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Capturing The Blue Caps' Sound

So You Want To Sound Like Cliff?

by John Aaron




See Tabs on Cliff


Intro:
From my perspective Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps is to Rock and Roll as Charles Lindburg was to flying airplanes. Neither were the first to do what they did, but perhaps both made the most significant contributions to what they did. Without question both were ground breaking pioneers.

The analogy between the two seems to end, however, when we consider that by today's standards the accomplishments of Lindburg is relevant only for historians. The technological advances in aerospace have far surpassed what was achievable in Lindy's day and few lessons remain to be learned. On the other hand, the music created by Gene and the Blue Caps still sounds great and remains relevant even though it is 44 years old. Their music is the archetype of '50s rock and roll and has influenced two generations of musicians. Perhaps most importantly their music established a foundation that can continue to influence future generations.

The purpose of this article is to discuss how today's guitar player can recreate one aspect of the G.V. & Blue Caps' sound - the sounds made by the original Blue Cap guitarist Cliff Gallup. The article has three main points. First, it shares the results of my own attempts to recreate the original effects that were used by Cliff and producer Ken Nelson in the studio recordings. Secondly, it lists resources (i.e. people and equipment) that are available today to help a guitarist achieve Cliff's sound or at least come close. Third, hopefully this article will start a dialogue with others to share and document the methods used by the Blue Caps to achieve their sound. I certainly don't have all of the answers, and it would be great to learn from others. Ideally, this discussion will lead to the preservation of this style of music as an option for those musicians who care to build on it for generations to come.

I don't profess to be a musical expert. Yes, I play guitar, but I'm not a pro. I don't work in a recording studio. As a hobby I enjoy spending time figuring out how to make my guitar(s) sound like those of my favorite musicians of the 1950s. For instance, not long ago I embarked on a project to learn to play the way guitarist Jimmy Bryant played during his early 50s recordings with steel guitar player Speedy West. In that case getting the sound was easy. I simply bought a 52 Telecaster re-issue guitar and a Victoria amplifier (exact remake of a vintage Fender amp) and bingo - the exact sound was there

Getting close to Cliff's sound was more challenging. His sound is deceptively simple. Besides his fabulous playing style the guitar echo is often the most noticeable aspect of his sound. But after some experimentation with several kinds of guitars, amplifiers, and effects devices, I realized that many factors contribute to the sound, and it is not easy to duplicate exactly. However, once one knows what equipment was used and where to get it today, it's pretty simple to come close to Cliff's original sound. The hard part then becomes to play as well as Cliff did.




Picture of a 1955 Gretsch Duo-Jet. All original except pickguard and Bigsby. The Bigsby is a fixed arm like Cliff Gallup's, but the tailpiece is of the 1959 era.



Picture of a 1955 Gretsch Duo-Jet (right) and 2000 Duo-jet re-issue. The author replaced the original filtertron pickups that came with the re-issue with old DeArmonds made by Rowe Industries in the 1950's. Be careful when replacing with original DeArmonds as the pickups can be out of phase causing a mushy sound when both pickups are selected. Reversing the magnets to get rid of the problem is difficult on DeArmonds because the magnets are potted



Close up of an original DeArmond, a Melita bridge, and a fixed arm Bigsby vibrato arm. It is reported that Cliff used the fixed arm Bigsby back in 56. The fixed arm really changes the way you play because it is always there. Later styles swivel and can be pushed out of the way. Cliff turned the potential disadvantage of the fixed arm into an advantage by keeping his little finger on the bar most of the time. The vibrato plus the slap echo gave some really great effects which helped contribute to the Bluecaps unique sound.



The "Plex" tube echo chamber (right) currently offered by Rock Hard Inc. versus an Echoplex from the early 70s. This Echoplex uses solid state technology. The Plex uses vacuum tubes and sounds a bit closer to the true 50s sound. Also the Plex is modeled after the original Echoplex of the late 50s and early 60s. Both units use the same Dunlop tapes and sound nearly identical.



The inner workings of tape echo. It's basically a continuous looped taped and adjustable heads that gives the delayed echo effect. The echo signal is then mixed with the undelayed guitar signal to give the unique effect that was characteristic of Cliff in the Blue Cap recordings.



DeArmond versus DeArmond versus DeArmond. Not a very good picture unfortunately, but it shows an original Rowe DeArmond (top), a Gretsch re-issue DeArmond (middle) and a Fender re-issue DeArmond (bottom). From the top all three look alike. It is evident, however, that Gretsch has made exact duplicates of the originals in construction.



Here is a 62 Gretsch Anniversary that has been hot-rodded a bit. The original but weak Hi-Lo-tron pickup has been replaced with an original DeArmond, Also, a Bigsby bridge has been added with an Atkins vibrato arm.



The Gear Used By Cliff
In The Early Blue Caps' Recordings

With some helpful information and encouragement from Dickie Harrell and by reading the "Guitar Pickers" section on the Rockabilly Hall of Fame website, I was able to determine what gear Cliff used. Many useful details about Cliff's equipment are available on the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame website as well as in a December 83 issue of Guitar Player magazine. In addition, some documented interviews with Jeff Beck are available on the website in which Jeff discusses his work to recreate Cliff's sound and playing style on his 1993 Crazy Legs album. Jeff did a fantastic job replicating Cliff's solos note by note.

Based on the available information and my own experimenting I have listed below the critical equipment used by Cliff in his 1956 recordings with the Blue Caps. Later on, I provide links and references to those sources providing this equipment today.



The Guitar:
Cliff used a black 1955 or 1956 Gretsch Duo-Jet. The early Duo-jets look a lot like Gibson Les Pauls. Early Duo-Jets had solid mahogany bodies with maple tops and a single cutaway. Several key components of the mid 50s Duo-jets were the two DeArmond single coil pick-ups, a Melita bridge (with saddles made of Bakelite plastic), an optional Bigsby vibrato/tailpiece and flat wound strings.

Based upon my own experiments and discussions with Gretsch experts, I have concluded that the single coil DeArmond pickups, the Bigsby vibrato and the flat wound strings were probably the most critical guitar components affecting Cliff's sound

The Melita bridge was the standard used in Duo-jets of that era and, therefore, was most likely the bridge used in Cliff's Duo-jet. However, Gretsch (or their dealers) would sometimes take special requests to include Bigsby bar bridges along with the vibrato units. So, it is possible that Cliff's Duo-jet included an aluminum bar bridge that was installed by the factory or in the after-market. I have tried both a bar bridge and a Melita on a Duo-jet, but I am unable to determine by listening which one Cliff actually used.



The Amp:
During an interview in Guitar Player magazine, Cliff could not remember with absolute certainty what amp he used in the studio during the 1956 recordings with G.V. and the Blue Caps. He believed, however, that it was a Standel amp owned by Nashville guitarist Grady Martin. As far as I can tell the amp was a Standel 25L15. The unit was a 26-watt tube amp with a single 15-inch speaker. Refer to Standel's historical webpage www.requisiteAudio.com/shistory.html. It is reported that out of the studio Cliff used a Fender tweed amp. In general, Fender was the amp of choice for early rock guitarists during that time, but country guitarists such as Chet Atkins, Joe Maphis and Grady Martin used Standel. The use of the low power, tube amplifier was a major component to the 50s rock and roll sound created by Cliff and other early rock and roll guitar players.



The Echo Effect and Reverb:
Cliff and producer Ken Nelson used a tape machine to achieve the echo sound in the studio. The approach is referred to as "slap-back echo" and was originally utilized by Les Paul.

Slap echo is quite simple in principle. The tape echo unit had two magnetic heads, one head recorded the guitar sound on a continuous looped tape and the other head played back the sound through the amp. The slap-echo effect was created when the guitar sound was recorded on tape by the record head and then quickly played back into the amp through the play head, the noticeable sound delay (i.e. echo ) was created by the heads being set about an inch (or more) apart. When the delayed guitar sound was then mixed with the undelayed sound and fed into the amp, a wonderful guitar echo effect was created that became a major component in Cliff's unique sound. There are many solid-state delay units on the market today, but in my opinion tape echo has a more genuine '50s sound quality than today's electronic delay units.

I don't believe that any tape echo devices were commercially available in 1956. I suspect that an engineer who modified a standard tape machine built the echo device that was actually used in the recordings in the Bradley studio. I could be wrong however.

In addition to the slap echo effect used with Cliff's guitar, reverb was applied to the vocals and Blue Caps' instruments on at least some of the songs. I am uncertain as to how the reverb was created in those sessions. I assume that spring reverb units were used. However, it is also possible that they used acoustic reverb or tape echo with the heads adjusted a shorter distance apart.



Where To Get Re-issue Gear:
For the most part the exact equipment used 44 years ago is generally not available today. Some early Gretsch Duo-jets and Fender amps can be found on the vintage market, but they are very scarce and expensive. As far as I can tell fewer than 70 original Standel amps were ever made, and none of these amps are readily available now. Tape echo devices called Echoplexes became available commercially only in the late '50s and '60s but were discontinued due to the availability of more reliable solid state (electronic) delay units sometime in the '70s. Echoplex units can sometimes be found on the Internet auction site EBAY at www.ebay.com.

We are fortunate in that some excellent re-issue gear is now available for all of the above items. So, it is quite possible to produce Cliff's sound with re-issue gear that is easily obtained today. Listed below is the equipment and where you can obtain more information. I'm certain the list is not comprehensive, but it reflects what I have discovered so far.



Guitars to Consider:
Gretsch now offers several Duo-Jet re-issue guitars. Refer to www.Gretsch.com. One is the 1957 re-issue Duo-Jet (6128-57) with DeArmond (Dynasonic) re-issue pickups, a space control roller bridge and an optional Bigsby/Gretsch vibrato. In appearance, the 57 re-issue Duo-Jet differs only slightly from Cliff's Duo-Jet. The fret inlays are shaped differently and the bridge is a different design. Another early Duo-Jet re-issue model (6128) is available with Filtertron (humbucker) pickups and an Adjustamatic bridge. Except for the pickups, the bridge and some minor cosmetic differences, both re-issue guitars are essentially the same. I made a mistake and bought the 6128 with Filtertrons and had to change pickups.

As far as I can tell only minor sound-related differences exist between the 57 re-issue Duo-Jet and Cliff's mid 50s Duo-Jet due to the bridge and pickup construction. The Melita style bridge that was probably used on Cliff's jet is no longer available from Gretsch. I tried using the space control roller bridge that comes with the 57 re-issue jets. Unless you are careful with the adjustments of the roller bridge, you will get a very plunky banjo-like sound out of the guitar. When it is adjusted correctly it sounds pretty good, but it sounds a bit different than a Melita. The Bakelite saddles on the Melita produce a very clean tone.

Because Melita bridges are difficult to find in the vintage parts market, the use of a Bigsby bar bridge is a good, practical substitute for the factory roller bridge on the 57 re-issue Duo-Jet. The Bigsby bar bridge will give a bright, mid 50s sound. Besides, Cliff may actually have used a bar bridge on his Duo-Jet. In addition, Bigsby bar bridges are relatively easily obtained (try EBAY).

The pickups of the re-issue Duo-Jets are an additional consideration. In the mid-50's Gretsch installed two DeArmond (Dynasonic) single coil pickups on each Duo-Jet. Gretsch purchased the DeArmond Pickups from Rowe Industries of Toledo Ohio during that period. Gretsch now makes its own DeArmond (Dynasonic) style pickups that look exactly like the originals manufactured by Rowe. In an attempt to recreate Cliff's guitar sound I replaced the Filtertron pickups of a re-issue Duo-Jet with the re-issue Gretsch-DeArmonds. I also changed the bridge to a Melita. With these two changes the guitar sounded close to Cliff's recorded sound when I used flat wound strings and played it into a Victoria Bassman amp.

As a double check I then ran a side-by-side comparison between my re-issue jet (using the re-issue Gretsch-DeArmond pickups) and an original 1955 Duo-Jet that used the DeArmonds manufactured by Rowe. Both guitars sounded closely alike. However, I noticed that the re-issue Gretsch-DeArmonds seem to have a bit less treble than the original DeArmonds made by Rowe. Overall, however, the re-issue pickups get Cliff's tone reasonably close.

A far less expensive option (25% of the price) than buying a re-issue Gretsch Duo Jet is to purchase a DeArmond guitar with Fender-DeArmond 2K pickups (refer to www.Fender.com). During the 1990's Fender bought the DeArmond Company that was part of Guild. Fender has now re-issued the DeArmond single coil pickups and has produced a line of guitars--some of which feature these single coil re-issues. One guitar model in particular, the DeArmond M75T, is somewhat similar in appearance to a Gretsch Duo-Jet. The M75T features the Fender-DeArmond 2K single coil pickups and a Bigsby-like vibrato/tailpiece. One should keep in mind, however, that you only get what you pay for.

The Fender-DeArmond pickups (Model 2K) will give you a tone close to Cliff's when used in a solid body guitar. Fender currently markets these pickups as an accessory, and Fender's literature suggests that these pickups sound very close to the original DeArmonds that were manufactured by Rowe during the 50's and 60's. However, the Fender-DeArmond 2K pickups do differ from the original DeArmonds in several substantial ways. First, the Fender-DeArmond design uses bar magnets instead of using six individual pole magnets that were found in the original DeArmonds made by Rowe. In the 2K's the bar magnets physically touch the metal pole pieces in a manner similar to a Gretsch Filtertron design. Second, the height adjustment range of pole pieces on the Fender-DeArmond is far more limited than in an original DeArmonds made by Rowe. These design differences notwithstanding, the Fender-DeArmond Model 2K's provide a tone very close to the originals.

I experimented with the sounds of several guitars and pickup combinations and drew a few conclusions regarding the parameters that will best re-produce Cliff's sound. First, the re-issue Gretsch Duo Jet with re-issue Gretsch-DeArmond (Dynasonic) pickups comes quite close to producing Cliff's tone. However, it is possible to achieve a closer tone by using original DeArmonds made by Rowe (if you can find them on the vintage market). Secondly, I still need to do more testing on the Fender-DeArmonds before making a totally definitive statement, but my preliminary listening tests suggest that Fender-DeArmond 2K's on a re-issue Duo-Jet sound more original than the re-issue Gretsch-DeArmonds on the same guitar.

Third, if you wish to change pickups on your existing guitar, it is suggested that you use single coil pickups and avoid using humbuckers (or wiring configurations such as Stratocasters with single coil pickups that are wired out of phase). Humbuckers sound good, but they produce a tone with less of an edge and reflect the sound of a later era that began in 1957-1958.

Fourth, use flat wound strings. Flat wounds are a bit more expensive than round wounds but they give a more genuine mid 50's tone. Most good guitar stores carry flat wound strings, and you can easily find them over the Internet. I have had the best luck using sets of strings with a 0.011 gauge on the high E and a 0.047 to 0.048 gauge on the low E. Tomastik-Infeld and Pyramid offer strings in this category. I prefer the Tomastik-Infeld strings because the Pyramids ring too much on a Duo-Jet. Also, If you are accustomed to playing thinner strings, the 0.011s take a little getting used to, but the result is worth it.



Amps to Consider:
A good vintage sounding amp is crucial to achieving Cliff's sound. Fender still makes amps of course (refer to www.Fender.com, and some are vintage sounding. My preference, however, is to use the Victoria Bassman amp www.Victoriaamp.com. Victoria produces a line of high quality amps that are exact copies of the vintage Fenders. I found that by setting the bass and mid frequency controls to the middle and treble to two-thirds to the maximum, I get the sound closest to Cliff's recordings.

Another option is to buy original vintage amps. However, you have to be careful when buying an original vintage amp. The components of the amp tend to fail over a 40+ year time period.

The Standel re-issue amps intrigue me. Refer to www.requisiteAudio.com/standel.html. I have not heard these amps first hand, but I have discussed the amps with Danny McKinney, president of the Standel Company. Danny indicates that the Standel re-issues are exact replications of the originals based upon reverse engineering of some original 1950's units. He also indicates that the reintroduction of the amp was done in collaboration with Bob Crooks-the original founder and engineer of Standel who is now deceased.

Standel's webpage tells an interesting story and suggests that the re-issue amp sounds really authentic. Since it appears that Cliff did use a Standel in the studio, I would like to hear how this amp sounds. I plan on obtaining a Standel 25L15 soon, and I will describe the experience in an update to this article. If you have questions about Standel amps, I suggest that you contact Danny directly through the Standel webpage.



Echo Devices:
I spent a lot of time trying to get electronic digital delay devices to sound like Cliff's slap echo. The electronic digital delay units sound just a little less genuine than tape echo. Also, electronic units are very noisy and seem to modify/destroy the true tone of the guitar. In my judgment if you want to sound like Cliff, you are much better off using an original Echoplex (if you can find one) or the currently available device called The Plex www.rockhardinc.com.

The Plex is a tape-tube echo chamber, which is an exact copy of the Echoplex units used in the l ate '50s and '60s. In other words, it uses the same kind of mechanical echo technology that Cliff and producer Ken Nelson used in the 1956 recordings.

Overall, I have concluded that the combination of a Gretsch 57 re-issue Duo-Jet with DeArmond style pickups (original or re-issue), flat wound strings, a Victoria Bassman amp and the Plex tape echo device is a great choice of currently manufactured equipment to produce the sounds that Cliff recorded in 56 with the Blue Caps. There may be better units available to get Cliff's sound, but I don't know about them.

Other factors obviously played a part in Cliff's sound-- the studio acoustics, the mixing console etc. These other factors make it almost impossible to duplicate Cliff's sound exactly, but with the right equipment you can sound pretty close



Modifying Your Existing Gear
To Get Cliff's Sound:

Okay, let's suppose that you would prefer to modify your existing equipment as opposed to buying new gear. Well, there is really not much that you can do to modify an amp or a delay unit. Either you buy the vintage amp and tape echo or you don't. If you have questions about vintage amps, Mark Baier at Victoria Amplifier Co is a very knowledgeable resource. If you have questions regarding echo, you can contact Richard Beck at Rock Hard Inc maker of the Plex. I have been very happy with the products of these two companies.

There are two people that can help you modify your guitar achieve the vintage Gretsch sound. Duke Kramer of D&F Products, Inc. in Cincinnati (tel 513-232-4972) is a former executive with the Gretsch Company. He is a wealth of information about Gretsch guitars, and he sells an assortment of Gretsch re-issue parts. Art Wiggs of Wings Guitar Products, Inc. in San Jose (tel 408-225-2162) specializes in selling authentic, vintage Gretsch parts. Art is also an expert in servicing vintage guitars and in modifying guitars. Both Duke and Art were recommended by the Gretsch Company, and I have been very satisfied with the parts and advice obtained from both of them.



Concluding Remarks:
Some people might argue that Cliff's playing is outdated and too simplistic by today's standards. Well, that may be so. However, I'm still learning a lot from his solos, and I would imagine others can also. There is no way you can sound like Cliff unless you play the guitar well, but having the right gear can also make a big difference.





Posted January, 2002
Q.
How to modify my guitar - installing pickups?

A.
One thing to consider is that it is nice to have variety in your guitars. So you may want to keep those filtertrons in the 6120 since you have a duojet with dearmonds. Secondly, the DeArmonds are a different size than the holes for filtertrons. So, you will have a noticeable portion of the hole showing around both pickups. Also, I have never done this on a 6120, so you do this at your own risk.

That said here is what I think you will have to do. Again I have never taken a 6120 apart, but I believe most of the gretches are similar. I would recommend that you also ask Art Wiggs if there are any unique aspects to doing this on the 6120. Art is great at this.

1) Order the DeArmonds from Art or Duke (mentioned in the article). Note the larger (taller) one will be the back pickup due to the downward curvature of the guitar body. I will try to get a full picture of a DeArmond tomorrow and send it to you.

2) Take out the filtertrons and remove the foam that each pickup rests on. This includes unsoldering the wire near the volume control (usually) or under a back plate of the guitar.

3) Now the scary part. Take a router and route out the wood in the cavity so that the long screws of the Dearmonds will fit into the cavity. This is irreversable, So, make sure that you really want those filtertrons gone. Note: I assume that the 6120 is not hollow under the pickups. If it is hollow, then it becomes much easier. No routing.

4) Don't widen or lengthen the cavities with the router, just make sure you cut out enough wood in the cavity to allow the long screws of the Dearmonds to not touch bottom. These long screws stems are for the adjustable magnets and you need to cut enough so that the stems will not bottom out in the cavity.

5) Install the pickups partly but push the wires through the holes first so that you can solder appropriately.

6)Don't screw the DeArmonds in yet as the magnets need to be aligned with the strings. So, next put the strings back on and tune the guitar. Make sure the bridge is in the correct location for intonation. Then adjust the pickups so that the magnets are aligned with the strings on both pickups.

7) Screw the pickups down into the body of the guitar. You will notice that the DeArmonds will not hide the holes completely in the width. You will have to be willing to live with the less than perfect appearance.

8) Adjust the bridge if necessary for string height as necessary.

9) Solder the pickup leads. As I remember the red lead is hot.

10) Set the pickup magnet to taste. Most people make the mistake of setting them too close to the strings which creates undesirable effects.

Play the guitar and enjoy.
Best of luck - John Aaron



© John Aaron
July 2000

Disclaimer: Much of the information contained in this article reflects subjective evaluations and opinions based upon listening by the author. The information is not based upon scientific study or analysis.

e-mail John Aaron


Special thanks to Dickie Harrell




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