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Get That Tone: Scotty Moore with Elvis Presley

Dave Hunter
Scotty Moore with Gibson Super 400 CESWe often think of the solidbody electric guitar as the instrument that gave birth to rock and roll, citing guitars like the Fender Broadcaster of 1950, the Gibson Les Paul of 1952, or the Fender Stratocaster and the Gretsch Duo Jet (actually a semi-solid design) of 1954. The fact is, however, when these new tools were just hitting the scene—and while the whole concept of a solidbodied guitar was still awaiting judgment from players at large—rock and roll was already being forged on the instruments that great players had been using to make groundbreaking music for a full decade or more. Chuck Berry, Danny Cedrone with Bill Haley and His Comets, Cliff Gallup with Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, Eddie Cochran, and Duane Eddy all helped to establish this now-familiar sound on archtop acoustic-electric guitars. But arguably none was as influential, by dint of sheer mass-market exposure alone, as Scotty Moore with Elvis Presley. Playing a range of Gibson archtops in a setting that was not really so far removed from the jazz orchestra’s bandstand, Moore laid down a driving, frenetic new style of guitar playing that was utterly revolutionary for its time, and which forever changed the face of popular music.

Scotty Moore and Elvis PresleyIt was a winding road to rock and roll, but the music’s main proponents took its dips and hairpin turns at breakneck speed from the late 1930s until the mid ’50s, when the new genre was commonly recognized. The swift confluence of sounds that gave birth to the music of the time is thoroughly documented. Less often discussed, however, is the fact that the wilder, out-of-left-field rhythmic riffing styles developing in near-equal measures in country, blues, and jazz were all being played on very similar equipment—simply because that’s all that any guitarist had available to them at the time—and it’s fascinating to consider the rapid evolution of both playing styles and rigs in the short space of the preceding decade. By and large, these artists were all playing archtop guitars manufactured by Gibson, Epiphone, Gretsch, or—eventually—Guild, through amps that were very often sold by the same maker or, by the mid 1940s, one of the Fender amps originally intended for that new company’s lap-steel guitars. All of these guitars were big, somewhat dark and boomy sounding by today’s standards, and not over-blessed with sustain or definition; the amps, meanwhile, were basic and low-volume creations by today’s standards. Nevertheless, turn an adventurous jazz, blues, or western-swing artist loose on a rig like this, and he was going to give you something wild, make no mistake.

Although he died 10 years before the music was given a name, Charlie Christian’s scorching, infectious single-note riffing clearly prefigured rock and roll guitar styles. Likewise, the playing of jazzer Eddie Durham, jazz-inflected blues man T-Bone Walker, and country guitarists Junior Barnard of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Bob McNett with Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys shows adventurous musicians cutting loose with radical bends, rapid single-note runs, and gutsy double-stop lines that would all have felt entirely at home in early rock and roll … if the music had been invented.

What the burgeoning new genre really needed to make it a movement, though, was a frontman, a heartthrob of a star, and not just a collection of revolutionary sidemen. That star lit the night of the 1950s music scene in the biggest way possible in the form of Elvis Presley, of course, but even Elvis owed a lot to the men making the music behind him, and none carried as much of the weight of the instrumental side of the early Elvis experience as Scotty Moore.

You’ve heard them all before. That sound is in your blood and doesn’t really require any further transfusion. But just for kicks, and with your tonehound’s hat on, check out Elvis’s “That’s All Right (Mama),” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Mystery Train,” and “Hound Dog,” and dig how lively, vibrant, and dynamic that guitar playing really is. Moore’s lithe, nimble style drives the music no doubt, but his tone kicks the whole Elvis experience up a notch with a fervor equal to his chops.

Scotty Moore with a Gibson L-5Early on with Elvis, Moore played a Gibson ES-295, then briefly an L-5, but is most famously seen with a Super 400CES (the suffix denoting “Cutaway Electric Spanish”). Having already said that these archtop electrics were predisposed to being “dark and boomy,” Moore does get a lot of bite and sizzle out of his early ’50s Gibson Super 400CES. This was a pre-humbucker guitar, so it carried two cutting, aggressive P-90 pickups, singlecoil units that really do embody the gritty, muscular tone of vintage rock and roll. Of course Moore’s amplifier played a big part in the sound, too, and his was a rare and unusual concoction, to say the least. Nowhere else do you find such a seminal example of the slap-back echo sound that partially defines early rock and roll guitar as in the playing of Scotty Moore … other than, perhaps, that of Carl Perkins or mid-’50s Chet Atkins. What do they all have in common? The Ray Butts EchoSonic amp, of course.

Scotty Moore's Ray Butts EchoSonic ampIn the early ’50s Butts developed a loop-based echo system that first used a loop of recording wire, then tape when it became available, which was small enough to be mounted in the back of a guitar amplifier. The design, which he called the EchoSonic, became an instant hit with some Memphis and Nashville guitarists, and although he only ever made a limited number of EchoSonics himself, Butts’s concept for the tape echo would be emulated by a number of other popular products. An external tape echo unit called the Echoplex was built first by Market Electronics in Cleveland, Ohio, in the late ’50s, then by Harris-Teller of Chicago, Illinois. The latter was marketed by Gibson’s sibling company, Maestro, and is the best-known version of the early tube-powered EchoPlex. Today Gibson offers an extremely versatile digital emulation of the legendary EchoPlex, the Echoplex Digital Pro Plus, while actual tape-loop echo units are quite rare. The effects maker Fulltone introduced a highly regarded unit a couple years ago, the Tube Tape Echo (TTE), based roughly on an updated, modified tube Echoplex, and Hiwatt has introduced a rack-mountable solid-state tap echo. Alternatively, dial up a good, short echo on your favorite analog delay pedal, plug in an archtop electric with fat sounding P-90 pickups, and inject it all through a vintage-style tube amp, and you won’t be a million miles from the Scotty Moore sound. Bang out that slap and tickle, and you’re ready to rock and roll all night. Be warned: it gets in your blood.
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