An Interview with “The King of Twang,” Duane Eddy

By Ron Denny

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Duane Eddy defines the term “living legend.” Still writing, recording, and performing into his 70s, Eddy was rock 'n' roll’s first electric guitar hero; an artist who used his distinctive “twangy” bass-heavy guitar sound to invent the rock instrumental genre. 

Eddy’s string of hits, including such classics as “Rebel Rouser,” “Forty Miles of Bad Road,” “Because They’re Young,” and “Peter Gunn,” sold over 100 million records worldwide. He also influenced thousands of guitarists including George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen, John Entwistle, Dave Edmunds, and many, many more.

Although he has played several guitar brands in his nearly 60-year career, Duane Eddy will always be linked to his Western Orange 1957 Gretsch 6120. He bought the guitar when he was 19, recorded all of his hits on it, and played it at thousands of performances across the world for more than 50 years. The guitar was officially retired in 2011 and is currently on display at the Musical Instrument Museum in Scottsdale, Arizona.

On a phone interview from his home near Nashville, "The King of Twang” reflected on his long career, influencing other guitarists, working with George Harrison, his 25-year friendship with Fred Gretsch, and his current Gretsch signature guitar.

 

You’ve influenced a lot of guitarists – many of them famous – over your long career. That has to be satisfying to you.

That’s been one of the bonuses. I call it a bonus because it’s not worth anything to anybody but me, and to the person that was affected I suppose, but there have been several people who have credited me with starting their careers and inspiring them to pick up a guitar. Or, if they already played guitar, it gave them the hope because of the way my records were structured. They were simple. A guy could pick up a guitar and play the first line of “Rebel Rouser” and figure it out on the bass strings, and that would be encouraging. They would say, “My Gosh, I can do this,” and then they’d try something else and then they were off and learning.

I’ve had record store owners, music store owners, all kinds of people tell me how I changed their life. I had a luthier tell me that just the other day. He said, “When I first heard your records it changed my life and my thinking,” and you hear that and you say, “My Gosh, I’ve contributed to other peoples’ lives I didn’t even know.” I didn’t mean to do it. I was just trying to get a hit record, and another one, and another one, and loving what I was doing.

George Harrison said you were one of his early influences, and then you two met and started working together in the 80s. How did you and George connect?

We both played Gretsch guitars, so that was the first connection. When The Beatles got huge, I read that George's influences were me and various other people who I don't recall now. He didn't copy me, which was smart, or I thought it was, because Chet Atkins and Les Paul were influences on me but I didn't copy them. You can get inspired from somebody, but that doesn't mean you want to do exactly what they do. A lot of people do that and it never works out. Anyway, that's the first connection.

Didn’t The Beatles see you in 1960 when you toured England?

They did. George shared a story with my wife, Deed, of how he and the lads, meaning The Beatles, saw me in Liverpool in 1960 at the Liverpool Empire Theatre. I stayed at the Adelphi Hotel, which is just down the street from the theater. He said that he and the lads had stood in front of the Adelphi Hotel hoping to catch a glimpse of me. They couldn’t go in because he said they didn’t have proper clothes; the Adelphi was a very posh hotel. But, they would see me going in and were happy and excited with that. They were working local clubs by then or just beginning to.

What made that 1960 England tour, and you in particular, so popular?

Well, the fans had never heard a group that sounded exactly like the record, and I had my “A Group” then with Jim (Horn) and Larry (Knechtel) and Jimmy Troxel on drums and Dave Campbell on bass. And, we were tight. And, when you get tight, you get just a great sound, and every place we played were theaters with good acoustics.  And Lee Hazelwood came along, and he’d sit back with the sound guys and say, “Okay, the sax is going to play so you can turn his mic up.” So, they got a show that sounded just like the records.

What circumstances led to you and George crossing paths and working together in the 80s?

In 1986, the Art of Noise decided to do a remake of “Peter Gunn” which had been a hit for me back in 1959. So, I flew over to England with my guitar and opened up the guitar on “Peter Gunn” for the Art of Noise and it was a worldwide hit. As a result of that, I went to a few shows with them, one of which was the Montreux Rock Festival in Switzerland. Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra and I met backstage and Jeff said, “I know after this hit you’ll be doing an album and I’d love to be a part of it, whatever you’d like me to do. Write, play, produce, anything I can do to help. I’d love to do a few tracks with you.” And I said, ”Okay, I’ll keep that in mind,” and took his number.

Sure enough, later that year I got an album deal with Capital Records. So I did a couple tracks with the Art of Noise, one with Ry Cooder, and then I called Jeff Lynne and said, "Well you were right, I got the album deal. Do you still want to work on some things?" He says, "I would love to Duane, but I'm working with George Harrison at the moment on his new album." He says, "I'm just all wrapped up in that and I wouldn't be able to." I said, "Fine, no problem."

I hung up and forgot about it. Twenty minutes later the phone rings and he says, "It's Jeff. Well, I told George we were talking and I told him you just called me and asked me to help with the album, and George wants to put his album on hold and do yours, do a couple of tracks with you." I said, "Great, we'll be over next week."

This was on your 1987 Duane Eddy album?

Yes. My wife Deed and I, and my ’57 Gretsch, flew over and went to George’s house and recorded three tracks with George. One of them was a song that Ravi Shankar had hummed to him. It had a flat note at the end and George said, “That’s the greatest note I ever heard.”  I said, “Yeah, that’s very interesting.” So I took that line and finished writing that part, then put in a middle part which was not weird, but rather ordinary and common to offset that weird part, and it became “The Trembler.” It was used in Natural Born Killers in a real dark scene with tumbleweeds blowing and rattlesnakes and a dust storm and all that. It was very effective.

What do you remember about recording in George Harrison’s home studio?

His home was amazing. He had a beautiful glass collection and an actual Tiffany lamp in his living room. He had a nice studio in his home with all the latest good stuff. The first day I went into the studio part, there was a set of drums sitting there and George casually says, "Those are the drums that Ringo used on The Ed Sullivan Show." They were just sitting there, set up, and I was thinking how some people would kill to see those. James Burton was in town, so he came by and we sat around and jammed. George had all of his guitars in a room adjacent to the studio; they were all hanging on the wall, about 20 or 30 of them. We talked guitars and he shared pictures. We looked at a lot of pictures and compared the experiences and craziness of being popular and touring.

Is it true George Harrison introduced you to Fred Gretsch?

Yes, I was in England in 1991 and George and Jeff (Lynne) and I were riding around in a car and George said, “You know they’re having a guitar show here in town and the new Gretsch guitars are there, and Fred and Dinah Gretsch are there too, do you know them?” I said, “No, I’ve never met them,” and he said, “Well, I do know them, I’ve met them, and I really like them, and if you’d like to, we can go by and say hello and you can meet them.” I said, “I’d love to do that.”

So we roll up to this big hall, wherever it was in London, and the car stops, we get out and walk up to the door and the man says, ”I’m sorry, sir, you can’t come in here.” George says, “We just want to go in and say hello to the Gretsches.” And, just in case the guy didn’t recognize him, he said, “I’m George Harrison, this is Duane Eddy, and this is Jeff Lynne.” And none of us could believe this guy was going to stop us from coming into a guitar show. I think he knew us, but he told us we had to have documentation and a pass and a lanyard. Then he asked us, “Are you with a company?” And we said, “No, not exactly, we’re `self-employed,’ but we do business with a company in here.” And he said, “Oh, alright, I’ll send somebody back.”  And he had us write down our names and he sent it back to Fred.

Fred and Dinah both came running out, a bit embarrassed, and said, “Yes, these people are okay. We’ll sign the paperwork and they can come in as our guests.” So we went back in and I met Fred and Dinah. We stayed for about an hour or so and I talked with Fred a little bit and told him I’d bought my first Gretsch back in ’57 and had cut all my hits on it and still recorded with it. So, we stayed and enjoyed the guitar show and that’s where I first met Fred and Dinah. I don’t know where we connected the next time, but he suggested making a signature guitar for me, which we did in 1997.

You’ve had a long friendship with Fred. Why has it lasted over 25 years?

I think we’re both similar souls. We’re both quiet. He’s more adventurous than me though, he’s off climbing mountains and going to the Antarctic. That was probably on his bucket list. I don’t really have a bucket list. My bucket list is to find a bucket. I’ve done most everything I wanted to do anyway. I’ve been all over the world that I wanted to go to. I just really like the man, he’s sweet, he’s funny, and we have the same dry sense of humor. He’s just a kind, generous person. And, Deed loves Dinah. They hit it off really well and I love her, too.

I admire Fred for bringing Gretsch guitars back. It took him a while, but he finally made it work. Now it’s a world-class instrument and they’re doing better than ever. I hope with my new album I can contribute to it and draw attention to it as well.

What do you remember about seeing the new line of Gretsch guitars at that London show?

I remember opening one in its case and that “new guitar smell” hit me. It is worse than a new car smell to me. So I’m standing there, I don’t care who’s talking to who or what’s going on, I’m just looking at it and reminiscing about the first time I saw my Gretsch in ’57 when Ziggie took it out of the case and handed it to me, and it just nestled in there so sweetly and was perfect. And the neck was wonderful.

You’re so strongly identified with your ’57 6120. How do you feel when you see another Gretsch?

Basically I just love them and it’s like coming home. It’s like seeing a family member. I don’t care where it is, if it’s in a pawnshop or a guy’s house. I’m immediately drawn to it, especially if it’s a hollow body. And, when I see a 6120, I wonder if it’s as good as my ’57, if it has that same slim neck.

Didn’t Larry Carlton play your ’57 and then had a guitar made with a similar neck?

Yes, he did. Larry and I bumped into each other one day at Mike McGuire’s Valley Arts Music Store. I had my ’57 with me and Larry said, "Can I see it?" I said, "Help yourself." He picks it up and he just plays all these notes. He goes up the neck real fast and back down and back up again. He says, "You know, I believe I'm faster on this guitar. This neck is wonderful." I thought, "How could you tell at that speed? There's not a speedometer.”

Mike was making these guitars back then called Valley Arts. He was making Larry one and Larry said, "Could you make the neck just like this?" Mike says, "I believe I can. Let me measure it." He did, and he put that neck on Larry's new Valley Arts guitar and he loved it.

You worked with the Wrecking Crew didn’t you?

Yes, I’ve known Don Randi since 1958. He played on my records, and three of those guys started with me: Larry Knechtel, Jim Horn, and Steve Douglas. Tommy Tedesco was a monster. He was great. He was funny. I was in Valley Arts Music Store one day and in comes Tommy. He sees me and makes a beeline for me. He says, “Hey Duane, every time I go into a session, the chart always says ‘Duane Eddy solo.’ I just want to know has anybody ever asked you to play like Tommy Tedesco?” The whole place went up in laughter. I guess they thought he was challenging me to a duel or something the way it started. It was just a funny moment. He was a sweet man.

How did the second-generation Gretsch Duane Eddy Signature Model come to fruition?

I got a call from Mike Lewis at Fender saying we would love to have you back at Gretsch and I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah, anytime. We’d love to talk with you about it.” So I talked to him about it and the next thing I know, I’m back with Gretsch, and Stephen Stern, who is great, is coming here and measuring my ’57 6120.

He made me three prototypes. We made one in maple, of course, which is the right one, the original one, but we thought, well, we’d try some other wood on one model. We tried spruce and it wasn’t mushy but bordered on it. It didn’t have the snap or the power of the maple. But, Stephen forgot the old 6120s had a wider binding and was about an eighth-of-an-inch deeper than the current ones, so he incorporated that into his third prototype. It’s the “gold sample” as they call it, and that’s the one we sent to Japan.

I’m glad things happened when they did, because Stephen came out in May of 2010 and took the measurements off of my ’57 and I took the guitar home. The timing was very good, because all of my other guitars were at Soundcheck Nashville, the warehouse and rehearsal hall down by the river. And then we had the great flood of 2010, and I lost 33 guitars. Lost all of them.

You seem pleased with the current Signature Model.

I’m very happy with it. When I retired my ’57 Gretsch, I started using his “son,” the prototype Stephen made me. I did a whole album with it called “Road Trip.” The sound is there as you can tell from the record. All the critics agreed.

You’ve no doubt helped to sell a lot of Gretsch guitars over the years.

I honestly believe Eddie Cochran and I sold more of them than Chet Atkins did, or caused more of them to be bought. Eddie and I played a big part of that because I was selling tens of millions of records, and Eddie sold a few million too before he died. People, who wanted to play, wanted guitars like we were playing.

In closing, if your ‘57 6120 could talk, what would it say?

It would probably say, “Haven’t I done enough? In three more years I can draw early Social Security.”