With the rise of the Americana genre, the term “twangy guitar” is often tossed around, but twang itself is far from new. It’s hard to think of anyone who represents this low, clean, reverberant, guitar tone more than Duane Eddy, whose 1958 debut album was called Have “Twangy” Guitar, Will Travel. (His third album was called The Twangs the Thang.)
But Eddy’s reach ranges further back and farther afield than his effect on the sound of Americana. Among those who acknowledge his influence are George Harrison, Dave Davies, Hank Marvin, the Ventures, John Entwistle, Bruce Springsteen, Adrian Belew, and Mark Knopfler. And acknowledged or not, it’s hard to imagine the American guitarist wasn’t an influence on the Western movie soundtracks of Italian composer Ennio Morricone.
If you’re still fuzzy on exactly what “twang” means, give a listen to Richard Bennett’s instrumental hook for Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town.” It’s unadulterated twang and straight from the Eddy playbook. Like Chuck Berry and Albert King, if Duane Eddy had a dollar for every guitarist that’s appropriated his sound, he could buy a small (or maybe not so small) island.
Born April 26, 1938 in Corning, New York, Eddy was playing guitar by the age of 5. In 1951, his family moved to Coolidge, Arizona, where, at 16, he formed the duo Jimmy and Duane with school friend Jimmy Delbridge. During a performance at a local radio station, they met disc jockey Lee Hazlewood, who produced a single for them in 1955.
After the duo split, Eddy and Hazlewood had a string of 1950s instrumental hits including “Rebel Rouser,” “Cannonball,” Ramrod,” “Peter Gunn,” and “Because They’re Young,” and by 1963, the 25-year-old guitarist had sold 12 million records. The majority featured his trademark technique of picking out melodies on the low strings of a reverb-drenched Gretsch (reverb courtesy of a buried water tank at Phoenix’s Audio Recorders studio). Added to this formula were background vocals (wordless or otherwise), a sax solo, and occasionally some shouting for added excitement, before restating the melody. Though known primarily for his bottom-heavy twang, delving deeper into his output reveals Eddy is an adept picker in the Chet Atkins style and a soulful blues player as well.
Eddy’s records often reflected the music of the times. They might contain covers of the pop hits and dance crazes of the day, or exclusively tunes by and associated with Bob Dylan. There are also delightful divergences, like an album featuring only acoustic guitar and banjo, 1960’s Songs of Our Heritage, recorded to capitalize on the Folk Revival of the early ’60s, and The Roaring Twangies, a collection of big-band backed twang.
Eddy’s post-’60s solo output has been sparse but choice. In 1986, the guitarist collaborated with the British avant-garde, synth-pop group Art of Noise to again record the Henry Mancini-composed television theme “Peter Gunn.” When the single became a hit in England, he cut additional tracks with Paul McCartney, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, Ry Cooder, James Burton, and Steve Cropper for what would become the 1987 Duane Eddy album. Another 24 years passed until Road Trip, the best instrumental Americana record you have likely never heard. Produced by former Pulp member and Lee Hazlewood fan Richard Hawley, it manages to respect Eddy’s art without being self-consciously reverent.
But the father of twang was not sitting around idle between solo outings. Often, artists wanting the Duane Eddy touch would be canny enough to call the man himself. Eddy appeared on albums by Nancy Sinatra, Emmylou Harris, Kenny Rogers, Doc Watson, the Pretenders, and even Foreigner. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Though part of American musical history, Eddy is a long way from being a candidate for the “oldies” home. Listen to the track “Livin’ In Sin” by Dan Auerbach and you’ll hear an explosive, twangy, Eddy guitar solo. About to turn 80 in 2018, Eddy is all over the Black Keys guitarist’s 2017 solo record, Waiting on a Song, with many more tracks residing in Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound Studio just waiting on the next atmosphere-drenched album by the often imitated, never duplicated Titan of Twang.
TIDBIT: Eddy’s 1958 debut album included a slew of his early classics: “Rebel Rouser,” “Cannonball,” “Ramrod,” “Detour,” and “Three-30-Blues” among them.
When did you start playing guitar?
When I was a little over 5 years old, I was down in the cellar with my dad and saw this thing against the wall. He showed me a few chords. It hurt like heck at first, but I gradually got used to pressing down hard enough to make it work. I didn’t know you could play up the neck for another three or four years, until I saw somebody do it. My dad bought me a Kay about three years later.
What was your first electric guitar?
My aunt bought me an Electromuse lap steel and the little amp that went with it when I was 9. It came to a fiery end. I took it in for some repairs and the damn store burned down.
When did you switch over to a regular electric guitar?
After we moved to Arizona, I bought a goldtop Les Paul for $75 in a hardware store in a little town south of Phoenix in about 1954. A guy in town made these orange-crate amps with a 12" speaker and chicken wire in the front. I used that for the first couple of years. Then, around 1957, I was at Ziggie’s Music in Phoenix looking at guitars. I looked at a White Falcon, but it was too expensive and didn’t play that great. They brought out an orange 6120 and handed it to me. It sat in there just so beautifully and the neck was a dream. I thought I would come back with my father to co-sign for me. I picked up my Gibson and started out. Ziggie said, “Where you going?” I replied, “I’ve got to get some dinner and go to work.” “Don’t you want to take this with ya?” he said. I said, “We haven’t signed anything.” He told me, “It’s your guitar, take it. When your dad gets back, have him come by and sign the paperwork.” I left there a happy camper. My dad didn’t get there for about three months. [Laughs.]
What kind of music were you playing when you first started?
I played country music. I grew up on Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Red Foley, and Elton Britt. The first job I had with a country band paid $15 on a Saturday night at the VFW.