Brian Setzer Guitar – What Does He Play?


Brian Setzer and his most notable act, Stray Cats, had a unique, quirky sound in the heyday of classic rock.  Records like “Stray cat strut” and “Rock this town tonight” make up what is called jangle-rock, a sort of rock take on swing music.  

Setzer’s poppy, bright guitar tone and his jazz heritage have made him a peculiar, important player in the world of guitar. He showed many aspiring young guitarists that you can use the guitar to break boundaries and create truly new music.

Setzer is primarily loyal to Gretsch guitars, and with good reason.  These guitars call back to the golden age of rockabilly and early rock n’ roll.  His Gretsch 6120(see here) and the White Falcon(see here) are iconic instruments, and show superior design quality to other hollow-bodied guitars.  

He’s also been seen using the Fender Telecaster, as well as the Rickenbacker 330.  Despite these competing brands, Setzer and his unique sound come mostly from Gretsch guitars.

If you want to learn to play guitar like Chris, check out my favorite resource – these lessons here.

Gretsch Guitars

Brian Setzer has a strong relationship with Gretsch guitars, even having a couple of his own custom models.  These guitars are built for that gritty, swinging, early rock sound. From quick, stylish solos to slow, full chords, Gretsch guitars perfectly fit in with his style.

The Story of Gretsch

Of the major players in early electric guitar, Gretsch is actually the oldest of the big manufacturers.  While they were the last to start making electric guitars, following in the footsteps of Rickenbacker, Gibson, and Fender, Gretsch was making banjos and percussion instruments in the late 1800s.  

The company was family owned for generations before being sold off.  This marks a dark period in Gretch’s history, where quality fell and their reputation sank.  

Most of the most prized models are from before the sell off. Fortunately, through partnerships with Fender, Gretsch has been able to revive its heritage collection of instruments and is now one of the bigger players in vintage electric guitars.

Brian Setzer’s Gretsch 6120

The Gretsch 6120 is a masterpiece in design and engineering.  This hollow body guitar is made entirely of maple. This hard wood works with the large resonating cavity to create a rich, warm tone that is characteristic of both Gretsch and hollow-bodies.  

The thin neck makes this instrument perfect for speedy soloing as well as complex chording.

The guitar comes with two vintage single coil pickups.  Classic guitars had unbalanced, loosely wound pickups, giving them that vintage guitar sound.  

The player can choose which pickups are in use by using a switch and can use knobs to control the volume and tone.  This guitar was one of Gretsch’s finest models before the company was sold off, making it highly desirable for classic guitar collectors

Check out more details on the 6120 here

The Gretsch White Falcon

The White Falcon is probably Gretsch’s most well known model of guitar.  It is one of their current best sellers, and has been sported by the likes of Neil Young.  Just like the 6120, the White Falcon is an all-maple hollow body guitar.

It has a rich, deep tone that’s a tad brighter than many other hollow guitars.  The neck is thicker than the 6120, making it versatile as both a rock guitar as well as a swing guitar.

The white falcon also has 2 pickups and a timeless design.  Its “FilterTron” pickups are often considered the first humbuckers, added to the Gretsch lineup in the 50s.  

These extra large pickups add a rich sound to the instrument, making it perfect for Setzer’s unique take on old-school swing guitar.

Check out more details on the White Falcon here

Fender Telecaster

Fender is easily considered one of the biggest names in music.  Artists of all skills and styles use these premium guitars, including Brian Setzer.  The Telecaster is Fender’s second best selling guitar, right behind the Stratocaster.  

It’s bright, punchy tone makes it highly versatile, and the instrument has an important role in the history of guitar.

The First Solid Body

At the beginning of the electric guitar era, hollow-bodies and lap guitars were the only option.  The solid body had not been perfected, and any on the market sold poorly. Fender’s first solid body was the Esquire, which was a huge flop.

The company went back to the drawing board and re released it as the Telecaster, this time adding in a second pickup and thinning out the neck.  These innovative changes made the Tele a market success, proving that there was room for solid body guitars in the world of blues and rock guitar.

The Iconic Design

Brian Setzer with his Fender Telecaster

The Telecaster has a classy, simple body shape.  The small body is made of alder, which is a dense, porous wood.  This combination of shape and material gives the Tele a bright, nimble, punchy tone.  The maple neck adds body and sustain, and its small shape makes it ideal for quick playing and soloing.

The Telecaster sports two single coil pickups.  Just like all vintage guitars, these pickups are loosely wound and unbalanced.  

The Tele created the classic bridge-neck configuration, as well as the standard tone and volume controls.  These electronics give the guitar its bright, punchy tone, making it an excellent choice for Setzer and he unique brand of swing rock guitar.

See more details on Brian’s Fender Telecaster here

Rickenbacker 330

The Rickenbacker 330 is one of the brand’s most popular models.  It has a distinct, retro body shape, and a tone to match. Setzer generally favors Gretsch guitars, but has been seen spotting the 330 a few times over the years.

The Original Electric Guitar Maker

While Gretsch is a much older company, Rickenbacker started the electric guitar industry.  The founder, Adolph Rickenbacker, was a vaudeville guitarist, and wanted his instrument to cut through the rest of the band.  His solution was to amplify the instrument.

The first electric guitar on the market was a lap guitar called the “Frying pan,” since its simple shape resembled cookware.  Rickenbacker created the market for electric guitars, and soon competitors like Gibson, Fender, and Gretsch would be competing for who could make the best instruments.

How It’s Made

The Rickenbacker 330 has a small hollow body with a unique double cutaway shape.  The body is made purely of maple, while the neck is a mix of maple and walnut. These hardwoods make the guitar an excellent choice for fans of older music like jazz or the blues.  

The instrument has 2 single coil pickups in the standard bridge-body configuration, giving it a versatile, jazzy tone. The unique body shape is likely what drew Setzer to the instrument, in addition to its complex sound.

Affordable Alternatives

These guitars are all excellent vintage instruments. They deliver a powerful classic tone that makes Setzer’s music pop.  This quality comes at a price, though, making the tone feel out of reach to most players.

Fortunately, there are a few options to get players the tone they love at a great price.

An excellent alternative to the Telecaster is the Squier Telecaster.  Squier is owned by Fender, so they get access to all the unique design innovations of Fender. The guitar uses a mix of cost effective materials and manufacturing techniques to get a high-end tone at an affordable price.

The Gretsch G2622T is one of the most affordable hollow body vintage guitars on the market.  Made in house by Gretsch, this guitar boasts the same reputation as the 6120 and the white falcon.  

It’s low price point makes it ideal for any aspiring rocker, check out the price here on Amazon.

Amplifiers Used by Brian Setzer

Brian Setzer has been a fan of the 1963 Fender Bassman amp for many years. It is one of the popular Tolex “brownface” models. The specialty of this particular Bassman lies in its unique circuit playing prowess. The 6G6-B circuit is known to produce a robust musical sound.

According to Brian Setzer, the Bassman amps from the years prior to 1963 do not carry the same intensity and rhythm of sound. Brian Setzer prefers the solid-state rectifier, that is unique to this model, due to its ability to tighten up the bass response.

Brians Preferred Amplification

When operated at the heavy stage volumes, the previous models did not fare well produced too soft of a sound. Brian Setzer’s amps are stock and unmodified which are later tuned to perfection as per his own understanding of the mechanism.

He has also purchased amps in various stages of repair and has worked to bring them back to top condition. The amps are outfitted with NOS power tubes – either Tung-Sol 5881’s or mil-spec Phillips 6L6WGB’s.

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Brian Setzer’s usual amp setup consists of the Bassman head that is placed on top of a blonde, closed-back, 2×12 cabinet. He uses heavier gauge wire to re-wire the cabinets to improve the tone and reliability of sound dramatically.

He does away with the original speakers and substitutes them with Celestion Vintage 30s, which may seem like a strange choice for a vintage Fender amp, but the artist believes that this combination significantly impacts the uniqueness of his signature sound. The Vintage 30’s are a more fitting match for the Bassman’s power, given its consistent tone.

This musical setup is all the more enabling for Brian when he plays at larger venues and experiments with a broad range of sounds. 

Brian Setzer is one of the most unique players on the market.  He takes so many styles and creates something truly unique. From rock to blues to swing to jazz, all of his influences come together in his music.  

His music has shown players the full potential of guitar and make him one of the true legends in the world of rock.

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