Scotty Moore is considered the pioneer of rock lead guitar, serving as inspiration for generations to come for his guitar work with Elvis Presley. Moore not only auditioned Elvis for Sun Studios but served as his first guitarist and manager. During this phone interview, to set the scene, Scotty’s hound dog was barking vociferously in the background at a grey squirrel in the background of his home in Tennessee. “You’ve spoken to Jimmy Page?” he asked. “I’ll tell you something. He and Jeff Beck–those two boys have more talent in their pinky fingers than anyone else I know.”
My first guitar was a small Kalamazoo brand acoustic guitar. This was before Gibson bought out the Kalamazoo company. I was about eight years old at the time and one of my brothers, who was fourteen years older, called me up at home in Humbolt, Tennessee, to see if I’d be willing to swap my guitar for his beautiful red Gene Autry archtop. He was already married and living in Memphis. I didn’t know anything about guitars. He’d said to me, “I’m fixing to go into the service. How about trading guitars?” Of course now, all these years later, I realize I got the raw end of the deal because his guitar came from a catalog. Then again, my Kalamazoo guitar had seen some rough treatment.
All three of my older brothers played music when they were home. Dad played the banjo and fiddle, and my oldest brother played mandolin and violin. Together they played at community square dances. I was about ten years old when all my brothers were getting married and leaving the house. I’d thought I completely missed out on something and wanted to play guitar too.
My next-door neighbor, James Lewis, was four years older than me and played acoustic guitar. we played together a lot mostly country music. One man who definitely served as inspiration to me lived about a mile away, and who had a weekend radio show in Jackson, was Oscar Tinsley. He was a fantastic guitarist. I listened mostly to th radio, to a lot of RB music and country. I can’t remember titles of songs at the moment but it was a battery-operated radio so we did not have it on all the time–we lived on a farm.
When my dad got up in years, he used to say, “Don’t beat on that thing all day long, now!” I’d taught myself to play entirely by ear so learning and picking up pieces was a challenge. I could work days on a song until I was satisfied with it.
I quit school in the ninth grade and my dad told me I could work so I stayed on the farm that year. He gave me an acre of cotton, which created the bale that I sold to buy my first jumbo Gibson acoustic. I don’t know what happened to that guitar. Maybe my dad sold it later.
When I was in the service, two or three other guys on our ship bought these small Japanese guitars with fret posts that wore down so quickly we joked they must have been made out of beer cans for how soft the metal was.
What I love about playing the guitar is that there is no end in sight to what can be done on the instrument. I always loved to play, even in the Navy. I played on the ship, started a little radio show and formed a trio. After the service, I came to Memphis in search of a day job and played on my own for a bit, which I did not like. I prefer playing in a group, so I formed one named the Starlite Wranglers. Later on I bought a Fender Esquire and an amp, which I had for a little while when I played gigs. Standing up with this guitar was not compfortable for me. I happened to be downtown one day when I spotted a large, gold-covered ES-295 Gibson, which looked almost like a Les Paul and I said to myself, “I’ve gotta have it.” I traded in the Fender and used this Gibson throughout the early Sun Studios days.
I came to work with Elvis through Sam Phillips, the man who ran Sun Records. Sam had agreed to put out a record on the Starlite Wranglers and we had also become fast friends. Every day I would drop by Sun to go have coffee with him. I haven’t thought about this for years, but I guess, in the back of my mind, “I’d probably been hopeful for some studio work. One day when we were out for coffee, I overheard his secretary, Marion Keisker, say, “Did you ever do anything more about that boy?”
Sam said, “No.”
Later on, I asked him, “What about this boy Marion mentioned?”
He turned to her and said, “Yeah, give him a call.” Sam handed me a piece of paper with a name and number on it and asked me to go ahead and audition him.
I stared at the name and said, “ELVIS? What kind of name is that?” I called Elvis when I got home because Sam was looking for new material. Elvis came over to my house on a Sunday, July 4, and spent a couple of hours singing just about every song in the world. I called Sam after he left and told him Elvis had a good voice. I felt he could sing anything you asked him. Sam told me, “I’ll ask him to come to the studio then, and I’d like you to sit in and play a little music.”
Tape was still a new means of recording back then, and it was very expensive to use. The original way was to record by wire. Now Sam had heard Elvis sing before because he had come by Sun to cut a song for his mother as a birthday present. This time, we were going to record him on tape, which would sound just like it was coming through a radio.
Elvis and I went to Sun Studios on July 5th for an audition. Sam said, “Sing me a pop song.” And he’d do it. “Now sing me an R&B song.” He did it. Elvis could sing anything. Now the funny thing is, Sam would put two and three of these songs on tape at the beginning of the tape when he’d cut that first record. However, because tape was expensive and could be reused, he erased many of those early recordings. It’s not like nowadays, when they have absolutely every little bit of everything saved up on first recordings.
For the last Sun session, I purchased the Echosonic amplifier for $500 from the builder Ray Butts. Back then, $500 was quite a sum, but I managed to get financing from the O.K. Houck Piano Co. in Memphis, where I had purchased other equipment, including my second Gibson guitar, an L-5 natural finish archtop. The Echosonic had been used to record Elvis’ “Mystery Train,” and I used this amplifier on every subsequent recording and performance throughout my career with Elvis, up to the 1968 NBC-TV special.
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This interview is from the book, My First Guitar: Tales of True Love and Lost Chords by Julia Crowe (ECW Press.)
A book of Rockabilly Quick Licks written by Scotty Moore…