Gadsden, Tennessee is a typical Southern small town, located north of Jackson, which is itself about another 45 minutes north of Memphis, the nearest big city. When Scotty Moore was born there 82 years ago, on December 27, 1931, it was little more than a hamlet — exactly the kind of place where most of the great formative American rock and blues musicians — from Ike Turner to Johnny Cash to Levon Helm — came from. So perhaps in that sense he was primed to lead the charge in developing a new musical style on the guitar.
The ignition point of Moore’s fame was, of course, his introduction to Elvis Presley by Sun Records’ owner and house producer Sam Phillips. But a lesser guitarist would not have been as well prepared as Moore to help make history. After being introduced to rudimentary six-string by his buddies, Moore started copping jazz and country licks from records. By the turn of the ’50s, some of the best jazz guitarists around were, arguably, the country music session players in Nashville, who included Hank Garland, Harold Bradley and, of course, Chet Atkins. And Moore devoured their work.
Atkins in particular became a model for Moore, who was plying his own speedy versions of Atkins’ fingerpicked licks in his band “the Starlight Wranglers” when he was spotted by Phillips. Together with another Phillips recruit, bassist Bill Black, Moore entered Sun Studios with Presley in 1954 and their scalding version of bluesman Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right (Mama)” propelled them into the grueling lifestyle of road musicians, ricocheting through the South and Midwest in their sedan and eventually reaching the national limelight.
The key to Moore’s propulsive, percussive and yet melodic sound was his picking technique. He combined the use of a flatpick with his fingers to produce the rolling rhythm figures and slicing single note juxtapositions on classic early Presley recordings like “Mystery Train” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” These instant radio smashes spread throughout the South, in particular, like magpies in flight, influencing a host of guitarists just a few years younger than Moore who became eager to build on the foundation being laid by the recordings of Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and other foundational rockers. These emerging guitarists — the likes of Billy Lee Riley, Charlie Feathers, Sleepy LaBeef and Eddie Cochran — adopted and adapted Moore’s style and the wave they created became known as rockabilly.
Of course, Moore wasn’t the style’s only pillar. He and a handful of other musicians in Memphis — which has been a meeting point for cultures since the early European settlers began trading with Native Americans along the city’s bluffs — were forging their own guitar-based fusion of country, jazz and blues. The most notable were Carl Perkins and the Johnny Burnette Trio. But it’s the sound of Moore’s fat bodied Gibson ES-295 that first boomed out of radios across the U.S.
Moore was also able to duplicate the slapback echo Phillips put on his studio tracks when he played on stage with Presley thanks to his use of a Ray Butts EchoSonic amp, which sported a built-in tape unit. That also helped enflame the imaginations of other pickers who saw him perform.
Moore’s approach is so indelibly grained in the guitar zeitgeist that the premiere ES-295 produced by the Gibson Custom Shop today is called the Scotty Moore model. The guitar is a gorgeous golden hollowbody tone machine with a floral pickguard, fit to bear the name of a six-string king.
Although Moore played his namesake ES-295 and others until the 2000s, when arthritis made it impossible for him to perform, he also employed other Gibson guitars during his six-decade career. These have included an L-5 and a Super-400. Today, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee lives in retirement in the countryside outside of Nashville.