When the Stray Cats’ eponymous first album was released in 1981, Gretsch was a forgotten brand of guitars, relics of a bygone era in which no one was interested. The vogue back then was for Floyd Rose Superstrats, or strange pointy beasts with neck-through construction. Hollow-body guitars did not mix well with the compressed distortion sounds that were popular at the time. But the success of the singles Runaway Boys, Stray Cat Strut, and Rock This Town changed all that.
On the cover of that first album, Brian Setzer is holding an orange 6120 with Bigsby, a 1959 model that is still with him to this day, and has even been painstakingly reproduced by the Gretsch Custom Shop. Since then, the 6120 has once again become a desirable object for musicians in the new rockabilly scene, the mad dogs of psychobilly, and even for traditional rockers like the Traveling Wilburys. Without Setzer, it is highly likely that the brand would no longer even exist, and Gretsch seems well aware of its debt to the pompadour virtuoso, considering the number of models in their catalogue that currently bear his name. Although Brian plays these modern guitars on stage from time to time (especially when he has to travel to Japan or Europe), his preference is naturally for his extensive collection of vintage models. Like any self-respecting specialist collector, he knows what makes a great vintage 6120: a sound that is both snappy and round. That’s not so easy to find given the inconsistency of Gretsch’s production.
This 6120 was long one of his favourites. He played it extensively in the studio and on stage, to the point that he had it refretted—the telltale sign of a guitar that has given service. Beyond its prestigious origin, this is one of the most beautiful examples of a vintage tiger-finish top, a keepsake that has lost none of its beauty, quite the contrary.
Group : Stray Cats
Main guitar : Gretsch 6120 1959
An absolute “must-hear” track : Rock This Town
The Stray Cats’ first album struck the musical landscape of the 1980s like an earthquake. When the eponymous record was released in 1981, the tastes of the day tended towards convulsive drum machines and synthesisers. Going completely against the grain, Brian Setzer, Lee Rocker, and Slim Jim Phantom’s trio reminded the world of how much the primal energy of rockabilly could provide a thrill without resorting to such decorations.
Since then, the rockabilly revival has never entirely waned and even the roughest-edge punks still retain an unconditional respect for Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. All this is thanks to Brian Setzer and his radical, non-conformist, and brilliant vision. His energetic and raspy voice, his amazing guitar playing, and his stage presence won over even the most recalcitrant, without falling into easy nostalgia.
Setzer’s approach to the guitar is obviously inspired by great elders like Scotty Moore or Cliff Gallup, but he adds a more saturated sound, more fluid phrasing, and the omnipresent influence of Django.
Like any self-respecting meteorite, the Stray Cats’ life was very short, and they split up in 1984, although they have sometimes got together again in the years since. Despite myriad different signature models from Gretsch, Setzer’s sound recipe will always remain very close to the original, i.e. a 6120 plugged into a blonde Bandmaster stack via a Roland Space Echo effects unit.
Setzer then launched his solo career, later joined Robert Plant in The Honeydrippers, and—most importantly—in 1990 he took on his wildest and most ambitious project: the Brian Setzer Orchestra. This big band of 18 musicians—in theory impossible to make financially viable—will soon have been touring regularly for thirty years, often around the end-of-year celebrations. Setzer’s talent was needed to so brilliantly overcome that challenge.