Gretsch

Back On

It’s the same blog, but with a new attitude! I’ve learned a whole lot since I began back in 2011, and some of the old was just not working anymore. This new look is cleaner, clearer and the blog is much easier to navigate. The search field in the header works really well and the display by category function in the right sidebar or the tag cloud also bring up a comprehensive list of related subjects. All of the disc reviews and series articles I did throughout the year are up in the header menu. The blog is also responsive now, which means it looks the same from desktop to tablet to phone. I’ve gone over everything I’ve posted here since the beginning and have tried to organize, delete, and retrofit. I took a few things down because they may be part of an upcoming print project. If not, I’ll put them back up later. I’ll still be tweaking off and on, but the site will be able to stay up all of the time. All the heavy, hard work has been done.

Thanks to all of you who come to the site! Especially those of you who have been around for awhile or those of you who have subscribed. Really! I do appreciate it and I look forward to another year of blogging.

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Brian Setzer

The wild and crazy Rockabilly cat has always been one of my favorite guitar players ever since he blasted onto the scene 30 years ago. Can you believe that? 30 rockin’, boppin’ years already? During that time I’ve owned almost all of the Stray Cats material save for the Greatest Hits stuff. I had the first import album and a couple of other releases that were hard to get in the USA at the time. The Stray Cats had a great sound, a great look and could really turn out pro performances, especially in the early days. I was introduced to the band when I caught their first performance on the old television show Fridays. Anybody remember that? I think that a whole lot of people saw that show and this performance as well as some of the other guests who were on. The show only ran for two seasons but featured a ton of great music and was the first appearance of Michael Richards (of Seinfeld fame) on television (I think). This was a really interesting time for music because the effects of the punk rock BANG! from a few years before had splintered into many different directions and were going mainstream in a big way. The Stray Cats hadn’t even had a record released in the USA at the time of this performance but by Xmas of that year I was able to find the imported first release that was recorded in England and produced by Dave Edmunds. Great record, probably there tightest ever and of course Edmunds was an idea producer for the band given his love for the Rockabilly style they were playing. While in England they were seen by many other big British superstars like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin because all of these guys had come of age when the original Rockabilly stars were releasing their records.  Here is the whole Fridays performance from 1981.

What was cool about The Cats was that they were able to blend the punk and new wave styles that were dominating then with a retro sound and look. It was really hard to tell where one left off and the other began because they were able to integrate the two seamlessly. While many people credit guys like Social Distortion’s Mike Ness and Henry Rollins for the proliferation of skin art (tattoos) in rock and roll, Brian Setzer and Slim Jim Phantom deserve a lot of credit too because they were rocking the tattoos and were on national TV and MTV for at least a couple of years in the early 80s. While The Stray Cats weren’t as punk rock and hard-edged as some other bands of the time, they had a sound and a musical approach that appealed to many punk and alt-rockers, especially in England and Europe, where the sound of the 1950s never goes out of style.

Even at the young age of 22-23 when the Stray Cats came on the scene, Brian had obviously digested a lot of the finer points of playing rockabilly and swing guitar and was able to get a really GREAT sound with a pretty simple set-up: his trusty Gretsch, a Roland Space/Chorus echo and Fender Bassman amp. Whether it was on the records or in performance he was able to blow off a lot of really dazzling and fiery licks with a clean sound and that epochal slap-back echo. This combination resulted in a Great Big Presence and Awesome Tone and it worked so well with Slim Jim’s simple drum set-up and the slappin’ bass provided by Lee Rocker. Most of what Brian was doing and still does comes from his hands. He is able to alternate between picking and finger-picking at the drop of a hat just as he is able to alternate between playing standard rockabilly riffs, Jazz/Swing melodies, blues patterns and country styles. Mixing all of these different approaches gives him a very WIDE sound and is great for the tension that is always necessary in music. You just never know what he is going to do next. Here is an excerpt from his Hot Licks video. I have the whole thing and think it’s pretty boss. If you can get some of this stuff happening in your playing you will definitely expand what you’re capable of doing.

While I’ve always dug Brian’s playing I found a new appreciation for it when I started playing Gypsy Jazz and Swing music, because the Jazz, Bop and Swing lines one finds in Rockabilly come from those great players of the 30s, 40s and early 50s. In THIS post I traced an old song from Django Reinhardt to Les Paul to Carl Perkins and George Harrison. Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker were two other cats who had a huge influence on what 1950s Rockabilly and Rock and Roll cats like Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup, Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran would mix into their playing. I recently listened to a couple of Charlie Christian CDs and it’s really astonishing how not only his electric playing revolutionized the sound and presence of the guitar, but also how his lines show up EVERYWHERE. While Django had an almost 30-year recording and performing career, Charlie Christian was only on the scene for a couple of years before he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1942. His recorded material is pretty scarce and I haven’t been able to find any film clips of him. He attained legendary status within the jazz community while jamming at Minton’s, the Harlem club that attracted all of the best players of the day, including people like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who would go on to completely turn music on it’s head later in the 1940s. Charlie’s lines anticipated be-bop and almost all of the popular music styles we know today. They have filtered through other people over the years but so much guitar as we know it started with Charlie and Django it’s amazing. I remember reading an interview from Guitar Player with Brian and he related that he learned to play from “guys on Long Island who knew how to play that old swing jazz in Eb and F”. The old-time jazz lines and CHORDS! really take an ordinary three-chord song and make it something special and because of this early training and his love for this sound, Brian has always sounded completely different from most of his contemporaries, although he does have a lot in common with someone else I’ve written about…Chris Spedding. Personally I’ve always had a complete and total love for the way jazz chords sound against a heavy beat and how they can be used to motor through the song. Once a player is adept enough to know how to cycle through changes and mix in single string lines, string bending, vibrato and double-stops there is really no limit to where a song can be taken save for the player’s imagination. Brian demonstrates this in the Route 66 video at the bottom. It’s all about how much you can HEAR and then execute. It has always thrilled me to be able to watch or listen to someone like Brian or Chris Spedding tear up a song in this way. Notice that in the following Brian Setzer Orchestra clip Brian is still using the set-up that has been his mainstay for almost 3 decades. Don’t change what works!

The Stray Cats broke up in 1984 but have reunited numerous times to record new records and tour. Some of the stuff on those releases was really good, some not, and perhaps Brian always felt a bit limited by the restrictions of a three-piece band. He tried branching out in the late-80s with solo efforts like The Knife Feels Like Justice and Live Nude Guitars, which were more mainstream, roots-rock offerings, but neither release did very well. He has played as a guest with a superstars like Robert Plant, Dan Hicks, Paul Rogers, Bob Dylan and Stevie Nicks and has always gotten big ups for his ability to bring the swing to the song. But it was with the formation of the Brian Setzer Orchestra in 1990 where he finally found his niche and was able to build on his earlier successes. BSO broke out at the height of the early 90s swing revival and have been able to keep that popularity alive through this past decade. Not only is Brian a great player, but he is also a very keen arranger, which is probably why he’s won Grammys for instrumental performances of Sleepwalk, Caravan and My Favorite Things. The fact that he has great players working with him helps out a whole bunch too. Usually the toughest adjustment for any young guitar slinger is how to mature, stay fresh and keep an audience while adding new fans as the years go by. Forming the BSO has made this possible for Brian and it’s a brand of entertainment that is part Rockabilly, part Vegas, part old-time supper club, which suits him perfectly.

When the Stray Cats reformed in 2004 they did a tour of Europe that was captured on film and became the Rumble in Brixton DVD release. I have this and think it’s Really Cool Daddyo because it shows they are still capable of rocking the house just like the old days. All of the good stuff is here including some of my personal faves: Double Talking Baby, Fishnet Stockings, Ubangi Stomp, Blast Off, That’s Alright Mama, and Please Don’t Touch. All of the hits are on here too and the only downer is I Won’t Stand in Your Way, which is very rushed for some reason. Shame, because it was such a well-written ballad on the Built for Speed record back in the day. The Stray Cats really bring the swing and boogie and on several songs Brian stretches out and plays some magnificent stuff — Sleepwalk is a bona-fide guitar hero performance. The DVD comes with a bunch of extras and a new song and is a great testament to a trio of guys who have a lot of love for a great style of music and have kept at it for over a quarter century. It’s really cool that Brian continues to thrive and expand what he began back in the 1970s and that shows not only his talent, but the power and appeal of this very American style of music, which continues to move people all over the world.

Django and Harry

Django Reinhardt and Harry Volpe NY 1946Back in the old days of this blog I mentioned in THIS post on Django Reinhardt that I’d found some cool pics and information about Django’s time in New York City in 1946. This period coincided with Django leaving his acoustic-based sound and moving to electric guitar, which thanks to Charlie Christian, had become a viable tool guitarists could use in performance and recording. This was a time of transition for Django and while, in my opinion, he weathered it brilliantly, there are many people, Stephane Grappelli (his partner for many years) and Les Paul included, who believe he never really adapted to the electric format and should’ve stuck with what he had. However, Bebop swept the post-war world and all of the swing bands were no longer the HOT thing and for a guitar pioneer of Django’s stature it couldn’t have been easy to be thought of as “old hat.” When the chance to tour America with Duke Ellington (a chance that was offered to his whole band) Django jumped at it. Alone. He arrived in the USA thinking that the country would roll out the red carpet for him and luthiers and guitar makers would be waiting to hand him the best of what they had. He couldn’t have been more wrong. By the time Django returned to Europe many illusions of his international stature were shattered, but I think that says more about unrealistic expectations than anything else. Had he brought his band they might’ve done very well. What did happen was he met some very interesting players and returned to France an electric, bebop-influenced guitarist. There would only be a few more sessions where he would play acoustic before ditching it altogether in favor of an electrified sound. In the end, I think he got a really good electric thing going. It must have been a thrill for him to have VOLUME and AMPLIFICATION at his disposal — two qualities every guitar player in the West takes completely for granted in this day and age.

One fella that Django met in the United States was Harry Volpe. Harry was almost as much a guitar pioneer as Django and was a well-known figure at the time as a performer and teacher. He had his own music store/studio and teaching academy and in time would count Joe Pass, Johnny Smith and Sal Salvador as some of his students. He was the first guitar player to be on the staff at Radio City Music Hall. I couldn’t find any of his own performances to link to but there are some good players do interpretations HERE, HERE, and HERE. If you have heard any of Django’s solo guitar material it’s easy to see similarities between his and Harry’s styles. Obviously they got along very well musically and personally, as the pictures from their jam sessions show. Aside from the fact that it’s cool to have all the information available on Django’s only trip to the United States, the pictures and info give a nice little snapshot into that period of New York City, which is very interesting to me. A funny thing, for some reason, Downbeat, the jazz magazine of the day, seemed to think Django was a Brooklyn Bum, meaning he was born there! Not really sure where they got that idea.

Harry Volpe’s studio was in Jackson Heights, Queens and this was the scene of a memorable all night jam session he had with Django in 1946. I believe it would have been in November of that year as the Ellington band (with Django) appeared at the New York Aquarium. This is where some of the most famous pictures of Django with a smoke and a guitar were taken. After the Ellington tour Django stayed in New York until he eventually returned to France in February of 1947. A semi-famous silent home movie shows him getting ready to leave and once again, Harry is on the scene. Supposedly there were other movies of them eating spaghetti and jamming, but I don’t think those two films have ever surfaced.

Another thing that was interesting to me, especially as a Gretsch player, was that Harry Volpe endorsed Gretsch guitars, which probably meant a lot to Gretsch at the time because they were trying to compete with Gibson and Epiphone for the arch-top market. While they didn’t succeed both Django and Harry are playing Gretsch guitars at these jam sessions, which amuses me to no end. You don’t see many people trying to play jazz on a Gretsch these days or ever…Chet Atkins might come to mind. Brian Setzer doing his rockabilly/swing thing maybe. George Harrison. But in the picture below Django is playing of the Harry Volpe-endorsed Gretsch Synchromatic 400 Guitar (the same one from the above ad?) while Harry is playing a Gretsch Special.

I thought that the Gretsch would have a nice amplified Django sound and I’ve already tried to show that HERE. In the fall I play some on the Gretsch through my Schertler David amp because that sound is just TOO COOL. I didn’t buy the guitar specifically for that purpose, it was a matter of using what I had, which was the same in Django’s case. He played electric before he came to America, a fact that was established by the good folks at the Hotclub UK site HERE. This is one of only a few movies of Django playing and it is on YouTube. But don’t get too excited — the clip is only 10 seconds long.

During his tour of the US with Ellington Django used a Gibson ES-300. This picture was taken at the Pla Mor Ballroom in either Kansas City or Lincoln Nebraska (there were two ballrooms with that name). He was notorious for not having a Gearhead mentality for equipment and obviously was capable of playing pretty much anything he was handed. He did remark however, once he was back in France, that nothing beat his long-used and trusty Selmer, which he quickly outfitted with the new Stimer pickup system and used (as far as anyone can tell) for all of his recorded electric work until his death in 1953. Harry went on to endorse Epiphone in the 1950s and I have to repeat something I mentioned in my first pass at this topic. Was he the first guy with an endorsement deal? (No! As was kindly pointed out by MAC below in the comments, a fella by the name of Nick Lucas had a deal with Gibson in the mid-20s) Nowadays having a guitar named in your honor is as common as a cheese sandwich, but given Harry’s reputation and the fact that he was also teaching students and running a store makes me wonder if he was the first. Who else would qualify?

Django with his amplified Selmer guitar Django and Harry were able to get their sound on many different guitars, electric or acoustic, because they had really great technique and understood how important great hand work is to playing guitar. There are so many things one can do, a fact I just highlighted in the Fingerpicking Good post, with or without a pick that affects how the instrument will sound. Gypsy-Jazz picking is very forceful and powerful and I’m sure Django had to adapt a bit in order to play some of those creamy-smooth modern jazz lines one can find on his recordings from the 1950s. He could also make the instrument bark if the situation required, but ballads are usually the measure of how well a player translates emotion into pure sound. (One of my best achievements last year was a version of Nuages played on my Gretsch through the Schertler amp at a gig. It was BRAVO) Django and Harry Volpe both excelled at this type of playing, which is why I’m sure they enjoyed the short time they were able to play together. Although Django didn’t do as well as he expected on that US tour, he must have had some fun times because pictures seem to demonstrate that he found a few Americans to be kindred spirits and he was a person who loved life. There was another go at this country in the works when he died and had he been able to come over in the mid-50s and blow his electric brand of music, I believe he would’ve enjoyed a much better reception.

Harry Volpe Epiphone AdHarry Volpe lived for over 40 years after Django passed away and enjoyed some great successes, including the music production of The Time of the Cuckoo at the Empire Theater on Broadway, teaching at the Frost Conservatory and performances with his trio on coast-to-coast broadcasts of early television pioneer Arthur Godfrey’s show. He isn’t a name guy even though he lived into the 1990s, but he was definitely an important guy in the development of guitar, as an instructor to some of the best guitar players ever, and as the creator of some very beautiful music.

Thanks to the folks at the Paul Vernon Chester website for sharing their materials. There is a lot more info there!

Chris Spedding

Chris Spedding with his Gibson Flying VChris Spedding — an absolutely stellar guitar player, and all-around cool guy, who I met soon after meeting another awesome gent, Spedding contemporary, Mick Ronson, who I interviewed for Guitar World Magazine. I was introduced to Chris after I started working for VITAL VAN, the premier musician cartage and van moving service in NYC back in the late-80s and early 90s. My Spedding and Vital Van stories could’ve been combined into one really long novella of a post because they are so intimately intertwined, but that isn’t really suitable for the blog format, especially for people who don’t like to scroll, and Chris DEFINITELY rates his own entry. Like Mick Ronson he is a total Guitar Hero and the two of them are not only archetypal British guitar slingers and producers, they also have some very interesting similarities in style. But first, check out Chris with long-time pal, Robert Gordon live on the Conan O’Brien Show.

We were roadies for the Robert Gordon band many times, so I had the chance to watch Chris play up close and personal and we also had many conversations about Guitars, Guitarists, and Guitaring. There were some long drives back from gigs in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington DC and while the rest of the band was recovering from rocking out, Chris was happy to sit in the front seat of the van and talk music and guitars so I would stay alert and on the road (the traveling back to the city was usually 2am-to-whenever). So, as you can imagine, I was able to hear a lot about what he thought about guitar playing! Chris has a very compact, tasteful, lyrical style and he related at one point that someone he admired was George Harrison, because George’s solos usually functioned as a story within the story of Beatles’ songs. While George was certainly a major purveyor of this style of playing, he didn’t invent the concept and all you have to do to see how this evolved from the Jazz/Blues/Swing era to Rockabilly and Rock and Roll is read my post on The World is Waiting For the Sunrise. Like George, Chris is ALL OVER that hybrid of jazz/blues found in rockabilly and rhythm & blues music and playing with Robert Gordon has given him the chance to work this style for a long time. He has an arsenal of neat little tricks that he pulls out from time to time (see the next video), and unlike a lot of guitar heroes he doesn’t make the execution of tricky things a big production. They are just cool little technical moments that add to the atmosphere of the song. It has been years since I was involved with these guys, but I think Chris’s guitar stylings and Robert’s rockabilly boogie baritone have only gotten better with age. Both of their respective careers traversed much of the same landscape as the 70s and 80s punks, and I’m glad they have managed to age with the confidence and grace that is a characteristic of any of the great music icons. If you want to hear some great Rockabilly and Rock n’ Roll, they are the Real Deal.

Chris also hung out with the Vital Van crew from time to time — a real down-to-earth cat with a great sense of humor, and an avid reader. I remember him working his way through Gore Vidal’s Burr. The Vital scene was chock full of guitar players, and all of us picked up many a helpful hint just from being in Chris’s orbit. He also left his guitars lying around and at least 3 of us cut songs on our own recordings using a Chris Spedding guitar. He had a beautiful Gibson Hummingbird that I used on a song I did for a demo that included the awesome WORKDOGS rhythm section. At one point Chris mentioned that he thought that the Mickey Baker jazz books were a great way of learning how to read and play the kind of stuff he was able to work into his music. I’ve seen Chris start a set with a chord-melody medley of Christmas carols, totally cold (no warm-up backstage), and just kill. As a matter of fact I NEVER saw him warm-up for all the gigs I worked and he was always able to walk onstage, plug in and rock!

As a session player, Chris has been a very important person on some very great albums. It always knocked me out that he was one of the guitarists on the original Jesus Christ Superstar recording. Some of the other music legends he was involved with include Jack Bruce, Harry Nilsson, Roxy Music, John Cale, Paul McCartney, Tom Waits and Elton John. When I interviewed Leslie West in 1990 I mentioned that I had been working with Chris and Leslie had fond memories of his band, Mountain, touring with an early Spedding band, The Sharks, in the 70s. Chris later confirmed this and said that not only did the two bands share the tour, but also would get together at the end of some of the shows to have a big jam. Would’ve been great to see Chris and Leslie together on stage for a song or two don’t you think? Chris also produced some of the first Sex Pistols recordings, and for a long time it was rumored that it was him, not Steve Jones, actually playing on those recordings. I was successful in pitching a Chris Spedding article to Guitar World, (I wish I could find it, but I can’t). and before the interview my editor asked me to bring up the Sex Pistols rumor. I said “yea I’ll totally ask him” even though I already had, and knew the answer, I thought there would be a better chance for the article to get published by stalling. (I had already been handed a couple of rejections). As it turns out, not only did Chris not play on the songs, but his mixes weren’t used and you can read about it from the man himself HERE. Chris did have a whole lot to do with Steve Jones getting THAT guitar sound, which I’ve always thought was pretty flippin’ pro for a 1976 punk band and is probably the reason many people thought it was actually Chris playing. It’s the Spedding sound! If you read the list of credits on his Website, it’s obvious he is a player and producer who is home in many different settings and this is another parallel with Mick Ronson. Both Chris and Mick can be classified not only as superior players, but also as tasteful producers and idea guys for making music — Dudes with Multi-Vision! Here is Chris with Roxy Music from early in the last decade. After the rockabilly, you might think… What’s he gonna do on this song?…and then he plays emotionally and tastefully as he always does.

Chris was a long-time user of Gibson guitars and Fender amps…There are a lot of details on his guitar choices on his Website. He was telling me one night that he found it very easy to work with Les Paul Juniors because he only ever needed or used 1 pick-up (bridge position). On most guitars, he explained, it is impossible to get the sound he wanted on both the bridge and neck positions simultaneously, so it was just easier to get the good sound on the bridge position and use the tone knob or hand muting to produce a neck position sound on the bridge pick-up. As with all guitar players, I’m sure his thoughts on equipment constantly change through the years — at some point he started using a Gretsch, which suits his style perfectly, especially for the rockabilly stuff. He’s always had the slap-back echo sound working for him too and that is one of the two types of guitar echo I favor, especially the way he uses it. When we were working for him he used the Memory Man Deluxe and he would sometimes use a second Fender amp facing him from the front as a guitar monitor. One of my favorite gigs we ever worked was a Chris Spedding-fronted power trio gig in Boston, that included bassist extraordinaire Tony Garnier, long-time member of Bob Dylan’s band. I forget who played drums that night, but after the sound check, Chris, Tony, the drummer, Chicken John and I went and had Thai food and then we returned to the club and the band played something like this…

Of course the crowd dug it immensely just like they still do! It’s great that both Chris and Robert are enjoying a measure of success, because they are two of the very best at what they do. If you have a chance to see them, by all means go!! Hopefully, through the power of the internet, recordings and live performances there are younger players out there who will explore all of the possibilities of studying Chris’s style and will integrate some of it as I and others were able to do so many years ago. It is a way of approaching guitar that can definitely broaden the sonic palette and musical horizon of any player.

**Special thanks to Chicken John for providing the pic of Chris with the Flying V. Chicken has been the proud owner of this guitar for many years.