It was the dawn of rock & roll in the mid-50s, a hopping bopping rock & roll played by such names as Dick Dale, Chubby Checker, Frankie Avalon, and Paul Anka, while the radio was humming to the sounds of bands like Bill Haley and the Comets, The Corsairs, and The Isley Brothers, to mention a few of the many. These were fun times with plenty to sing and dance about, and one of the sounds of the day came from the guitar of one Duane Eddy, the New York lad who gave his distinctive ‘twangy’ style of playing guitar to the world.
Born on April 26, 1938, in Corning, N.Y., the young rock-and-roller started playing when he was just 5, and by 16 he got an orange Chet Atkins Gretsch 6120 and teamed up with his mate Jimmy Delbridge to form the duo Jimmy and Duane. They caught the attention of a DJ at the radio station KCKY while performing there by the name of Lee Hazlewood who offered to promote their first single Soda Fountain Girl in 1955. Eddy had devised his twang style by playing riffs on the bass strings and using an empty water storage tank as an echo chamber in the studio to enhance the twangy sound. It would be the hallmark stamp on his technique, which influenced guitar players such as George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen, Adrian Belew, Bill Nelson, Hank Marvin, and Mark Knopfler among many of his admirers. In 1957 he co-wrote Movin’ n’ Groovin’ with Hazlewood, which charted at # 72 on Billboard’s Top 100. The opening riff was lifted from Brown Eyed Handsome Man by Chuck Berry, and then used again by The Beach Boys in Surfin’ USA. The next year he would break through with the song he is most remembered for, Rebel Rouser, with his raunchy echo-heavy opening riff, the amazing saxophone work by Gil Bernal and the clapping and yelling by the doo-wop formation The Rivingtons. It charted at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100, and sold over a million copies; Eddy’s first gold record.
With new bandmates Steve Douglas sax/flute, Jim Horn sax/woodwinds, and Larry Knechtel/keyboards, he had a string of hits between 1958 and 1963, such as Peter Gunn, a cover of the Henry Mancini piece, Cannonball, from the LP Have ‘Twangy’ Guitar Will Travel (1958), Shazam, Forty Miles of Bad Road, to mention perhaps his best.
The early 60s saw Eddy in a cameo movie roll in the film Because They’re Young, in which he also recorded the title song, an instrumental arrangement that sweetens the twang with strings instead; it would become his biggest selling hit, peaking at #4 on the American charts, and #2 in the U.K.. Curiously, his material was even more popular in the U.K. than his native land, where the readers of the then popular Brit magazine NME (New Music Express) voted him World’s Number One Music Personality, knocking Elvis Presley off the top. His acting career was also finding work in such movies as A Thunder of Drums (1961), The Wild Westerners (1962), Kona Coast (1968), The Savage Seven (1968) and appeared in the TV series Have Gun Will Travel.
His 3rd gold record was also co-written with Hazlewood called (Dance With The) Guitar Man produced by Paul Anka’s company Camy, which belonged to the giant label RCA Victor. Some of his best collaborations were with people like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings on his classic country hit You Are My Sunshine released in 1977, BJ Thomas’ hit Rock And Roll Lullaby, legendary songwriter Tom MacAulay and Keith Potger from The Seekers on Play Me Like You Play Your Guitar, which charted well in the U.K., but without a doubt his reworked hit Peter Gunn with the English avant-garde synth pop outfit Art Of Noise is his most famous collaboration, hitting the Top Ten globally, stayed on Rolling Stone’s #1 dance chart for 6 weeks, and won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental in 1986. Eddy was by then a household name, and continued getting invited to work with big names including a duet with Hank Marvin on his album Into The Light, on a cover of the 1963 hit Pipeline by The Chantays, with Carl Perkins and The Mavericks on the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Country on the song Matchbox. In 1994 Rebel Rouser was featured in the Oscar-winning film Forrest Gump and The Trembler in Natural Born Killers by Oliver Stone, the very same year he was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He also played lead guitar on the Foreigner 1995 hit Until The End Of Time, and on Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for the movie Broken Arrow. He certainly lived up to his title of ’number one music personality’.
His main tools of employment were his aforementioned Chet Atkins Gretsch 6120, his acoustic Danelectro 6-string bass, used on his 1959 album The Twang’s The Thang, and then a series of signature models. *Fun fact - he was the first rock & roll guitarist issued a signature guitar*. In 1961 Guild Guitars unleashed the Duane Eddy DE-400 and the DE-500 deluxe edition. Gretsch also showed their respect for the legend by releasing the 6120-DE in 1997, and Gibson joined the party in 2004 by introducing the Duane Eddy Signature Gibson. As far as onstage gear goes Eddy explains, “In concert, I use a pair of Fender Twin amps with 15” speakers, I use 2 together so I can turn the level down as I want. It’s loud but not deafening. You want people to hear the music. I like the MXR M159 Stereo Tremolo pedal, like the Dunlop one I used to have…”.
It is said that the Brit Invasion in the 60s was commercially devastating to Eddy but he doesn’t share that view, claiming that he learned a lot from them and welcomed the new scene, and after all, gents like Dean Martin were still in the charts, so, he was just fine with the hippies, and besides, if Eddy had a dollar for every guitarist who copied his style, he could buy a dozen castles. From a boy who grew up on the country sounds of Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Red Foley, and Elton Britt, and whose first electric guitar was an Electromuse lap steel given to him by his aunt when he was 9, to the mountain of rock & roll records he produced, and recognition he has won, this soft-spoken giant of the electric guitar is still rocking at 81 years young. He was recently involved with singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys on his 2nd solo release Waiting On a Song in 2017, in which Auerbach describes Eddy as “a fucking awesome soloist”, admiring the trademark licks Eddy throws into the stomper Living In Sin.
Duane Eddy was bestowed the title “Titan of Twang” in 2000 by the mayor of Nashville, a title which says it all, he was a God, and is a solid gold brick in the wall of rock & roll history.