In the Pipeline: After 50 years, Duane Eddy will travel

He's wearing black slacks and a black shirt and cowboy hat. There's a bit of silver woven in, too, that picks up the light in the small hotel room.

With his neatly trimmed beard and gentle country manner, he cuts a romantic, old-time figure, like some charming character from another age.

Then he sits down on a couch, picks up an orange Gretsch hollow-body guitar and starts to play — or, rather, starts to twang.

This is, after all, Duane Eddy, one of the most iconic guitar players in history. Since his first album, 1958's "Have 'Twangy' Guitar Will Travel," Eddy has cut a rich musical swath with his ax on the strength of his rich, bottom-heavy melodies that have beguiled fans (and other players) for generations.

He was here in our neighborhood recently for an appearance at the nearby National Assn. of Music Merchants (NAMM) convention, and I had the pleasure of visiting with him and hearing him play right before my eyes. Over the years, he has amassed many awards, from Grammys to his 1994 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Not bad for an Arizona picker who grew up idolizing Roy Rogers and especially Gene Autry.

"Those guys did it for me, but Gene Autry, man," he smiles. "What a pioneer. I'd see his movies. I'd study his playing. I only knew about three chords back then. As I'd soon learn, to stand out, I'd need to do three things: play with authority, have my own style and, most importantly, let it all hang out."

So that's what he did. Noticing that all of the pop songs of the day lived in the land of upbeat, higher registers, Eddy turned his attention to the bass strings on his guitar, mining a deep, dark, mysterious tone that ended up serving him well. He says those strings and that brooding texture they produced was something he fell in love with.

In 1958 came his first single, "Movin' 'N' Groovin'," the tune that many music scholars cite as the first true example of "surf music" (perhaps because the Beach Boys copped the opening lick in their tune "Surfin' Safari").

"Yeah, they used it," Eddy shrugs with a chuckle, "and I never cared. That's just music, sharing little bits of melody and all, no big deal. You know, Bobby Darin asked me about using the title, 'Movin' 'N' Groovin',' in his song 'Splish Splash.' 'No problem,' I told him."

That first single made No. 70 on the charts ("With an anchor, not a bullet," Eddy grinned), but it was enough that the record company wanted more. What they got a few months later was "Rebel-Rouser" — which sold more than 3 million copies.

Noodling on his guitar, Eddy remarks quietly, to himself, "The rest is history, as they say."

And what a history.

In the 1960s, Eddy also acted in films and on TV, but it was the music he was mainly known for. There were more iconic hits, including "Peter Gunn," "Cannonball" and "Ring of Fire." There was "The Ballad of Paladin," "Caravan" and "Because They're Young," to name just a few.

In 1986, Eddy recorded with the group Art of Noise, retooling his version of "Peter Gunn." It became a Top 10 hit around the world and won the Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance of 1986. It also made Eddy the only instrumentalist to have had Top 10 singles in four different decades in Great Britain.

The next year, he was joined on record by Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Fogerty, among many other artists who admired him. And who can forget "Rebel-Rouser" being featured in "Forrest Gump"?

Today, he's busier than ever. He has a terrific new album out called "Road Trip" (available on iTunes) and will start a big UK tour this May,

Also, his original Gretsch guitar is on loan at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, as is the first three-track machine he recorded on.

As far as why he has endured this long, Eddy tells me that he considers his guitar to be his "voice," and that he approaches his playing the way a singer approaches their instrument. He also has fun talking about how technology has changed over the years.

"Elvis asked me once if I liked stereo," Eddy says. "I told him yes. He said, 'I still like mono, because it just comes out of the speaker and just hits you in the chest. It's more powerful.' For AM radio, he's probably right, but I still prefer stereo, because I can picture the whole band standing there. I equate the changes in recording to the history of flight. One day it's the Wright Brothers, soon after we're landing on the moon. It happens that fast."

And here in Surf City, a lot of people probably still remember films at the Surf Theater, where the familiar twang of Eddy (along with Dick Dale and several others) filled the room, underscoring reels of endless surfers making the most of endless summers.

Watching Eddy cradle his orange Gretsch in the warm glow of morning (with his wife, Deed, proudly looking on), you can almost hear the waves crashing as he pulls out those bass notes.

It's like he's never left.

Because he hasn't.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at

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