RIP Duane Eddy

Apr 29, 2024

The news has been spreading all over the internet while I’ve been traveling today—the great Duane Eddy has died. This has been a rough year! Larry Collins, J. M. Van Eaton, so many of the heroes that I have been fortunate enough to play with have been booked to play the party up in the sky.

As a kid, I was a huge fan of Duane’s records, like many of you. Those records—so many of them were perfect! “Rebel Rouser,” “Stalkin’,” “Cannonball,” “Peter Gunn,” “Movin’ and Groovin’,” “Forty Miles of Bad Road,” “Because They’re Young”—these songs were not just hits of the 1950s, they were iconic instrumental themes to almost every guitar player’s life. That TONE. Duane Eddy was a guitar hero to millions. You can’t even put into words how influential he was not just to the surf bands who followed closely in his footsteps, but all the British bands who came after them, and the hard rock and punk rock guitarists who came after them. They were all after that twang, that big sound that Duane had on his records.

When I started doing my Guitar Geek Festival many years ago, I thought about trying to book Duane as a headliner. There was only one problem: he hadn’t done a full show in twenty-five years. He would pop up occasionally to perform one song at a big wing-ding or televised event, but he hadn’t played a full show for a quarter of a century. The breakthrough happened when my friend Dan Forte mentioned that he knew Duane and would be willing to “sweet talk” him into playing my festival. I figured the odds were long, but sure enough, Duane was into the idea, and so I booked him for the 2010 Guitar Geek Festival in Anaheim. I stuck my neck out financially, not knowing if I’d lose my shirt, but I knew that I wanted to see Duane Eddy play, and heck, it was my festival, so I’d get to play with him, too! Duane and I agreed on a set list of his most classic material, not a dud in the bunch (Duane had a LOT of hits! people forget this!), and I told him that my idea was to try and truly nail the sound of those original records with a live band. I put together some of the best musicians I knew, all of whom were huge Duane Eddy fans.

Duane showed up and we ran through a rehearsal. You could see the tenseness in his shoulders relax as he realized that the band knew his songs and had done their homework. He was in a good mood and having a great time.

When the festival started, there was lots of anticipation in the packed ballroom. Was Duane going to bring it, like the old days? Nobody really knew what to expect.

The first notes of Duane’s guitar opened the set—his Gretsch 6120 into two Fender Dual Showman amplifiers (layered with reverb and tremolo and delay), and standing on stage playing the bass, I got the same feeling the rest of the audience did—absolute goosebumps and chills going up our arms and down our spines. I saw the audience’s jaws drop to the floor. Not only did Duane bring it, he absolutely KILLED it. The tone, the attack, the licks, the songs, the feel, the swing and the rock and roll—it was all there, intact, as if a time warp had happened between 1958 and 2010. I can’t even describe how good it was, if you were there in that room. Duane’s guitar was LOUD, and clear, and it rang like a bell. It made everybody stop and say, “Holy S**T! That’s Duane $*%&^ EDDY!” It was a magical night. One of the best shows I’ve ever been a part of.

Duane and I stayed pretty good friends for a while, and I helped him get booked at several other festivals, including Viva Las Vegas, the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans, the Summer Jamboree in Italy, and a few other things. One great memory I have of playing these festivals and shows with him: Duane would send me out before the show to test his guitar, amp, and pedals. I would make sure everything was working and dialed in before he hit the stage. Let me tell you (and it was Dan Forte who first told me about this phenomenon—it was eerie), when I played Duane’s guitar through Duane’s pedals through Duane’s amp—it sounded like me. It just sounded like a normal electric guitar. A few minutes later, Duane would take the same guitar, not touch anything, and the guitar would be twice as loud, and the notes sounded—I swear this is true—the notes sounded an octave (or two) lower, and deeper. It was just something in his hands. The dude had a touch. He sounded like Duane Eddy and nobody else did.

After we had done a few shows together, Duane contacted me and asked me if I would help appraise about thirty instruments he had in storage in Nashville, and give him recommendations on the best way to sell them—either through an auction house, or online, or through a private seller. I guess he trusted me. I told him I would be happy to do this for him for free, as a favor, if he would sell me one of those guitars. I knew about a wild-looking doubleneck that Duane had custom made in 1960 by Tom Howard McCormick in Phoenix, an instrument that looked like a futuristic jet airplane with strings. Duane told me that he had the guitar built to his specifications, but it had feedback problems when he tried using it live, so he only used it on a couple of Dick Clark television appearances in 1960 and put it back in the case. He agreed to sell it to me. It was a lot of money for me to come up with, but we both agreed it was a fair price.

That guitar had the luck of the Irish. Duane packed up the doubleneck and shipped it to me, and the following day, the Cumberland River flooded downtown Nashville and the entire Sound Check facility where Duane kept his instruments in storage. Everything was destroyed except for his original Gretsch #1 from 1957 (he kept that one at home) and the Howard doubleneck he had shipped to me a day before the flood. I still think about that story a lot. It was such a crazy coincidence, I can’t help but think there was some kind of divine intervention protecting that doubleneck guitar. Both instruments, his original Gretsch guitar and the Howard Doubleneck guitar, can currently be seen on display at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. I’ve had mine there on a long-term loan for years, and Duane had his Gretsch on loan there as well. It makes me happy to see them there at the museum, in Arizona, where Duane hailed from.

I hadn’t seen Duane for years, but I knew his health wasn’t great. He cancelled a show in Lubbock last year a month before I was in Lubbock due to health reasons, so I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear the news today of his passing. I am really grateful for the opportunity to get to know him, and the times that I got to share the stage with him. Making those original records come alive with a backing band who appreciated how to make that happen was one of the greatest thrills of my life. RIP Duane, condolences to all of his family. We’re losing all the greats.

Lead photo from the 2010 Guitar Geek Festival: Spencer Hunt