Scotty Moore

As Gibson.com continues to overview the work of some Gibson guitar greats, it's time for an undisputed legend of electric guitar, rock 'n' roll and all music. This salute was already scheduled by Gibson.com, but with sad news still reverberating, it's all the more timely. Please join us in paying tribute to the one and only... Scotty Moore.

Who was he?

Winfield Scott "Scotty" Moore III was not only Elvis Presley's trusted guitarist, he was his one-time manager, is lauded as a prime pioneer of rockabilly guitar, a sound engineer, label manager and much more. Moore passed away June 28, 2016 in Nashville, aged 84.

Moore had always been a quite unassuming character in contrast to Elvis's swaggering star quality – he seemed to hold no bitterness for an industry that treated him badly – but it's arguable that without Moore the King would merely have been a Prince. While the young girls hollered at the King, wannabe guitar slingers saw a bigger picture.

As Keith Richards famously observed, “When I heard “Heartbreak Hotel”, I knew what I wanted to do in life. It was as plain as day. All I wanted to do in the world was to be able to play and sound like that. Everyone else wanted to be Elvis, I wanted to be Scotty.”

A jazz and country player with huge admiration for Chet Atkins, the super-talented young Moore was in the right place at the right time when Sun's Sam Phillips put him (and bassist Bill Black) together with his new teen prodigy Elvis Presley. It was 1954. 'That's All Right' was the result, and history was made...

Scotty Moore

Signature Sounds

Moore's fingerpicking style – playing alternating bass notes using a thumbpick – was certainly redolent of Atkins and fellow influence Merle Travis, but took Moore it into a new 'rockabilly' realm. His sound was more stinging, too. So although some of his licks were common to both country and blues of the time, Moore's concise, sharp phrasing – particularly his knack for knowing both what to play and when not to overplay to accent Presley's vocals – were ground-breaking.

With dead-on rhythms, beefier amplification and sharp soloing backing the most charismatic singer seen to that point, Scotty Moore nailed a new sound. “I was just trying to fill in the holes,” he once told Guitar Player. “Those were all the licks I knew, and when the tape started rolling, I knew Sam wanted something in there - something different. I just had to fill in the holes.”

There are still hopefuls trying to dissect Scotty's style year-on-year on YouTube – some better than others, it has to be said. Without Scotty now around to explain, they'll probably never nail his unique sound.

Scotty Moore and Gibson Guitars

Aside from a fleeting flirtation with other guitars in his younger years, Moore remained faithful to Gibson throughout his entire life. In his 2014 autobiography, Scotty & Elvis Aboard the Mystery Train, Moore said, “The streamlined Fender just didn’t feel right when I played it. It probably had something to do with its shape. The Gibson was more feminine. I could make out with the Gibson. I couldn’t get it on with a Fender.”

Moore soon saw a gold Gibson ES-295 on sale at Memphis's O.K. Houck Piano Company store, and fell for it immediately. He was still working at University Park Dry Cleaners by day and playing in the Starlite Wranglers band at night: Elvis was still at Memphis’ Humes High School. But a year later, Moore was still pickin' on that 295. It features on Elvis' first four Sun singles, “That’s All Right”/“Blue Moon Of Kentucky”, “I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine”/“Good Rockin’ Tonight”, “Milkcow Blues Boogie”/“You’re A Heartbreaker”, and “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone”/“Baby Let’s Play House.” Boom! To this day, Keith Richards says he remains baffled by Moore's playing on “I’m Left, You’re Right...”

Like many guitar players, Moore made some personal changes. Les Paul’s special bridge didn’t sit well with him, so he found a Melita Synchro-Sonic with adjustable saddles that allowed him to intonate each string. This necessitated adding a different trapeze tailpiece; he chose a Kluson, as used on Gibson’s ES-125. For Moore, a Gibson hollowbody was the ultimate rock 'n' roll guitar.

“I dearly love the hollowbody sound,” Moore once said. “To me, that’s the sound of jazz – and rock and roll. To me, a hollowbody is the sound of wood making music. A solidbody is the sound of an amp... That ES-295 enhanced Elvis’ voice better than anything else I could have used.”

Scotty Moore

Details of the Gibson ES-295 Scotty Moore. It's a fitting tribute to his exactness.

But by 1955, Moore had a few dollars in his pocket. Four days before their next recording session, on July 7 '55, Moore returned O.K. Houck and traded up his 295 for a Gibson L5-CESN. Launched in 1922, the L-5 was Gibson's first guitar with f-holes and was already a classic model before its electrified form. It's another “jazz” guitar in vision -the L-5 is closely associated with Wes Montgomery – but Scotty made it rock hard. Moore used that guitar – along with the new EchoSonic amp he bought in May of ’55 – to record the last Sun single “Mystery Train”/“I Forgot to Remember to Forget” and for most of Elvis's RCA label years.

Scotty Moore

Details of the Gibson L-5 CES (full name CESN, for natural finish).

In 1957, Scotty traded up again for a Gibson Super 400-CESN. With a body width of 18-inches, the Super 400 CES remains the largest guitar Gibson has ever made and still makes. And in this case, big is beautiful.

Scotty Moore

Details of the Gibson Super 400 CES.

Scotty used his blonde/natural Super 400 CES on ‘Jailhouse Rock’, ‘King Creole’ and the King's first post-Army sessions, and was still using it when he accompanied Elvis on stage in Hawaii in 1961. By 1964, for his own solo album The Guitar That Changed the World he had obtained the sharp (Florentine) single cutaway sunburst Super 400 CES that we all know so well from Elvis's 1968 NBC “Comeback Special” TV show on NBC.

Note that Elvis plays Scotty's Super 400 on “Comeback Special”: and Scotty is seen playing Elvis's blonde Gibson J-200. Indeed, Presley's notorious manager “Colonel” Tom Parker wouldn't let Elvis endorse Gibson, even though they were the King's favorite guitars: Parker insisted on big cash deals with other makers. So, even though Elvis had got his first Gibson J-200 back in '56, the paperwork from even the J-200 with ‘Elvis Presley’ inlayed on the neck was invoiced to Scotty Moore, not Elvis Presley.

And that original ES-295? When Moore traded it at Memphis's O.K. Houck store, it was just another guitar... albeit a great one. But it eventually found its way into the hands of devoted Elvis fan Larry Moss who, calling it the “holy grail” of rock 'n' roll guitars, wanted it back in Moore's hands. In 2007, Moss reunited the ES-295 with Moore on George Klein’s TV show, Memphis Sound.

Essential Listening

If you really need help buying primers of Elvis/Scotty, go for The Complete Sun Sessions and the '68 Comeback Special on DVD. For Scotty without Elvis, head for The Guitar That Changed the World (1964) and rockabilly-faithful All the King's Men (1997) with DJ Fontana, plus guests including Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, Ron Wood, Cheap Trick and more.

Watch!

From the Gibson vaults, here's Scotty explaining all about his Gibson ES-295, L-5 and the early days with Elvis. Thanks Scotty.