Duane Eddy, Influential Rock’n’Roll Guitarist, Dies at 86

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Duane Eddy, the pioneering guitarist who helped popularize twang—the reverberating electric sound that emits a warped and dusty tone—in rock’n’roll during the 1950s, has died, reports The Associated Press. He died of complications from cancer in the hospital on Tuesday (April 30) in Franklin, Tennessee, according to his wife, Deed Abbate. He was 86 years old.

A self-taught artist, Duane Eddy was drawn toward the bass strings on his guitar and believed that lead lines sounded better recorded there than on the higher strings. Leaning into that deeper tone, he began experimenting with his vibrato bar to capture the twang sound and found his signature style at that intersection. Eddy landed several hits in the late 1950s into the 1960s, including “Rebel Rouser” and “Forty Miles of Bad Road,” and sold over 100 million records worldwide. In the process, he went on to influence some of the biggest names in rock: George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, and more.

For many of his early recordings, Eddy worked closely with Lee Hazlewood as a producer and songwriter. (Hazlewood would go on to adopt Eddy’s signature twang for his production of Nancy Sinatra’s 1960s hit “These Boots Are Made for Walkin.’”) He also tapped several members of the Wrecking Crew, the iconic Los Angeles collective of session musicians, for his backing band, the Rebels: guitarist Al Casey, saxophonists Jim Horn and Plas Johnson, and keyboardist and bassist Larry Knechtel.

Beginning with his 1958 debut, Have Twangy Guitar Will Travel, Eddy recorded over 50 albums during his lifetime. He scored 15 Top 40 hits in the first five years of his career alone. It wasn’t until around the time of his hit “Freight Train” in 1970, however, that Eddy decided to slow his roll and begin living off his royalties.

Unlike most artists, Eddy never attempted to sing on his records, calling himself a poor vocalist, and he would downplay his skills as a guitarist despite being revered by others. “I’m not one of the best technical players by any means; I just sell the best,” he told The Associated Press in 1986. “A lot of guys are more skillful than I am with the guitar. A lot of it is over my head. But some of it is not what I want to hear out of the guitar.”

Many of Eddy’s songs found renewed fame at the movies. While twang tracks fit right in sonically with the theme of westerns, his pop hits also illuminated the screen in later films that spanned genres. “Rebel Rouser” plays in Forrest Gump; his song “The Trembler,” which he wrote with Ravi Shankar, is featured in Natural Born Killers; and he was asked to pen “Because They’re Young” for the 1960 movie of the same name starring Dick Clark and Tuesday Weld. He also made songs for Pepe and Gidget Goes Hawaiian, and was even asked to write a James Bond theme, but he turned down the offer, claiming there wasn’t enough guitar music in the series.

Eddy’s work came back into vogue at several points over the years, including the rockabilly revival in the 1970s—Eddy was asked to produce albums for Waylon Jennings and Phil Everly—and the rise of new wave in the 1980s—British synth-pop band Art of Noise reworked his hit “Peter Gunn” in the style of avant-disco, inviting Eddy to play on the recording. Come 1994, Eddy was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2008.

Numerous artists have paid tribute to Eddy after learning of his death, including Nancy Sinatra, the Kinks’ Dave Davies, and Eddie Manion. “For Duane Eddy 🎸,” Mick Fleetwood posted on X, “yesterday in my studio I said this riff needs to sound like Duane Eddy! As I picked up my Gretsch white falcon guitar! Saddened of the passing of this understated man who had talents more than most knew. Grateful for learning to play drums listening to his music.”