Name that Twang

The Guild-Duane Eddy Connection
Name that Twang
The reason so many boys learned to play! Eddy in ’62.

The fledgling Guild company scored a coup when it signed Johnny Smith to an endorsement deal in 1956. Perched atop the jazz-guitar scene at the time, Smith helped Guild join the fray of artist “signature” instruments that had become a marketing staple.

Eddy with the first Guild prototype… and Annette Funicello!

Unfortunately, the effort sputtered because Smith was not pleased with the guitar bearing his name, and he defected to Gibson after his contract expired in 1960. By then, Les Paul’s endorsement was seen as a declining asset and Gibson was keen to expand its signature line; Smith, Barney Kessel (formerly with Kay), Tal Farlow, and (eventually) Trini Lopez all lent their names.

Guitar makers mostly ignored rock-and-roll players, though some Gibson ads in the ’50s briefly featured Bill Haley’s Comets, and Gretsch built special one-off guitars for Bo Diddley (but never a signature model).

However, while jazz-playing endorsers implied prestige, the growth market was in rock and folk players, especially young ones. In ’62, Duane Eddy was the first rock-and-roll artist to lend his name to a signature instrument. A bit of an anomaly, Eddy didn’t sing (or even talk much). But what he did was play guitar, making hit records centered on a signature sound dubbed “twangy.”

Duane Eddy and his Gretsch 6120 on a 1959 EP.

Eddy’s career stats are staggering. Between 1958 and ’63, he sold 12 million records including 15 hit singles and numerous charting LPs. And he didn’t rely on virtuoso playing, but rather a sonic template he created with producer Lee Hazelwood; Eddy played licks and melodies on the bass strings, doused with echo and vibrato to sweeten the sound. He was more versatile than what’s heard on his singles, but only occasionally got to show off his Travis picking or blues licks.

Eddy’s first hit, “Movin’ ’N Groovin’” came in early ’58. A bass-string churner featuring a generous dose of vibrato dips on its hook line, it rose to a solid (for a debut by an unknown) #72. Then came “Rebel Rouser,” a national smash featuring guitar and a honking sax trading verses as the key rises chromatically. A series of 45s followed, all featuring deep-toned guitar, roaring sax, and pumping electric bass. These hits were not accidents – all were tightly arranged and produced without losing an aggressive, badass quality.

An early-’63 DE-500.

The early Eddy/Hazelwood collaborations were among the first to harness the potential of the electric guitar to create a unique commercial sound. Recorded initially in Phoenix, then Los Angeles, Eddy’s early records were released on the Philadelphia-based Jamie label, a connection that assured Eddy could promote them often on “American Bandstand” with Dick Clark.

His debut LP, Have Twangy Guitar Will Travel, was pioneering on several fronts. One of the first rock albums recorded in stereo, it also stands out for the fact the musicians were credited on the back cover (then rare on a teen LP) and Eddy was credited as co-writer of many tunes, which was also unusual.

His resumé expanded to acting as he became associated with Western films and TV; his signature sound became a defacto trademark of Western and spy film soundtracks in the ’60s. Session master Tommy Tedesco once said he had only one question when he met Eddy: “Did anyone ever ask you to play like Tommy Tedesco?”

Ironically, Eddy rode to prominence playing a guitar with someone else’s name on it – his signature twang was achieved on a ’57 Gretsch Chet Atkins 6120 he bought at a store in Phoenix (trading in a goldtop Les Paul) mostly because he liked the neck better. The sound of the 6120’s DeArmond pickups was prominent on Eddy’s records, their sharp attack rounded-off by the miles-deep echo. There were no mass-market guitar magazines in the ’50s, so kids had to squint at the TV or look at album covers to see the instruments used by their heroes. The covers of Eddy’s Jamie LPs and EPs often prominently featured the 6120, so anyone inspired by his sound had a good idea where to start!

The DE-500 headstock, with signature truss cover.

Eddy also sometimes used a Danelectro UB-2 six-string bass, and in ’59 was photographed with Dick Clark holding a blond Guild X-175. Soon enough, Guild – not Gretsch – became the company he officially endorsed. According to Eddy, his management was looking to partner with a guitar maker, and Guild was the first to step up. At the time, they were also working with jazz guitarist George Barnes, and likely on the lookout for other endorsers. Some say a meeting happened at the 1961 NAMM show, as Eddy soon after went to Guild’s Hoboken factory to discuss a signature model.

What emerged was the Duane Eddy DE-500 Rock & Roll Guitar – a beautiful instrument that was, in retrospect, perhaps too nice. While not an innovative design, it was classy. Based on the T-500, it’s a thin-rim variant of the company’s top-line X-500 with single-cutaway hollow body, broadly similar to the 6120 but differing in detail – the 17″-wide curly-maple body was wider and thinner at the rim, with a laminated-spruce top and a lot of binding. The fingerboard had split-block pearl inlays and everything was gold-plated, including enclosed Kolb tuners with fancy perloid buttons. Eddy’s signature appeared on the truss-rod cover and pickguard.

Though the 6120 was hardly plain, the DE-500 was dressed more like a high-end jazz guitar than a teen machine. At $700 in blond and $675, in sunburst it was priced like one, too.

A one-sheet from ’62.

For his personal guitar, Eddy chose a natural finish instead of orange like the Gretsch. He also specified several features from the 6120 – the same DeArmond pickups (but with white topped covers), a Bigsby vibrato, and a master Volume control. Ironically, the guitar was in some ways rather like the single-cut Gretsch Country Gentleman that Chet Atkins helped design, but with real sound holes and a fully hollow body.

When Eddy got the first prototype, the position of Volume knob and selector switch were reversed from what he preferred, so it was sent back to the factory – but not before he used it to pose for pictures that ended up on album covers. Other anomalies were oversized mounting rings under the DeArmond pickups (suggesting a last-minute addition), a ’50s-holdover ring around the selector switch, and no upper strap button. It first appeared on the cover of his Jamie LP, Girls Girls Girls, and was subsequently seen on several RCA albums issued just after he switched labels. Later in ’62, Eddy received an early production sample with feature changes that became his primary guitar – publicly, at least. It made a debut on the cover of his RCA LP Twangin’ Up a Storm.

Eddy (right) with Dick Clark in a Guild pre-endorsement photo from 1959.

Eddy’s defection could be seen as a slap in the face for Gretsch. Perhaps feeling Atkins’ endorsement was enough, the Brooklyn company failed to capitalize on Eddy’s use of their guitar. Chet himself had upgraded to the new Country Gentleman as Eddy was making hit after twangy hit with an older 6120. And by the time Eddy’s career was in full gear, the 6120 was quite a different guitar, with Filter’Tron pickups and a heavily trestle-braced body. Hard as it may seem to believe now, most players took minimal notice of such changes – an orange Gretsch was an orange Gretsch.

When the Duane Eddy Model hit stores, Guild was able to generate publicity from the endorsement, but not oodles of profit. The problem was not the guitar, which was a superb, practical, and high-quality instrument. But, teenagers excited by Duane Eddy were unlikely to have $700 to plunk down on a guitar; professional players who could were likely put off by the connection to this “kid” who made twangy discs.

Duane relaxes with his personal DE-500, 1964.

As with the Gretsch Atkins line, the endorsement quickly expanded to include a second model, initially called the Duane Eddy Junior, but quickly changed to the DE-400 Duane Eddy Standard. It used the same 17″ thin-rim chassis and equipment, but with plainer trim – less binding, no gold plating, and simple block inlay. It retained the Bigsby and DeArmonds, and was intended to be more-affordable at $480 in sunburst/$495 in blond – still dauntingly expensive for young players. The DE-500 Deluxe and 400 Standard were cataloged only in natural and sunburst but occasionally cherry-red or other hues surface. By late ’64, a blond DE-500 listed at $750, so most were ordered only per customer order/request.

After Duane signed with Guild, his DE-500 replaced the 6120 for live use and promo pictures (though not in the studio) and his career was showing signs of slowing, a result of changing trends. Instrumental LPs like his were still popular at parties, but Eddy singles were not making the charts. Best-of’s and a Twist with Duane Eddy LP were issued, but the reverb-drenched surf sound was soon the more popular instrumental style. Eddy’s biggest RCA hit was the (more or less) vocal single “Dance with the Guitar Man,” featuring the Rebelettes – a.k.a. the Blossoms, Phil Spector’s favorite studio singers. Switching to a major label hadn’t helped; at Jamie, he was the star, at RCA just another teen artist. Moving on to Colpix, then Reprise, did no better. By 1965’s Duane Does Dylan, his image seemed old-fashioned and adding trendy fuzz and the like sullied his signature tone. His carer slowed, he still remained active in a low-key way in the ’70s and unexpectedly scored a major worldwide hit in ’86, when he collaborated with Art of Noise in remaking his ’60s version of Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” theme.

The DE-500’s ’63 catalog page.

Meanwhile, Guild’s Duane Eddy guitars were offered through the ’60s. The pickups were changed in late ’63 to Guild’s new humbuckers, losing the Eddy sound. In common with the line, small detail changes followed – pickguard and headstock shapes the most notable. By the October ’68 price list, Eddy’s name disappeared as they became simply the DE line; the signature truss cover was gone but the “signed” pickguard rode into the late ’60s. Exact production figures prior to ’65 are not available, but unofficial estimates suggest only 50 or so DE-500s with Dearmonds were made in 1962/’63. From ’65 through ’69, detailed records indicate approximately 200 DE-400 and a paltry 40 DE-500s were shipped. One other oddity is early-’60s models usually turn up in the original 17″ deep-bodied cases; Guild produced so few they apparently didn’t bother to order a fitted case!

As might be expected from its rarity, the DE-500 appeared with few players at the time. Eddy remained more popular overseas, especially in England, where the Shadows’ success – with a sound heavily inspired by his – maintained a high profile. Eddy’s 1960 U.K. tour was greeted as a major event and led to him being named New Musical Express’ #1 Musical Personality of the Year, ahead of Elvis! Guild’s U.K. distributors Boosey & Hawkes and Besson actively promoted the Eddy connection and went one step farther by also signing Bert Weedon, the U.K. guitar maven for a signature Guild model unknown in the U.S.

A late-’64 DE-400 with a rare Cherry-finished mahogany body and a ’66 with humbucking pickups.

John St. John, of the U.K. instrumental band Sounds Incorporated, was one other prominent ’60s DE-500 user. While the instrumental band (with a full sax section) was not a top chart act, they toured widely and were respected by other musicians, including the Beatles, who used them as an opening act. At the time, St. John’s DE-500 was mostly noted for being exceptionally expensive; he was featured in a Beat Instrumental feature titled “Price is No Object,” talking about his £332 guitar. “It’s no straightforward ‘twanger’ – the tone range is fantastic… it’s worth 300 quid to know that I have the best,” he said.

In a “strange” coincidence, a full-page Besson/Guild ad appeared opposite this piece! Still, even few U.K. professionals were ready to shell out that sum. Later, in folk-rock happy L.A., Steve Stills played a blond DE-400 in the early Buffalo Springfield days, and bluegrass band the Dillards used a sunburst DE-500 to briefly go electric in ’66.

The DE’s thin rim.

Despite this spotty record, the  DE-500 now stands as one of Guild’s best-regarded creations and is among the company’s most-collectible models. A natural-finish/DeArmond-equipped DE-500 Deluxe like Duane’s tops that list. Many early DEs found homes overseas, where the appeal of ’60s instrumental rock has proved more enduring. In ’83, Guild offered a very limited DE-500 20th Anniversary reissue, using some NOS parts.

The DE-400 in the ’64 catalog, and a 1965 receipt for one – $428 plus a Fender Jaguar (top). John St. John and his DE-500 (bottom left). A Boosey & Hawkes ad from May of ’63.

Eddy continues to be active past his 80th birthday – he recently toured England, where he’s still a legend. Making up somewhat for the missed opportunity in ’61, the modern Gretsch has offered several Eddy tribute models, proving that even after all these years, for some, the twang’s the thang!

This article originally appeared in VG’s July 2019 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

Read the 1995 Vintager Guitar interview.

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