Elliot Easton

Driving The New Cars
Driving The New Cars

In the late 1970s, The Cars rolled out of Boston to become the preeminent American band to carry the “new wave” flag. Its sound was fittingly sleek, while sporting obvious garage-rock roots. And in a formula that propelled its album sales to platinum status, The Cars trademark songs were decidedly pop, with a distinct album-rock feel.

Driving the band’s sound was in large measure the playing and tones of guitarist Elliot Easton, who has also long been regarded as a knowledgeable guitar collector.

Vintage Guitar first spoke with Easton in 1996, as he was settling in with Creedence Clearwater Revisited, which consisted of the original Creedence Clearwater Revival rhythm section and other musicians. The affiliation lasted several years, but Easton recently felt compelled to move on.

“I’m still friends with those guys,” he told VG. “I had a great time for all those years, but for me, it had run its course. It had nothing to do them. And when talk started about doing the Cars again, there was no turning back, and it made it very hard to play someone else’s music at that point.”

Easton is proud of his work on Creedence Clearwater Revisited’s live double album. “I thought it was great, and it’s done really well,” he said. “I think that in many ways, that band was a better band than the original Creedence – we didn’t originate the sound, of course, and nothing will take that away – but we didn’t try to play things exactly like the records. We added a new energy to the songs, and I got to stretch out a lot. I got to do stuff I didn’t get to do at all in the Cars.”

A decade ago, Easton said his guitar collection was “like an amoeba; always changing shape,” and that’s still the case. He has acquired more left-handed versions of classic instruments and turned some instruments, as well.

He has a nice ’65 Gibson ES-335 with a Bigsby vibrato, and noted in ’96 he was looking for “a clean (Gibson) ES-330,” but as it turns out, he’s delighted with the two Epiphone ’65 John Lennon Casino reissue guitars he acquired.

“Those are some of the closest re-issues to vintage; they’re amazing,” he enthused. “The shape, the finish, the weight, the pickups.”

He had also been seeking a ca. ’64 Gibson SG Standard, but now has a Gibson signature model that’s based on an early ’60s SG/Les Paul. That guitar is one of four different signature models he’s had over the course of his career, and he detailed the entire quartet.

The mid-’80s saw the advent of a Kramer Elliot Easton model, which had a large, ’50s pickguard a la a ’50s Fender Precision Bass, but he got the idea from a Jackson guitar played by Jeff Beck in a video of “Ambitious.”

“That Kramer was a good guitar,” he said, “It probably had the most vintage vibe of any Kramer that’s ever been built. Tom Anderson and I worked on it together, and it didn’t have a pointed headstock. One of them ended up being played by Mick Jagger; that was the Pro 2, which had sort of a Tele pickup setup, but with a five-way switch, and it was a hardtail. I think it may have been the only guitar they made that didn’t have a Floyd Rose (vibrato)!” The Pro 1 had a Floyd Rose, though, and a humbucking/single/single pickup setup, with three mini-toggles.”

As for his Gretsch signature model, Easton detailed, “Ten years later, I’d learned more about guitars, and I had an idea for a guitar. I called Fred Gretsch and he liked it. So he said ‘Let’s go with it.’ I wanted to make a Gretsch guitar that was bulletproof; that a working guy could take on the road. Other than rockabilly players, you usually saw guys wearing Gretsch in videos on MTV, not really using them, with the exception of guys like Billy Duffy and Brian Setzer.

“Duo-Jets had a shorter scale than Gibson; 241?2″ to 243?4″. To get any kind of tension on those guitars you’d have to use pretty big strings. So my idea was to lengthen the scale. I would’ve gone to a full Fender-like 251?2″, but the longer the neck, the further down the body the bridge has to go, and it would have put the bridge right on top of the Bigsby, and at too much of an angle. I compromised to 25″ even, and that had the effect of tightening up the low end and making the guitar ‘twang’ better.”

Other features on the Gretsch included locking Sperzel tuners, a modern composite nut, an ABR-1-style bridge on studs that mounted into the body, and a special Bigsby with rollers, which improves the down-pressure, Easton noted. The pickup selection and tone switches on the upper bout were reversed, compared to the classic Gretsch layout. Pickups were Alnico Filter’Trons, and Easton said that “a lot of guys would get TV Jones upgrades. The feedback from guitar players was great. They got sounds out that guitar they’d never gotten out of a Gretsch.”

The newest signature model electric for Easton comes from Gibson, and the guitarist enthused “I’m just thrilled to death with that guitar. Like a lot of guys my age, I’ve re-discovered a love of SGs. If you watch Woodstock, almost everybody is playing an SG. And I loved Jerry Garcia in the Live Dead period; George Harrison, Eric Clapton. For me, Disraeli Gears is one of the benchmarks of great SG sounds. I still listen to it all the time.”

“I’ve had, and still have, single-cutaway Les Pauls, but the weight of a lot of them gets to you when you’ve been on your feet onstage for a couple of hours. I always thought the white triple-pickup SG Custom, which started out as an SG/Les Paul, was one of the most beautiful guitars Gibson or anybody else ever designed, but like most players, I never got into three-pickup Gibsons. You don’t get the sound of the bridge and neck pickups together, which is one of the sweetest tones on a Gibson. So before we started talking about a signature model, I had the Custom Shop make me a couple of two-pickup SG Customs – white with gold hardware and a Vibrola. They were great, and that setup seemed to make sense for a signature model.

“One other thing I wanted was that rare finish you saw in the ’60s called Pelham Blue,” he continued. “It may have had something to do with Ray Dietrich, an automotive industry guy who designed the reverse Firebird. You’d see Pelham Blue on some SG-shaped Melody Makers, but there were a couple of Pelham Blue SGs and 335s around back then. It’s a classic Gibson color, so my guitar is being offered in Pelham Blue with nickel hardware, or the traditional white with gold hardware, but the Pelham Blue version still has an ebony fretboard and all of the Custom-type appointments.”

Also in the works is an Easton signature model Martin acoustic.

“My favorite acoustics were always (Martin) D-18s and (Gibson) Hummingbirds,” he said. “I love mahogany; I always thought Martin made its mahogany guitars sort of plain Jane, so I came up with a dreadnought with mahogany back and sides that has more or less vintage D-28 appointments – white ivoroid binding and herringbone. It’s got an Adirondack spruce top, scalloped braces, and gold open-back Waverly tuners – all the good stuff.

“What I tried to do – and what I’ve always tried to do – is keep the vintage vibe,” he said, summing up the design experience. “I don’t want to lose the charm of what we love about classic guitars; I just add some tweaks that make it a better player.”

Easton is still a fan of Fender Telecasters, and his ’58 model is “…the oldest I’ve ever had.” He still has the Tele he played at Live Aid in 1984, although the body has been refinished and has a Jazzmaster pickup in the neck position. Easton plans on taking the instrument out with the New Cars.

Other classic Fenders in his collection include a ’65 Stratocaster and a ’66 Jazzmaster, and he also has a too-cool ’64 Fender Bassman piggyback amplifier in blond Tolex.

The rarest production-model guitar is a ’62 Gibson Barney Kessel Custom. “How many lefty players ordered a Gibson Barney Kessel Custom back then? Especially when you consider how many guitar players there were in ’62. I’d bet one guy ordered a lefty Kessel that first year. It’s got factory Grovers on it, a laminated spruce top, P.A.F. pickups, plus a brown case with pink lining. I was cutting a kind of a Wes (Montgomery) track once, and I tried my single-pickup L-5, but when I tried the Kessel, it had that tone, in spades. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a one of a kind.”

He has also kept the first decent flat-top guitar he ever owned – a 1970 Favilla F-5 he acquired at age 16 after saving his money while working at a bagel bakery.

There’s also a circa 1980 Greco copy of a Stratocaster, with a Roland synthesizer. “That was given to me in Japan in 1980, when the Cars first toured there,” he explained. “This was before Fender began its reissue series in ’82. The Grecos, as well as the Tokai clones of classic American guitars, were astonishing in their quality and attention to detail. This Greco was the perfect candidate for the Roland synth pickup and control panel installation, as I sure as hell wasn’t going to make any holes in a real Fender!”

Of the new incarnation of his band, Easton said, “The New Cars is the official, unofficial, and only name of the band. And yes, we did try to get the four original members together, but it became apparent that Ric (Ocasek) and David (Robinson) didn’t want to tour. Even in the old days, Rick never liked touring. But Greg and I loved that music, and wanted to play it, so we said, ‘Who can we get that will not only do justice to the music, but will be a talented front man, songwriter, and singer who we can move forward with?’ Todd Rundgren’s name came up, and it seemed like such a perfect choice; the guy’s brilliant and has so much to offer. I called him, and to my great delight, he was interested. We got together in L.A., and as soon as we started playing, you could tell it was gonna work.”

Rundgren’s former Utopia bandmate Kasim Sulton was recruited on bass, and Easton noted, “That was an obvious connection; Todd gave Kasim his start in show business some 30 years ago, and Kasim has that beautiful, sweet voice. Live, he does a bang-up job with ‘Drive’.”

Drummer Prairie Prince, best known for his work with the Tubes, fills out the lineup. “This is a player’s band, and the rhythm section rocks really hard. I don’t want to compare it to the old band, and one of the main reasons we have the new name is we wanted to avoid the possibility of having anybody into think they’d be seeing Rick or David. Of course, we want to start where we left off with old fans, but we want to gain new fans, too. We’re all writing, and the possibilities of recording studio material are great. If all we’d wanted to do was cash in, it would have been much easier to get a couple of ringers – some soundalikes for Rick and Ben – and hit the trail. But the whole point of having guys like Todd and Kasim is that this is a band that’s going to develop its own identity. Once we get on the road for a couple of months, it’ll really gel as a unit.”

The band started rehearsing in early February, and came together enough to record a live album within a few weeks.

“We did that on a soundstage here in L.A., in front of a small, invited audience,” said Easton. “It came out great.”

Of the tour, he added that it’s no small-scale effort.

“It’s a world tour that lasts a year,” he said. “We’re going to Europe, Australia, and Japan, then do another swing around the U.S. Hopefully, if it all goes well, we’ll take a break then do a studio album.”

Asked whether he’s currently on the hunt for any specific southpaw instruments, Easton noted that while he has a ’60s Fender Malibu acoustic, he’s still seeking a lefty Kingman, “…because that was the dreadnought model in that series. Or maybe a Wildwood. I’d also like a nice (Epiphone) Riviera, 12- or six-string. I love the same stuff I’ve always loved, and about the only things I’m not interested in are Strats at 50 grand or Les Pauls for half a million bucks.”

So, is his collection still amoeba-like?

“Well, I don’t hoard guitars, other than things like the ’58 Tele, the Kessel, or my Strat, which I’d never sell.” he said. “But with a newer guitar, if I don’t have a use for it, I’ll let it go to someone who can use it.”
And Easton is looking forward to once again making the music that he has always loved, in a fresh band. “I gotta tell ya…” he chuckled. “To be in your 50s and to be still making music? That is cool. I can hold my head up high!”

To learn more, go to thenewcars.com.

Photo: Neil Zlozower

This article originally appeared in VG‘s July’ 06 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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