"George Harrison said, ‘When the Beatles play a low E, it sounds like a low E. When Duane plays it, it sounds an octave lower!’”: The story of Duane Eddy's Peter Gunn theme

(Image credit: GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images)

We're remembering the great Duane Eddy, who passed away on 30 April 2024, with the story from 2011 of how he recorded his iconic 1960 take on the theme to the detective TV series Peter Gunn. 

Turn the clock back 50 years and you weren't a proper electric guitarist unless you had a generous quiff and a twang-heavy tone drenched in Grand Canyon-sized reverb. 

This was at least partly down to Duane Eddy, the late Gretsch-toting rock ’n’ roller whose grasp of the twang built him a career that lasts to this day. The New York-born, Arizona-raised guitarist bagged chart success with songs such as Rebel Rouser and Because They’re Young, but scored his biggest hit in 1960 with a cover of the theme tune from the popular '50s detective series Peter Gunn.

Check out the original version, penned by Pink Panther composer Henry Mancini, on YouTube and you’ll discover it’s pretty lightweight compared to Eddy’s adaptation. The twangster’s take pairs a lung-bursting saxophone part with his ominous guitar riff, which is smothered in reverb (or echo in old money). Audiences loved Eddy’s heavier version of the tinny TV tune; in the early '60s, like today, the kids just wanted to rock.

Asked how he came up with the cover, Eddy explains: “I was at Audio Recorders, the studio in Phoenix, working on my second album, Especially For You. My
sax player, Steve Douglas, had this idea to cover the theme from the TV show Peter Gunn. 

"Lee Hazlewood [the producer who also famously teamed up with Nancy Sinatra] was there and I said to him, ‘Whaddya think?’ He said: ‘Well, there’s not much for you to do on it, is there?’ So I said, ‘I could add a little intro that’s off the beaten track and then I’ll just do the riff.’ So we did it, and the record company in Australia put it out as a single and the record company in England heard about it and put it out there too. Then Jamie Records put it out six months later in the States."

I didn’t watch much TV in those days, because I was working at nights in clubs and honky-tonks

Was he a fan of the Peter Gunn TV show, then? “Not really,” Duane shrugs. “I watched it a few times. I didn’t watch much TV in those days, because I was working at nights in clubs and honky-tonks.”

Asked why he preferred to play his riffs on the low E and A strings, he explains: “I realised that the high strings didn’t have the power and the punch of the low ones. I played the melody down low on Rebel Rouser too. I’m actually not playing as low as I sound. [As] George Harrison said, ‘When the Beatles play a low E, it sounds like a low E. When Duane plays it, it sounds an octave lower!’”

The gear Eddy used to deliver the twang will make any fan of 1960s guitar drool. “I used my 1957 6120 Chet Atkins Gretsch,” he tells us. “I was using medium Gretsch strings and I used a small jazz player’s pick. I had a very powerful amp, a reworked Magnatone hopped up to about 100 watts, with a 15-inch JBL speaker to replace the original Jensen. It had a lot of power and a lot of clarity.”

If you ever get tired of dragging your effects unit around, learning the lengths Eddy had to go to in order to generate his world-famous reverb may make you feel fortunate...

“To get the reverb,” he chuckles, “we used a 2000-gallon water tank out back of the studio, with a speaker at one end and a mic at the other – and we ran the guitar sound through that. Then, when we took the record to Gold Star Studios in LA to mix it, they also had a great echo there, so we combined the two and that’s how we got that beautiful echoey sound.”

“We used to have to go out there and chase the birds off it in the morning!

If you’re wondering how big a 2000-gallon metal tank is, Eddy helpfully reveals: “It was about the size of a bus! We went down to the Salt River in Phoenix and there was a junkyard down there full of old, rusted-out water tanks. Some of them weren’t rusted yet, they were just old, and they were perfect for our purposes. We yelled into a bunch of them to see which ones sounded best and we finally found one that we liked, so the studio owner bought it and trucked it up to the studio and made a wooden rack to hold it out in the parking lot.”

Getting decent reverb via a bungalow-sized water tank wasn’t always straightforward, as Eddy goes on to explain. “We used to have to go out there and chase the birds off it in the morning! And sometimes we would be in the middle of a take and all of a sudden a fire truck would go past with its sirens blazing. It would reverberate through that tank, and we’d have to quit and do the take again.”

Drenched in echoey tones, Duane’s version of the song became a worldwide hit, which he attributes to that monster guitar tone. “I think people liked the atmosphere,” he reflects. “It’s a very clever song, actually. The way it’s written it’s so distinctive, with the guitar and sax melodies that fit together so well.
I think people recognise that.”

A reworking with the Art Of Noise in 1986 introduced the song to a new generation of music fans and the song has become a classic of its era. (“I liked that version,” Eddy says. “It was very unusual, very strange and very avant garde... As they said to me at the time, ‘We avant garde a clue what we’re doing here!’”) But the guitar tone is now a relic lost in time, because the water tank is history. In Eddy’s own words: “Oh, it’s long gone. They got rid of it in the '70s. They cut it up and sent it to the junk yard – again!”