Brian Setzer with a sparkle-finished Gretsch G6120TV Hot Rod
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 Instru-MENTAL!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 Boogie—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’sIgnitionto the retro-rockabilly tribute of 2005’sRockabilly Riot, Vol. 1: A Tribute to Sun Records, the jazzy interpretations of classical gems on 2007’sWolfgang’s Big Night Out, and 2009’s film-noir-inspiredSongs 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 newSetzer Goes Instru-MENTAL!

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 consistent sound.

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.