleepy LaBeef, and Eddie Cochran adopted and adapted Moore’s style and the wave they created became known as rockabilly.
Of course, Moore wasn’t the style’s only pillar. A handful of other Memphis musicians were forging their own guitar-based fusion of country, jazz, and blues, the most notable being Carl Perkins and the Johnny Burnette Trio. But it was the sound of Moore’s fat-bodied Gibson guitars—early on, an ES-295—that first boomed out of radios across the U.S., soaked in the slapback echo Phillips put on his studio tracks. To duplicate the sound live, Moore, again following Atkins’ lead, used a Ray Butts EchoSonic amp, which had a built-in tape unit. This was a stunning sonic evolution in live electric guitar, which also contributed to Moore’s cachet among pickers.
Eventually, Gibson issued a Scotty Moore signature ES-295, but when Moore cut “Baby, Let’s Play House,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and a slew of other hits that helped define rock ’n’ roll in 1954 and ’55, he was using a 1952 model he’d gotten in trade for a ’52 Telecaster at the Houck Piano Company in Memphis. In July 1955, he traded that iconic golden-hued axe for a ’54 Gibson L-5 at the same instrument dealership. From 1957 to 2004, he owned a series of Gibson Super 400s, including the 1963 model that Elvis Presley played on Elvis, his famed 1968 TV “comeback special.”
Moore brandishes a Gibson L-5 alongside Elvis Presley and his fellow Blue Moon Boys during a 1956 TV performance of “Hound Dog.” At that point, he had traded his iconic ES-295 for this instrument at a Memphis music shop.
Moore also played Gibson Chet Atkins models, a 1938 Epiphone Spartan, Fender Esquires, an ES-335 reissue, and more L-5s. He received his first Atkins signature model—a prototype made by Gibson master builder Jim Hutchins—from its namesake. After he nearly lost the guitar in an airline snafu, Moore asked Hutchins to build him another, and that became his main stage guitar from 2002 to 2007.
While still with Presley, Moore cut sides with Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun, but he lost his famous gig in 1964. Sam Phillips fired Moore after he moved to Nashville and released his debut solo album, The Guitar That Changed the World, on competing label Epic Records. Moore and Presley reunited as part of the ’68 TV special, and afterwards Moore toured under his own name and played on many recordings by other artists. These include albums by blueswoman Tracy Nelson, ’70s pop hit-maker Billy Swan, blue-eyed soul man Charlie Rich, country legend Ernest Tubb, and, in the ’90s and 2000s, blues guitarslinger Joe Louis Walker, Stray Cats’ Lee Rocker, and Ron Wood. Over the decades Moore expanded into engineering and production. He reunited with his Presley bandmate, drummer D.J. Fontana, in 1997 to record All the King’s Men, an album that featured guest appearances by Jeff Beck, Joe Ely, the Mavericks, Steve Earle, and Presley’s favorite studio back-up singers, the Jordanaires. In 2000, Moore was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the sideman category for his tenure as a Blue Moon Boy with Presley. Three years later he released his final recordings, a two-CD set called The Mighty Handful, which coincided with his last public performances. He would never play publicly again, due to worsening struggles with arthritis.
Since then, Moore lived quietly in a wooded section of Nashville with his longtime partner, Gail Pollock, who died in November 2015. Among other honors, he was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, where Keith Richards accepted the honor on an ailing Moore’s behalf last year. Moore wrote two books about his experiences with Presley, partnering with co-author James Dickerson: 1997’s That’s Alright, Elvis: The Untold Story of Elvis’ First Guitarist and Manager, Scotty Moore and 2013’s Scotty and Elvis: Aboard the Mystery Train.