How Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley – and Gibson – Created Rock Lead Guitar
Rock historians debate the ignition point of the genre. Some cite Louis Jordan’s 1940s hits like “Caledonia” and “G.I. Jive.” Others, the day Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm pulled into Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service and cut “Rocket 88.” And what about Chuck Berry’s smash debut “Maybelline” and Little Richard’s “Tutti-Fruitti?”
But many, perhaps even most, fans of American music would say that rock ’n’ roll was born on July 5, 1954, when 19-year-old Elvis Presley recorded a hepped-up version of bluesman Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama” that set into motion the machinery that would make him the world’s first rock star.
Guitar history was also made that day, thanks to the sliding, rolling, chiming licks that Elvis’ six-stringer Scotty Moore ladled into the song’s groove. By the time Phillips’ tape machine stopped rolling, Moore had become the first rock lead guitar player. And Gibson was there, thanks to the 1953 ES-295 that Moore wore around his neck.
When Moore ended his military service a few years earlier, he’d tried a few solid body guitars, but found them incompatible with his acoustic instrument background. Finally he came upon a gold ES-295 with two P-90 pickups in a Memphis instrument shop, and it was love at first chord.
To this day the 78-year-old picker has never recorded with any guitar other than those in his own collection, and many of them have been Gibsons – all archtop hollowbody and semi-hollowbody models, strung with a heavy gauge that’s suitable for his rollicking style, which alternates almost constantly between deft single-string picking and booming chords.
The Gibson Company unveiled the ES-295 in 1952 as an update of the ES-175, which debuted in 1949. The sizeable hollowbodied ES-175 was created as a lower-priced alternative to the classic L-5 CES and boasted a carved rosewood bridge, one P-90, a laminate top and a single, deep Venetian style cutaway. The ES-295 was essentially the same guitar fortified with two pickups and available in gold.
Moore used his original ES-295 on “Baby, Let’s Play House,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and a slew of other hits that helped define rock ’n’ roll and made Elvis a giant. Moore’s playing on these tracks also made the ES-295 the “ultimate rockabilly guitar,” in the words of Brian Setzer.
Nonetheless, by the time Elvis and Moore recorded “Mystery Train” in 1955, the legendary Tennessee picker has switched to a Gibson L-5 CES as his main axe. The L-5 dates back to 1922 when the cello-shaped f-hole-bearing acoustic was designed by the great Gibson luthier Lloyd Loar. The L-5 CES was created in 1951, when Gibson, bearing the modifications of two P-90s pickups and a rosewood bridge, produced the first 31. Moore can be heard playing his blonde L-5 CES on “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” all bold slices of rock history.
Next came a sunburst Gibson Super 400 CES, the electrified version of the big-bodied acoustic beauty that Gibson first began producing in 1934. Moore’s had two square pole Alnico pickups and looked pretty as a rose thanks to its gorgeous finish, split-diamond headstock inlay, sculpted tailpiece and split-block neck inlays. It can be heard on the Jailhouse Rock and King Creole recordings, the albums that accompanied two of Elvis’ best films. In 1964 Moore got a second Super 400 CES that he played on Presley’s famed so-called “’68 Comeback” TV special, where Moore briefly swapped the guitar for Elvis’ Gibson J-200 acoustic for a handful of songs when Elvis played electric.
Producer Chips Moman, who was based at Memphis’ American Sound Recording Studios, purchased Moore’s first Super 400 CES. When Elvis visited the studio to record in 1969, it was still hanging on the wall. Session guitarist Reggie Young took the instrument down and used it on the sessions that produced “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds” and “Kentucky Rain.”
As the years went by, Moore began looking for a thinner-bodied guitar. He experimented with a 1981 reissue Gibson 1959 ES-335, but eventually settled on a Gibson Chet Atkins model. He got his first from Chet himself in 1989. It was a prototype made by Gibson master builder Jim Hutchins. After he nearly lost the guitar in an airline snafu, Moore asked Hutchins to build him another, which has been his main stage guitar since 2002.
Although Moore’s recording history begins with Elvis, it doesn’t end with “The King.” Moore can also be heard on albums by country legends Ernest Tubb and Charlie Rich, rockers Ron Wood and Dale Hawkins, blues artists Joe Louis Walker and Tracy Nelson, and many others.