Happy birthday to a guitarist once so popular he beat out Elvis Presley as Britain’s favorite international musician. The “Titan of Twang”, Duane Eddy, turns 84 today. His name might not be instantly recognizable, but his sound most certainly is.
Although he was born and spent his childhood in New York, his family moved to Arizona in his teen years and he quickly fit in there and found a way of incorporating the wide open spaces of the desert into his guitar-work, which was something he’d been working on since he was a pre-schooler. At 16, he bought a Gretsch guitar and the rest is history, as they say. He soon formed a duo called Jimmy & Duane in Phoenix and put out a single called “Soda Fountain Girl” in 1955. It was a minor hit in the city, and the pair became popular in the area playing country music. Around that time, Duane started to play his trademark “twangy” sound, concentrating on the lower, bass strings on his guitar (and later, at times even using a six-string bass). When he signed a record deal, the producer, Lee Hazlewood, decided it needed more echo so he bought a 2000-gallon tank for Eddy to play in to really add reverb!
The sound took off and in 1958 he had his first real hit, “Rebel Rouser” which hit #6 in the U.S. and earned him a gold single. He’d go on to have a dozen top 30 hits by 1963 including “Because They’re Young” and “Dance With the Guitar Man.” He was even more popular across the ocean, with 18 top 30s there by the mid-’60s. So well-known and loved was he there that in 1960, the NME named him the favorite international musician, ahead of Elvis. As the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame would say, some 30 years later when he was inducted, “twang came to represent a walk on the wild side…the sound of revved-up hot rods made for rebels with or without a cause.”
Eddy’s now best-known for his take on a somewhat obscure TV show’s theme. Peter Gunn was a bete-noire type detective show around the end of the ’50s. Henry Mancini composed the theme for it, recalling it “derives more from rock and roll than jazz” and using a tense piano and guitar in unison sound to make it “sinister.” Eddy put his guitar sound to it and made it into a British top 10 hit… twice. First in 1959, then later with the band Art of Noise who redid it in 1986.
The Beatles of course changed the sound of pop dramatically around 1963, which coincided with when Duane’s hot streak petered out. He turned to acting for much of the rest of the decade, and in the ’70s produced some country records, and showed up here and there on other records, like B.J. Thomas’ “Rock & Roll Lullaby” which he played guitar on. Still, in those few short years he racked up quite a string of hits and influenced a whole generation of young guitarists including Bruce Springsteen, Dave Davies of the Kinks, Mark Knopfler and even George Harrison. No wonder he was an early entrant into the Rock Hall… and only the second winner of Guitar Player‘s “Guitar Legend” designation. The first was Les Paul, putting Eddy in pretty good company. And like Paul, there is a guitar named for Duane… the Gretsch “Duane Eddy” 6120DE.
Eddy was still touring as recently as 2018, when he had an 80th birthday tour!