The guide to surviving a life in music, by those who know best

Duane Eddy is the twanging king of rock ‘n’ roll guitar. Clash talked to him for the 'Rock And Rules' column of its July issue, below you can read the full interview.

You started playing guitar around age five. Do you think it’s a good idea to get children playing music early?

It definitely is. Studies have shown that it helps with their other school work as well. Working and learning an instrument helps with their math skills in a way. Of course, I just fell in love with it. It’s great for everybody.

Were you encouraged to do so by your parents? Were they musical?

My dad showed me a few chords on the guitar that he knew, and my mother played a little harmonica, but that’s about it. They were never really into it, they just liked it, you know? So I fell in love with it and got really into it. But they were very supportive all the time I was growing up.

When you were a little older and beginning to play music professionally as a teenager, were you paying much attention to school?

Not really, but I didn’t have to. We moved to Arizona from New York State and the schools there in Arizona were completely different. I knew everything that they were teaching - I’d already learned it in New York state. School never conflicted with music anyway.

So now, if someone were keen to pursue a life in music, would you tell them to go for it, or to stay in school?

Oh, I’d definitely stay in school. Get through with that first and then go for it if you really want to, but you have to be passionate about it. And you have to find out if people like what you’re doing. I’d worked in clubs for years before I ever made a record.

Tell me about that time when you started out and were playing clubs. What did you do to stand out and be heard and make yourself known?

Well, I didn’t do anything getting my name out there, but I just was part of a band that played dances, clubs and honky tonks, and some really funky clubs too! The band was also on a local TV show in Phoenix for an hour playing country hits. Things like that. We played big dances on Saturday nights. So, you know, it was a full-time job for me.

You soon developed your own sound - what we now know as the “twangy” sound. Is that something you did deliberately so you’d stand out with your own identity?

Exactly right. I did. That’s something I learned from the country singer Hank Williams. From listening to him, I realised he was so successful and I thought, well, what does he do? Everything he does, he does it with authority and lets it all hang out, and he’s got his own style. All country artists - I learned from all of them - they all had their own style. You could tell in the first few bars of a song which artist it was gonna be if you knew their style and their sound. At least you could in the Fifties; I don’t think you can do that now. You used to hear just the intros and I’d know who it was gonna be even if I’d never heard the record, because they had their own sound, and the guitars would...

And you wanted to have the Duane Eddy sound?

Yeah. So I wanted to be distinct, and I knew that the bass strings were more powerful in the studio and recordings than the treble strings, so I just went down there in that neighbour hood and worked out some melodies and things...

There must have been some competition for you, as in the '50s the guitar was the new fashion and everybody wanted to play. Is that why you had to set yourself apart?

I never thought of it as competition. I never thought of music as being a sport. I thought of it as being an art. No, we weren’t competitive with each other. The bands in Phoenix were competitive at getting better places to play, but the musicians themselves weren’t competitive. Guitar players were very supportive of each other in those days. You were always very welcome to join in and show what you could do.

Was it easier for you to perform just as a guitarist than it was for the other rock ‘n’ roll icons like Elvis Presley who had to get up and sing?

No, I don’t think so. I was the only one doing rock ‘n’ roll instrumentally. There had only been two hit instrumentals before me, and that was ‘Raunchy’ and ‘Honky Tonk’. There had been other instrumentals, like ‘The Flute’ and “Singing Sheperd Blues’ and things like that, but never on guitar. I was the first one to do that, bring it front and centre, and to make records that actually feature it. So I guess maybe it was because so different that it caught on.

You were quite young when success hit. How did you cope with success? Was it an easy transition?

Some of it was good and some of it wasn’t. I was nineteen when I had my first chart record, and turned twenty just before ‘Rebel Rouser’ came out, so I was just twenty years old when it all hit. I handled it pretty good as far as the fans and doing the shows and all that, and I attempted to become a professional and always be listening to the fans and spending time with them and signing autographs and all that sort of thing, and I thought that was the thing that was expected of me, and to do my songs on stage the same as I’d done them on record. The only thing where I fell short was the getting paid for it. People were robbing me blind and I had no idea. They gave me enough to where I thought I was doing great, but it turned out later that I was only getting like a quarter of what I should have got.

What advice would you give to someone with regards to the business side of music?

That’s where it goes back to keep going to school, get that business degree! Learn how to handle money and maybe learn a bit of law. I’ve become half a music lawyer through the years - I can read a contract with the best of them! Not that it did me any good, because I had great contracts sometimes, but there’s still ways around things. I’m not trying to be bitter about it or anything, I’m not. I don’t look back, I look forward, and shame on them. Some artists are very good with business, but I have no idea about it.

You’re known for a career of clean living and have managed to avoid the excesses of rock ‘n’ roll behaviour. Was that easy to do?

Well, there’s temptation everywhere, but yeah, basically it was very easy to do. I’m no good at drinking, I’ve tried that. It just makes me want to go to sleep. I don’t do it well so I don’t do it at all. I don’t like the feeling, I don’t like the taste of the stuff... I’ve been lucky that way - I don’t have an addictive personality, I guess. I never like to be out of my head, you know? Even pleasantly so. If the doctor gives me pain medicine, I get off it as soon as I can because I don’t like that sleepy feeling - it affects me different, I guess. I really didn’t have the attraction to it that a lot of people do.

You must have seen people that eventually ruined their creativity through excess?

Yes, they do. I could see how it could happen, because when you’re not in your straight mind, you’re just not thinking straight and you don’t even realise it. It’s a shame that people have done, but then most of ’em have got cleaned up after a while and stopped everything and then gone back to work and made some great stuff.

When rock ‘n’ roll exploded, you wiped out the previous generation of musical icons, rendering them irrelevant. You must have experienced that
later on as you eventually went out of fashion. How do you cope with changing tastes?

You know that it’s going to change. I knew it was going to change. I observed that most artists had about a five-year run, had some hits, and then they slacked off and faded out a great deal. I noticed that, and then after I’d had a five-year run, here came The Beatles. By that time I was exhausted - I’d been on the road for five years solid, and if I wasn’t on the road I was in the studio, and it was exhausting. I was out of ideas and out of energy. So I didn’t mind the music scene changing - I couldn’t change with it because I didn’t fit into it that well. I could have later, but it just kinda went wild after a couple of years - it got into acid rock and everything else. I had to wait until that ran its course really before I started recording again, and I did - in 1979 I had a hit, and I went from cutting-edge to easy listening in a few short years! In 1970 I had a record called ‘Freight Train’, which got into the Top Ten of the easy listening chart. I found that amusing, but I thought, ‘Well, you do what you can’. I was not unhappy - I had certainly had a great run - and then in 1975 I got another hit all over the world except in the United States, with Tony Macauley producing; a song called ‘Play Me Like You Play Your Guitar’. Then in ’84, I did another record with The Art Of Noise, and we did ‘Peter Gunn’, which got into the Top Ten everywhere.

So you would recommend for someone to ensure that their career endures to ride things out, or do you sit and wait your turn?

You do what you feel is the right thing to do. You just play it by ear and hope your luck holds.

You’re going to be touring soon. Do you still enjoy touring?

I do. I really enjoy it with the band that I have there now, Richard Hawley’s guys. I borrow his band from him when he’s not using it, and since we have the same manager we can co-ordinate that. And the guys are happy to have the extra work, I guess. And I have a sax player from here. It works out great, and I enjoy the heck out of it.

Do you have a routine when you’re on tour?

No, not really, other than getting there and setting up and doing soundcheck and then doing the show.

I can imagine it can get confusing travelling from city to city and country to country while on tour. How do you retain your sanity while on the road?

I read a lot. I love reading fiction. I’m a heavy reader, so I’ve always got a book handy, and I escape into that. That passes the time on the trains and planes and cars and coaches and backstage. But usually when you’re in the theatre or concert hall there’s plenty to do and plenty of activity. It’s a close-knit family: you get to know everybody and love them, and it becomes like a family. If you’re out there way too long, then I suppose people can get a bit wacky.

You must enjoy the opportunity to meet your fans after your shows. What do they usually say to you or ask you?

Well, I ask them sometimes. After they’re through asking me, I turn the tables on them and ask them. We get talking and I find out what they do. Because we’re all doing the same thing, it’s just a different profession. Except for kids, but even then, young kids are going to school so that’s kind of a profession for them. But everybody’s got a job of some kind, and most of ’em have something interesting about it that they can tell you about, and I’ve ended up becoming very good friends with several of my fans. What started it was that we had the music in common - we both had that interest in common - and they liked my music, so we started with that and talked about other music, and you find out that you agree on a lot of things.

And you’ve stayed in touch?

Oh yes. I had the whole front row at the Royal Festival Hall as all friends. I looked out there and I knew everybody in the first row! It was amazing.

So touring is a good opportunity to catch up with old friends in every city?

It is. It’s like coming home again. And the same thing in America. When I play here I’ve always got good friends in the audience and backstage.

Did you enjoy your time in Sheffield?

I did. I loved it there. I really had fun and enjoyed it. It’s a beautiful city, and the surrounding countryside is breathtaking. I got out to the Peak District and Derbyshire and Bakewell and other places around that area, and it just was gorgeous. These little villages that looked like they were out of a movie! It was just amazing and beautiful. Rivers, creeks, woods, stone walls that go on and on, mountains, and routes that I’d never seen before, because I’d mostly been on the motorways and railways. It was an eye-opening experience.

Finally, if you had to pass on a single piece of advice to someone that was looking to pursue a career in music, what would that be?

This always reminds me of a friend of mine, Buddy Emmons. He was a steel player that worked with me on my country album at RCA. They asked him that one day, they said: ‘Buddy, what advice do you have to give to the young and up-and-coming players?’ And he said: ‘Not one damn thing! They’re on their own,’ he said. ‘Just let them find out the way I did.’ And that’s true, everybody has to find it their own way, but I think you’ve got to be passionate about it, I will say that. You’ve got to really love doing it, and you’ve got to be lucky too - you’ve got to feel lucky, and you’ve got to try and communicate whatever you’re doing with your audience, because that’s what will make or break you. And just work hard at it, be professional, don’t mess it up. I’m not against partying - I’m not a buzzkill or something - but there’s a time and place for everything. Any regular people who go to work every day in a shop or a post office or something, they don’t go and get loaded before they go to work, so why should a guy who’s getting on stage and really needs his wits about him get loaded before he does that? They think they’re playing better in their heads, but if they listen to it objectively they’re usually not. So once in a while a guy will get crazy and it loosens his inhibitions, and that’s what they’re trying to do, I think, when they over do it. I think it conflicts with the adrenalin too that you would naturally have in a situation like being on stage in front of people. You’ve got a bunch of adrenalin going and it doesn’t mix well with drugs or alcohol. You’ve got me preaching today! I don’t want to do that! I don’t really care - it’s just better for you if you don’t. What other advice? Yeah, like I discussed earlier, pay attention to the business side of it, and try to learn as much as you can about it. Try to learn a little about what’s possible and what people are doing so you know what to do.

‘Road Trip’, the new album from Duane Eddy, co-produced by Richard Hawley, is out now on Mad Monkey Records.

Interview by Simon Harper

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