What else can you say about Scotty Moore?
Calling him “Elvis’ guitarist,” as many headlines are today, isn’t just a disservice to Moore; it’s a disservice to Elvis. Elvis may have been the singer who led the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, but Moore’s guitar playing was key to its sound.
It’s not for nothing that one of Moore’s albums was titled “The Guitar That Changed the World!” (Gibson, the maker of Moore’s ES-295 and Super 400, certainly knew it, even if it had a vested interest.)
It’s taking nothing away from such session professionals as James Burton and Reggie Young, who accompanied Elvis in his later years, that when it came to Elvis records, Moore created the template. Hell, he created the template when it came to rock ‘n’ roll records.
Moore, who played on such Elvis songs as “Mystery Train,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Too Much,” and later engineered songs by Dolly Parton and Ringo Starr (the latter’s underrated “Beaucoups of Blues” album), died Tuesday. He was 84.
There are so many examples of Moore’s efficient, powerful licks, but I’ll lean on my favorite, “Hound Dog,” to illustrate his proficiency and that of bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana. Elvis learned the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller song in Las Vegas, from a version by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, who had smoothed out the lyrical rough edges of Big Mama Thornton’s 1953 original. Elvis and his band took their cleaned-up version and added their own rough edges.
The song (which includes an uncredited pianist rumbling in the background) has so much energy it’s a wonder the tonearm can stay on the record.
(You have to love the Jordanaires’ absurdly perfect harmonizing, too.)
It’s Moore in all his glory: effortlessly climbing the fretboard, nailing a handful of staccato chords, bending the occasional note — and not calling attention to himself.
Amazingly, “Hound Dog” took 31 takes. How the hell can you sustain such energy over 31 takes?
Years later, Keith Richards recalled the impact of Moore’s playing.
“I might not have wanted to be Elvis, but I wasn’t so sure about Scotty Moore,” he wrote in his memoir, “Life.” “Scotty Moore was my icon. … I’d have died and gone to heaven just to play like that.”
Moore, however, played down his importance.
“We didn’t know we were trying to create something new,” he told The New York Times in 1997. “We were trying to do something with a little different angle from what was on the market.”
You might say he succeeded.