As lead guitarist for 18 years with The Cars. Elliot has sold over 30 million records worldwide. Well respected in the guitar community, Elliot’s reputation is that of a tasteful musician with a knack for coming up with memorable solos, great tones and an uncanny ear for creating “hooks” on pop records.
He is also an enthusiastic fan of the guitar itself, and for many years has been a presence in vintage guitar circles, Texas vintage shows, NAMM etc.
In recent years Elliot has recorded and performed with many respected artists and is currently working with Stu Cook and Doug Clifford of Creedence Clearwater Revisted.
Gretsch Headline News caught up with Elliot on his recent CCR tour for this exclusive interview.
May 20, 2002
GHN: When did you first pick up a guitar?
Annette and Jimmie EE: At the age 3. I’ve had a guitar since the age of 3. It came about because the influence of all the singing cowboys. In 1956 I was 3 years old and I loved cowboys and they all played guitar and sang, and I also saw Elvis on TV. Last but not least it was the Mickey Mouse Club Show, the head Mousketeer, Jimmy Dodd played the mouse guitar. It was a guitar in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s face.
GHN: Did playing come naturally to you?
EE: Well I can’t say that at the age of 3 that I really started playing the guitar, it’s just that I had a guitar and there are pictures of me and I’m strummin’ and playing. Let’s just say that the guitar’s been a presence in my life since that age.
GHN: As you got older did you take lessons or formal training?
EE: When I was an early teenager I took some lessons but I didn’t really find that I stuck with it all that much. I just wanted to play rock and roll.
GHN: So you pretty much taught yourself?
EE: That’s right
GHN: So when did you start really learning to play chords and figuring things out?
EE: I was about 8 or 9, just before the Beatles came out. I was into the Ventures and instrumental surf/rock groups like that, and there wasn’t that much hot guitar and stuff on AM radio at the time. That was the first stuff that caught my ear on the radio, and that was the stuff I played.
GHN: When you first started playing, were you able to find a left handed guitar?
EE: I just flipped the guitar over and played it upside down
GHN: Did you reverse the tuning?
Elliot Easton 1980 EE: For a little while I just left it the way it was. I didn’t know any better, and then I came to a point where I realized it was holding me back. I couldn’t play certain chords and I was at a disadvantage. I didn’t have the same advantage that a righty person would have playing a right handed guitar. I took the guitar to a local music store and had them cut a new nut and bridge and turn the strings around. At that point I was just playing a cheap acoustic guitar, I think it was a Harmony.
GHN: So what was your first decent guitar?
EE: When I was 13, I got a Japanese electric. It was one of those imports that just has the name of the importer, mine happened to say Howard on it. A little while after that I got a job, and I got a decent acoustic guitar by a company called Favilla. It was an all mahogany guitar; even the top was mahogany. It was an inexpensive guitar but it played in tune and it had good action. I still have it as a matter of fact. I got it when I was about 14. The cheap electric, however, allowed me to get into bands, but it wasn’t a very good guitar. Then I got a job washing dishes and I got a Fender Telecaster, which was my first good guitar and my first good electric.
GHN: So was that a left handed version or a righty guitar?
EE: I custom ordered a left handed version.
GHN: Were you playing in different bands at this time?
EE: At that point I was playing in a band with some friends of mine, it was a teenage band and we won alot of battles of the bands and stuff like that. We won a county wide battle that had two separate semi-finals out of like 85 bands. We were left with a couple other bands, and we won. The prize was a $500 gift certificate which at that time was a lot of dough . It was a gift certificate to Sam Ash Music in NY, and there were 5 guys in the band so we each got $100.00 to spend. I got it into my head that I wanted a Les Paul, and at that time a Gold Top Les Paul was $298.00 brand new with a case. I sold my Telecaster for $150.00 and took the extra $100 and my mom gave me $50 and I was able to buy a Gold Top Les Paul, which I almost immediately regretted because the Telecaster was a great guitar and I was more into the rootsy stuff, chicken pickin and country and blues. A lot of my heroes played Teles at that time. I loved James Burton, Clarence White and Roy Buchanan. So I was real sorry I did it. It was one of those Les Paul Deluxes with Mini Humbuckers. So that’s what I ended up with.
GHN: Was that a lefty guitar?
EE: Yeah. After I got the Telecaster, I never bought a right handed guitar again. I kept that Les Paul up through music college. I went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1972. It was pretty early days for Berklee and they almost didn’t take you seriously if you played a solid body guitar. Everybody was walking around playing jazz boxes and stuff like that. I grew out of that Les Paul pretty fast and ended up trading somebody for a 335 that was left handed. I played that until my apartment got vandalized and my guitar and amp were stolen. I didn’t have a guitar to go to school with and I was also working in bands and clubs so I came down to NY and got another Telecaster. In those days, 48th Street would give you 40% off list and Boston wasn’t even near that. Then I got a Strat and I had that guitar up into the early days of The Cars. But before it was The Cars it was a band with Ric(Ocasek) and Ben(Orr) and myself called Cap’n Swing. I had this natural finish Strat that I had a series-parallel switch put in and once again I got it into my head that I wanted to get a different guitar. I traded that in a music shop in Boston for an SG Special which I played through the early days of The Cars.
GHN: Did you meet Ric and Ben at Berklee?
Elliot Easton 1984 EE: Oh God no! Those guys weren’t at Berklee. They were in another band called Richard and the Rabbits that had Ric, Ben, Greg and a different guitar player and a different drummer. I went down with my roommate who had answered an ad for a sound man. I just tagged along to the gig and it struck me that this was the first local band with really good songs that I could imagine being hits. I thought I’d like to be involved, and it was a pretty long process. That band, Richard and the Rabbits, broke up and Ric and Ben started playing as a duo in a little pub in Harvard Square. My friend, who was the sound man, started bringing a conga and he played a little percussion with them and I guess I went over to one of their apartments and I kind of auditioned for them. That came out pretty good and they liked what I was playing so I started sitting in with them at this pub. Benjamin was playing bass and singing and Ric was playing acoustic guitar and singing. I was bringing a small amp and putting it up on a stool, and my friend Alan was playing the congas and mixing the sound. We did that for a little while and then Ric decided that he wanted to have a band again.
So we decided to form a band and got a different bass player because Ben just wanted to sing lead. This was the band that was called Cap’n Swing. That band had Ric playing electric rhythm and singing. They had another bass player and another drummer and a different keyboard player from Greg(Hawkes). When Greg left that previous band called Richard and the Rabbits he was playing with Martin Mull and His Fabulous Furniture, but he was playing sax in that band. He played sax on some of the early Cars stuff. So, we had this band, Cap’n Swing, and it was Ric, Benjamin, myself and two other guys. We got a bit of a name in Boston and we went down to NY to Max’s Kansas City and did a showcase for a bunch of management companies like Lieber & Krebbs who were managing Aerosmith, Billy Squire and Billy Idol. They were name guys and they passed on Cap’n Swing and their criticism was that the band seemed too diverse, it was almost like Steely Dan but with long jams.
GHN: What year was this?
EE: It was about 1976. They told us that they couldn’t really draw a bead on where we were coming from and we took this advice to heart and went back to Boston and decided we would change some members. Ben got back on bass and Greg came back in after being on the road with Martin Mull, and we got David Robinson to play the drums. We became more image conscious and tried to look more like a band. We talked about color and what we would wear and so forth, and that became The Cars. We started playing club dates in Boston and around New England and got a real buzz going and we made some demo tapes and the big rock station, WBCN, they put our stuff in regular rotation. It was DJ, Maxanne Sartori, who started playing us in regular rotation. She was an early champion of the band. Some of the A&R guys started coming up from NY and coming to our gigs in Boston. There was a real buzz because we were filling up the large clubs that national acts would play. A couple labels took a real interest and we ended up signing with Elektra Records. That’s basically how it got rolling.
GHN: When it broke, the sound was really different for the time.
Elliot Easton 1988 EE: There wasn’t really any conscious effort on our part to be different. That’s just how those five people sounded playing together. I would say, though, that we were definitely inspired by the energy of the beginning of the whole punk era but I never really subscribed to that whole New Wave thing and I didn’t really know what that was all about. I’d been playing guitar since I was a baby and I didn’t consider myself New Wave. My roots are pretty deep and if anything it was more just a strange turn of events that I would end up in a sleek, modern band like The Cars, because my roots are in blues, country and folk. I was a Newport Folk Festival kid and saw alot of those shows and I wasn’t that crazy about the English bands. I could have easily ended up in a more roots oriented band. I loved stuff like The Band and the early Taj Mahal records. It’s just through life’s circumstances I ended up making my bones with The Cars.
GHN: So the influences for the band were…
EE: I’ll tell you, the Beatles’ influence and the Beach Boys and all that pop stuff was a great background for what we did, because a lot of what we tried to do was make really catchy pop songs with short solos, guitar hooks and stuff like that. But really it wasn’t that far from what The Cars were about. We all came from different parts of the country, and met in Boston, and all had different influences, and that’s really the secret to what made The Cars unique. It was a rich stew of influences that went into the pot and it came out as something completely different.
GHN: Were the songs on the first record developed over time?
EE: From the time we became The Cars, it was about a year before we got signed. Actually, just under a year. That first record was most of the best songs in our club set. So we had been playing those songs for the better part of the year, and we banged that record out in like 12 days. I did all the guitar parts for that record in a day and a half!
GHN: WOW, and everything fit so well?
EE: Sometimes when you get into the studio you find that something that may work well live doesn’t quite work in the studio. Mostly, we knew what we wanted to do because we had been playing those songs for nearly a year.
GHN: How did the release of that record affect you?
EE: Being inside the eye of the hurricane was alien to us but the record exploded. I think it sold 4 million copies right when it came out, and so we immediately got sucked into this whirlwind, and after that it just became a cycle of album, tour, album, tour. But the band was really successful right out of the gate.
GHN: So then it was non-stop…
EE: It jumped to the national and world level. It was really fast. Once we made that first record it all happened so quickly.
GHN: From all of The Cars recordings, what are some of your favorite moments?
EE: Some of the solos, such as “Best Friend’s Girl” and “Touch and Go”, “Tonight She Comes” and many others. There are lots of good ones and I tended to really hone them. The thing about making records is that each record took longer than the previous one. We’d be in a hotel somewhere and while working on basic tracks, I’d take rough cassettes home to the room with me. While we were doing drums and vocals and adding all the other parts, waiting to do guitars I’d be playing around with the basic tracks and coming up with ideas for solos, hooks and other parts. By the time we got to the guitar parts, I’d be pretty prepared and have a good idea of what I wanted to put on there.
GHN: I think “Just What I Needed” has a short little crisp guitar solo that has a really great beginning, middle and ending to it.
EE: That’s from the first album so that’s the sort of thing I developed in the clubs. From the second album on we didn’t really have the opportunity to test songs out on an audience or on ourselves to see which ones were the best. We never again had the opportunity to really slowly work out those songs. That’s a natural syndrome that bands fall into.
GHN: So what happened in the end?
EE: Well, we’d been doing it for over 10 years and people grow apart and I think that was pretty much the case with us, and we just moved on. It’s different when you’re young and the only thing on your mind is the band, and after a while people get married and have children, and there are other priorities. In the early days we’d rehearse many times a week and have all the time in the world for the group. When you start making money you start exploring other avenues, and I think people just grew apart in a natural way.
GHN: You mentioned that there was recently a reunion?
EE: We had a reunion just before Benjamin passed away. Rhino Records got the five of us together for one last time and we did an interview and that was about the closest we came to a reunion. They were putting out a DVD from an earlier TV show we had done in Germany, and wanted something extra to go with it. They convinced everybody to get together to do an interview to provide an extra treat for the DVD. That’s as much of a reunion as I’m expecting to see. I don’t know what the future will bring.
GHN: When did you do that DVD?
EE: It was about a year and a half ago, and it is out now. That was the last time the five of us could ever get together again, because there aren’t five of us anymore.
GHN: So how did the Creedence Clearwater gig come about?
EE: I had moved to California and Stu Cook and I had a mutual friend at Atlantic Records. The friend mentioned that I lived right near Stu, and that I was a big CCR fan. As it turned, out Stu was a big Cars fan. We got together right before Stu moved up to Tahoe in 1995 and we hit it off real well, had a good time hanging out. Then Stu and Doug(Clifford) had their birthdays which are a day apart, so they got together to celebrate and decided to play this music again. They were discussing who should be in the band and my name came up. Stu knew I liked Creedence and I played those tunes in high school. He was pleased to find that my roots were much more American than you might guess from my work in The Cars. They came down to LA, and we auditioned singers and found a keyboard player, and we’ve been going ever since.
CCR GHN: When was that?
EE: We’ve been doing this since 1995.
GHN: Are you doing any new songs or just the classics?
EE: We’re mostly doing the classics, and we’ve released a live double album of that stuff, which is about to go Gold! We have plans to do a record of new material and that’s something we’ve been talking about for a while.
GHN: Do you have any other projects that you’re working on?
EE: I have my own thing that I do called The Tiki Gods. It’s an instrumental thing that I’ve been working on. I hope to come out with a CD of that in the not so distant future.
GHN: When did you get started with Gretsch guitars?
EE: I got my first Gretsch guitar when I was in The Cars. I guess it was 1979. I found a beautiful 1964 Country Gentleman in NY and that was my first Gretsch. A few years later one of the vintage dealers came across a double cutaway Silver Jet and I got that guitar as well. As soon as we started seeing some dough, I got a Gretsch guitar, and have been playing one ever since. I didn’t play one live with The Cars because I didn’t really know how to setup the old ones to stand up to the rigors of touring. That’s really the reason why I designed my Signature model G6128TEE.
GHN: Tell us about that guitar.
Elliot’s Signature Guitar EE: My signature model was an attempt to address some of the slightly more fragile features of the Classic Gretsch guitars. For instance, the bridge on most Gretsch guitars sits on a wooden base; mine sits on two studs and mounted into the top of the guitar. I also lengthened the scale(25″) for a little more string tension, providing more twang and a tighter low end. I put locking tuning keys and a graphite nut for better tuning stability. Also, a Bigsby B7, which has the retainer bar on it to hold the strings down taut as they go up to the bridge to increase the angle on the bridge and add tension. That’s where a lot of your sustain comes from. I just sort of updated it and wanted to come up with a guitar that you could play any kind of music on, and would be extremely sturdy for roadwork.
I’ve gotten some other new Gretsch guitars. I have a Country Classic II-1962 reissue and a Nashville 6120-1960 reissue. I play both of those and really love them, and I’m expecting a pair of 1959 style White Falcons that Gretsch is making for me. I’m playing an awful lot of Gretsch guitars these days. Especially with my signature guitar, I really found a guitar that I can play anything I want to on. I’m just really loving it. I’ve gotten some great feed-back from people saying how much they love the guitar, so I’m really proud about that!
Gretsch Headline News wants to thank Elliot for all of the time he put into this lengthy interview and for creating an awesome new model for the Gretsch lineup and guitar players everywhere! We would also like to thank author John Engel for his help with various photographs of Elliot that will be included in John’s upcoming book about left handed guitarists.