Setzer rocks a bolo tie, a signature Gretsch G6120SSL (with dice-topped neck- and
bridge-pickup Volume knobs), and an Opry-approved suit at a September 2008
gig in Paris. Photo by Andi Hazelwood

Bluegrass is also part of the mix on the new album—you play songs by the likes of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs.

Yeah. A little bit of country and bluegrass sneaks its way into my playing, too. Basically, all of the stuff that my ear likes—rockabilly, swing, jazz, rock ’n’ roll—finds its way to my fingers. It just all comes out. The bluegrass influence goes way back to when I was a kid and my grandfather gave me a banjo. I taught myself how to pick in the bluegrass style, because I thought it was the coolest thing with all those speedy runs. All these years later, I’m playing things like “Lonesome Road” and “Earl’s Breakdown.”

What was your writing and arranging process like for the record?

I wrote seven songs with lyrics, then I started fooling around with the Bill Monroe song “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” just running through the melody and chords on the guitar. At that point, I decided to backtrack and make this an instrumental record, since that’s something I hadn’t done before. As for the writing and arranging, basically I just wrote out the melodies and chords in lead-sheet form. For the chords, I fooled around on the guitar and came up with a lot of substitutions—whatever sounded right to my ear. For instance, in “Earl’s Breakdown,” where I broke out my Scruggs banjo, one of the original progressions is something basic like G–C–G–Em–E7, but I play G–Gmaj7–G7–Gm6—crazy jazz stuff that happened to work really well. My bassist, Johnny “Spazz” Hatton, and drummer, Noah Levy, were part of the writing process, too, since they came up with their own parts based on my skeletal notation.

What about the recording process?

When I finished writing the album, I wanted to go into the studio and get everything down on tape as quickly as possible because I was so excited about it—just like any other album I’ve recorded. I like to keep things simple: Pull out the best old microphones, put up the Neumanns, put up the Sennheisers, bring in my old gear, and just play and start making a record. Most of the new record was recorded live—just a few guys in a room—and for the selections without drums, like “Far Noir East,” we used a click track to keep things rhythmically tight.

The recording process would have been difficult or even impossible without players as talented as Johnny and Noah— musicians who can throw down exactly what’s needed just by looking at charts or taking a few simple instructions. I don’t have the time or patience for guys who can’t read and learn quickly. I’ve just got to get things recorded quickly while I’m feeling inspired.

What appeals to you most about how Johnny and Noah approach your music?

In a blue mood at a 2009 Nashvillains gig, Setzer routes a signature Gretsch Hot Rod through his ever-present Roland Space Echo, a ’63 Fender Bassman head, and a matching blonde 2x12 cab.
Photo by Andi Hazelwood
Johnny has ADD, so whenever I get his attention I know I’m gonna get a great track out of him. I’m just kidding [laughs]. Let’s just say he’s easily distracted, but he’s a guy who can play the rockabilly slap bass and read at the same time—a rare talent. Reading is so key to these songs, because it’s not just I–IV–V music. A straight-up jazzer might have been able to read the music and play it cleanly, but without the driving feel and the subtleties found in rockabilly bass. That sound is really key to the music. Noah’s fantastic, too—a really quick learner. Basically, I play him the guitar parts and he quickly writes his own parts down in rhythmic notation, corresponding to wherever I’m feeling kicks or where I want to lay back. He’s just really a natural and requires almost no rehearsals to learn new songs. Plus, he lives about 15 minutes away from me in Minneapolis and can usually be available in about 20 minutes for a recording session. That’s so much different than being in New York or Los Angeles, where you’d have at least a three-week wait to get together with a player of this caliber.

How’d you end up in Minneapolis?

It started out because my wife is from here and we kept coming back to visit her family. I quickly realized what a great town Minneapolis is. It’s not a shuck-and-jive or business-type environment—it’s a real city filled with real people, and I really enjoy living and making music here.

Your chops sound as sharp as ever. How do you maintain them?

I shoot a lot of pinball [laughs]. That actually makes things bad—don’t do that, because it gives you a tennis elbow or a carpal [tunnel] type of thing. Seriously, I maintain my chops simply by playing. After all these years, I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t pick up the guitar. Even if I’m playing something I learned when I was 15 years old, it’s really still a thrill just to sit down and play the thing.

Brian Setzer’s Gearbox
1959 Gretsch 6120 with TV Jones Classic pickups, assorted Gretsch 6120-based signature models with TV Jones-designed pickups, 1963 D’Angelico Excel, 1930s Stromberg archtop

Early-1960s Fender Reverb unit, vintage Roland Space Echo units

Various 1963 Fender Bassman combos —some modified with heavy-duty wiring and 30-watt Celestion speakers, 1961 Fender Twin-Amp

D’Addario EXL110 strings (electric), D’Addario EJ17 strings (acoustic), medium D’Addario or Fender picks