A long-maned Setzer wails onstage with the Stray Cats at the Coogee Bay Hotel
in Sydney, Australia, in December 1990. Photo by Denise OHara

Has that guitar been a longtime companion?

Yeah, I bought it a long time ago from a guy on Long Island when I lived there, and incidentally it’s a really good one. Guitarists tend to romanticize vintage instruments, but the old ones are really so hit-and-miss. I rate them “Monday through Friday,” Monday being the worst. With a Monday guitar, it’s like the guy working at the factory started the week with a hangover and a fight with his wife, which translated to a crummy instrument. With a Friday guitar, the guy was in a great mood and was pumped up for the weekend, so he makes a beautiful instrument. That ’59 is definitely a Friday guitar—when it’s in perfect working order, it plays and sounds incredible.

How would you compare your new guitars to their vintage counterparts?

The new ones are ready to go right out of the box, but the old ones take so much to play right. It’s not like you can just drop ten grand on a ’50s guitar, plug in, and away you go. In order to make it playable, you have to make it so unoriginal as to ruin the value of the guitar—just as taking apart an old car and putting in a new engine might improve the performance but makes it worth much less.

What sort of mods does it take to get an old guitar up to snuff for you?

Take 1959 Gretsches: I’ve got them and I love them, but they tend to be unplayable in original condition. First of all, you’ve got to take the frets out, because they’re useless—they’re just these tiny little tacks. The neck is usually just a mess and has to be planed and straightened by a good luthier. Often, it has a reverse-bow so bad it has to go in a steamer. The bridge is just no good and will fall right off the guitar if you play too hard, so it’s best to pin in a Gibson-style Tune-o-matic. The zero fret is also no good—it doesn’t really improve the intonation like it’s supposed to—so you’ve got to yank that out and fill up the empty slot. Honestly, sometimes it just isn’t worth the aggravation—just pick up a new guitar. It’s hard to exactly replicate something that’s five decades old, but the new ones come pretty close—you can dial in a sound that’s not very far from a vintage one.

To your ear, how do vintage and new guitars compare?

Man, the best ’59s have got a really warm crunch that’s great for really straight rockabilly—probably because the wood has been sitting around for so long. You plug those things in, and the sound is just huge and woody. The new ones actually sound pretty similar, but a little less magical, which is why the best old ones are so expensive.

Setzer Goes Instru-MENTAL! is filled with impressive jazz blowing. What is your background in that idiom?

Early on, I learned how to read and write music through a teacher who taught me the rudiments. We went through all the Mel Bay books, which I still think are great and would recommend to any budding guitarist. And then the teacher basically said, “I can’t teach you anymore.” So I had to get on two busses and walk a mile carrying my Gibson ES-175 to the studio of a more advanced guitar teacher, who taught me chords, scales, and theory, how to play all kinds of inversions and extensions, and how to play over chord changes. He showed me his conception of the guitar, which was a fancy jazz sort of thing—something that has been part of my playing ever since.

Which did you get into first, jazz or rockabilly?

I learned both styles around the same time. Things were much different when I was coming up. You couldn’t just listen to any style of music on the internet with the click of a button. You had to make a bit of an effort to find and listen to music. In New York, we had some of the best jazz players around, so I was exposed to plenty of jazz. We didn’t have much in the way of country and rockabilly players, but my dad came back from Korea with records by musicians like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis—he got these from some of his army buddies who were from the South—and I really got into the music and copped some of the licks on the guitar. It all sounded good to me, and it just seemed like a natural thing to mix everything up.