Cliff Tait and his Brian Setzer Nashville Gretsch

Cliff Tait is the lead singer and guitarist with Auckland rockabilly trio Blame the Cats. He is uncompromising when it comes to his music, which is a rare thing among musicians playing the covers circuit. I wanted to learn more about Cliff’s background and his Brian Setzer Nashville Gretsch, so I met him at his Auckland studio for a chat.

Starting out

Cliff’s first musical instrument was the cello. Although he loved it, he felt constrained, so at the age of 12, Cliff took up the guitar.

“My dad bought me my first guitar, an old acoustic Hofner. He picked it up from a second-hand shop for me really cheap.”

Like so many musicians of his era, Cliff says he was inspired to take up the guitar by the rhythm and beat of an Elvis Presley album his parents owned.

He is mostly self-taught, though he did try a few guitar teachers.

“Music teachers were my real challenges—everyone I went to just wanted to show me how good they were. I thought, yes, I know you’re good, so teach me!”

Despite Cliff gaining little value from guitar teachers in his early years, that didn’t stop him from becoming a guitar teacher himself.

“I can read music and can teach my students to read it, but I prefer them to feel the music. If a student wants to learn to read, I tell them we’ll do it later if they want — they need to feel the music first.”

First band

Over his career, Cliff has played in many bands, including some over in Australia. However, he says the first time he performed was with a bunch kids in the neighbourhood. They played, not surprisingly, rock ‘n’ roll.

Influences

“I’ve done a lot of Beatles and rolling stones ‘cos their great. I love the Stone ‘cos they are kind of rebellious, and I’m kind of like that.”

Cliff also names Scotty Moore (Elvis), Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton as influences as well as local guitarists like Dave Dobbyn, Steve Hubbard (Shane Hales) and Ken Strong (Toucan and Dreams: The Fleetwood Mac Experience).

There is one guitar player, t, thhoughat no one comes close to in Cliff’s eyes: Brian Setzer of Stray Cats fame.

“Brian Setzer exploded on the market in an era of 80s music, and he came out doing what he did, and, of course, I’m still playing rockabilly and thinking wow; this guy is amazing and so young. Setzer didn’t just play stock-standard rockabilly. He exploded it and developed it. I think his music was closely related to jazz within that rockabilly thing.”

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Cliff’s favourite axe

For a long time, Cliff played a blonde American Telecaster Deluxe.

“Teles are great for country, rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly. Mine had that bite sound to it and was lovely to play.”

Cliff’s current favourite guitar, however, is his Vintage Orange Stain Lacquer Brian Setzer Nashville Gretsch with an ebony fretboard and a Bigsby® B6CB vibrato tailpiece. It is hollow-body with F holes and fitted with two  TV Jones Brian Setzer Signature pickups and Schaller M6 Locking tuners.

“It’s a great sound. It’s very warm and bitey. With the pickups, I tend to stay in the second position, which means using the neck and bridge pickups together.”

Other guitars

Cliff no longer owns a Telecaster—something had to pay for the Gretsch. However, he also uses a Greg Bennet acoustic guitar.

“It’s a lovely guitar and not expensive. I think it is Korean made, and the story goes that Greg Bennet went over there (Korea) a saw how bad their guitars were and taught them how to make them.”

Amplification & effects

“I never mike my amp up. I use a Fender Hot Rod Deville, and it’s all valve and has two speakers.”

To maintain an authentic rockabilly sound, Cliff uses minimal effects.

“I use this wonderful thing called a Rumble Seat, which was recommended to me by Alan from the Recliner Rockers. It’s got reverb — although I prefer to use the Fender amp for that because it has a wonderful plate reverb — and overdrive, which I generally don’t use.  What I use the Rumble Seat for is the delay. It gives old-fashioned slap echo repeats, which was popular in the old days. I wanted to capture that.”

Blame the Cats

“When I got back from Aussie, I did the dad thing, and then I wanted to get back to music. The first group I put together was the Tornadoes. We used a drum machine ‘cos I couldn’t get a drummer. They were really nice guys … I sang and played rhythm mainly, and I had a lead guitarist and a bass player. I was never satisfied, though, never happy; it was never what I wanted. Like most musicians, I was always looking for something.”

That ‘something’ led to Cliff forming Blame the Cats about two years ago.

“Blame the Cats name came from a place I was living at at the time —  there were five cats there.”

Advice for aspiring guitarists

Cliff advises new guitar players to find an instrument that is nice to play. He says it doesn’t need to be expensive. It just needs to feel and look good.

“I have been teaching the guitar for a long time. What I say to my students first off is, if you want to play the guitar, play for yourself. Don’t worry about anything else; just play and enjoy.”

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Andrew Healey

Editor

Andrew is an Auckland-based writer and musician.

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