Brian Setzer literally went from playing rockabilly to swing and back again over the last 35 years (with a few detours along the way into uncharted territory not relevant to this site). He has created a successful music career for himself by reviving retro and vintage sounds of the 40's and 50's.
The Stray Cat
He first came to prominence in the early 80's with his Rockabilly trio the Stray Cats, featuring Slim Jim Phantom on drums and Lee Rocker on double bass. They started out from humble beginnings before venturing to the UK and after hearing there was still a keen rockabilly scene they headed to London. After playing some low key gigs the word quickly got around about this incredible American band playing around the scene and big names such as The Rolling Stones and Dave Edmunds came along and the rest is history, it wasn't long before they got signed.
I’d not heard of Rockabilly and wasn't even very musically inclined until I first saw the Cats on tv & it instantly called to me, I loved everything about it. But what really called to me was that big orange Gretsch guitar and it's twangy tone, but that's another story.
Brian Setzer didn't just rehash the 50's sound he updated it to appeal to a modern audience which helped launch quite a Rockabilly revival. It became quite obvious to even the more renowned guitarists of the day that he was a very good player, he was still in his late teens at this time.
Although Setzer is renowned as a Rockabilly guitarist, you can hear many sub genres in his playing such as country, blues and jazz, you'll even hear him throw in the occasional Django Reinhardt lick. But he also pays homage to the likes of Cliff Gallup, Scotty Moore and Merle Travis.
In his solo projects he has ventured into other genres such as rock and pop also, so he is an extremely versatile player.
The Stray Cats And Beyond
When The Stray Cats split up in around 1984 Setzer did a bit of solo work and released an album called The Knife Feels Like Justice. This was quite a radical change in direction and didn't really do anything for me. The album wasn't really marketed that well and only received minor success.
Then in 87 he got to play his hero Eddy Cochran in the movie La Bamba, which I think may have been the catalyst for the reform of The Stray Cats in 1989. I got to see them live a few times the next few years and they played some amazing shows and Brian’s guitar work by this time was quite amazing!
The Brian Setzer Orchestra
The Stray Cats reunion was short lived and around 1994 Brian went from a 3 piece band to an 18 piece orchestra. I personally loved it, but it was initially received with mixed emotions from the die hard Stray Cat fans.
The move to big band and swing allowed Setzer to really explore his guitar work, this is when he really got to show off what he is capable of. He has received a few Grammy awards for his work, which was well deserved in my opinion.
He didn't completely desert his rockabilly roots, he still kept his trademark twangy Gretsch tone and performed some jazzed up renditions of classic cats tracks such as Rock This Town and Rumble In Brighton as can be seen on his Live In Japan DVD.
Brian Setzer '68 Comeback Special
On the Live In Japan DVD Brian does a small rockabilly set with the drummer Bernie Dresel and Mark Winchester on Double Bass.
This set takes things right back to 1981 and Brian's rockabilly roots. They only released one CD called Ignition, but if anyone was to ask me which one CD would I recommend to purchase of Brian Setzer, this would be it.
The guitar work on this album is loud, proud, in your face and really quite extraordinary. The three outstanding tracks for me personally are Hellbent, where Brian cranks the overdrive on his amp and truly lets rip on his Gretsch.
My 2nd choice is a country rocker called 8 Track where Brian even throws in some yodelling. The guitar contains a lot of twangy Merle Travis picking and he switches over to some soaring flat picking mid solo.
Thirdly the final track on the album is an instrumental called Malaguena. This is a “Setzerised” version taking Brian into the classical Spanish guitar realms with a bit of jazz thrown in for added drama. But it truly demonstrates just how versatile he is as a guitarist.
2004 The Return Of The Stray Cats
This was the moment I was waiting for, the Stray Cats announced a European Tour after a 15 year hiatus. They toured right across Europe, each show was recorded and released on CD and the gig I attended in London was released on DVD. So if you didn't get to see the gig and would like to see Setzer in all his glory, the DVD is called Rumble In Brixton.
Even though the cats had aged a fair bit by now, they still had the same energy and passion as they worked through their past hits. Of course Setzer didn't disappoint, he played like a true virtuoso.
They did a final tour in 2008 called The Fairwell Tour, which ended abruptly due to Slim Jim Phantom falling off stage and breaking his wrist.
A Fine Balancing Act
By now, Setzer had followers in both the Rockabilly movement and for the Swing scene & he has continued to produce CD’s and perform shows for all his loyal fans right to this day.
As well as touring throughout the year he now does a regular yearly Christmas tour with his orchestra. They have released quite a few CD’s and a DVD based on this theme, the concerts are a sell out, can you think of a better way to party at Christmas?
He has recently announced that The Brian Setzer Rockabilly Riot will be headlining Viva LasVegas in 2016, so that’s going to be one to watch out for.
Personally I'd love to hear the announcement that The Stray Cats are going into the studio to record a new CD, that would be the cherry on the cake for me. I expect many others feel the same way “Brian are you reading this"?
Brian is renowned for playing Gretsch guitars almost exclusively through his career, but he has occasionally deviated from the path.
I saw him play a Gibson Super 400 & a D'Angelico with his Orchestra. He is also a pretty good banjo player, it seems there are few limits to his talent.
His amp of choice is a 1963 6G6-B Fender Bassman and he also uses a Roland RE-301 Chorus Echo
Here is a video filmed at Brian’s house no less, showing off his guitar collection.
Learning To Play Like Setzer
First of all, how much time do you have? You may get to learn a few of his songs, but to play to the same standard would take many years of hard study. Brian reads music, which helps as he will know every note on the fretboard.
He is a very good finger picker ranging from Merle Travis Picking, Chet Atkins right through to Scotty Moore. He also plays a lot of bebop even in the rockabilly stuff, as many of the 50's artists did also. Bebop is probably one of the hardest guitar styles to master. You're going to need to know many chords and inversions of those chords and the corresponding arpeggios, modes and scales.
Then you can throw in some country and blues and you might be a quarter of the way there.
Then you're going to need to develop a very fast and precise flat picking technique and once you have all these elements down, you have to develop a way to use it all in a musical way. This is what makes Brian Setzer such a good player. You can know as many chords and scales as you like, but making them sound musical and interesting is an art in itself.
Something else I always try to point out to a novice guitarist that has aspirations to play like a particular player, in this case Brian Setzer. I always advise the student to research the player and find out who their hero's are and study them also. Not only will you achieve your goals, you will surpass them this way.
I will be adding many learning and study resources to help you obtain your guitar goals as the site builds out, so check back often.
For a complete discography of Brian Setzers work, please click here.