“I wanted to take all of the sophistication out of it,” Paul Pigat says of Let’s Go!, the latest album by his rockabilly trio Cousin Harley. But few, if any, would call the record’s 10 retro-rock scorchers unsophisticated. Pigat has a knack for crafting dazzlingly tight guitar solos that sit gemlike within well-honed songs that he dashes off with apparent ease.
“I took a little lesson from AC/DC on the solos for this record,” he says. “And that’s to make the solo completely different from the rest of the song. Rather than just soloing over a verse or bridge progression, there’s a new harmonic change for the guitar solo. You haven’t heard anything like that so far in the song. AC/DC were always great at that.”
Pigat’s approach to the rockabilly idiom is adventurously eclectic, incorporating elements of everything from hard rock to Western swing. A doting Dutch fan dubbed them “The Motörhead of Rockabilly”.
“I’m not a purist by any means,” Pigat admits. “I’ve always been interested in taking the parts of American music that I love and mashing them together. Country, blues, rock... a little bit of everything in there.
“We’re still a country/rockabilly/rock ’n’ roll band, but the last few records were very Western swing. With Let’s Go!, however, I wanted to make another rock ’n’ roll record. So this one is getting back to our rock ’n’ roll roots and what we originally started with, which are raunchy and aggressive. But we kept a little country tinge to it, too.”
By the time Pigat discovered rockabilly, he had already earned a degree in classical composition and paid his dues in numerous rock bands. But from the moment he heard rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon’s late-'70s/early-'80s work with British guitar ace Chris Spedding, his fate was sealed.
“That was my very first taste of it,” he says. “I fell in love with that and started working my way backwards. I grew up in Toronto, and Toronto had a good little rockabilly scene. But then I moved to Vancouver, and the scene there is what really solidified it for me. There was so much going on. It was a deep scene.”
Pigat arrived in Vancouver just as the city’s alt-country scene was capturing national attention in the '90s, thanks to the work of powerhouse singers like Neko Case and Carolyn Mark. “Uncle Harley” is a stage name/persona that emerged during spells in several Vancouver groups, including Mark’s band, the Metronome Cowboys.
“My job, in between songs, was to spew profanities at the audience,” he says of the latter ensemble. “We used to bring our own chicken-wire fence and encourage the audience to throw things at us. It was very punk rock. We had a lot of fun.”
Gretsch guitars, the quintessential axes of rockabilly, were something else that Pigat discovered later in life. “Growing up in Canada, you didn’t get a chance to play too many Gretsches,” he says, “because every time a good Gretsch would come up for sale, Randy Bachman would buy it. So you’d rarely see one. And the ones you did see were the bad ones.”
Eventually, Pigat fell in love with a 1951 Gretsch Country Club electric, which became the basis for a signature guitar he created with Gretsch master builder Stephen Stern.
“It’s called the Synchro-Club,” Pigat says. “I did a bunch of research on everything Gretsch has made, and I took all the things I really liked. I took the Country Club body. I made it thin like a Tennessean. I took the aesthetics from a 1939 Synchromatic, and TV Jones custom-made me some pickups. It’s a pretty spectacular instrument – that’s for sure.”
Pigat says that his Synchro-Club was his “go-to Gretsch” for the Let’s Go! album sessions. But he also played a Fender Custom Shop Telecaster. “And surprisingly,” he adds, “the most rockabilly guitar that I own is my 1965 non-reverse Gibson Firebird. It’s a screaming monster, but it fits in well with that rockabilly racket.”
Pigat’s tone on the album was also shaped by vintage guitar amps, including an Ampeg GS-12 and Gretsch Executive as well a brand-new Fender Tone Master Deluxe Reverb. “Which is surprising,” he notes. “I swore to death that they would never convince me with a digital amplifier, and I have been proven wrong. I think the Tone Master is a fantastic amp.”
One more small but indispensable piece of gear for Pigat is a thumb pick. He began using this style of plectrum in one of his many bands, in which he had to alternate frequently between steel and Spanish guitars.
“Constantly switching between a flat pick and a thumb pick got to be too much,” he says. “I decided to stay with the thumb pick. That’s what I’ve used almost exclusively for the last 15 years. I’ve completely forgotten how to use a flat pick.”
The thumb pick also helps place Pigat squarely in the tradition that links country players like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins with rockabilly pioneers like Scotty Moore. Cousin Harley’s music is like an easily digestible history lesson, illuminating the genealogy that links these essential roots styles.
With his hipster goatee and retro eyeglass frames, Pigat is like a walking encyclopedia of rootsy guitar styles. Cousin Harley even recorded a Merle Travis tribute album, 2017’s Blue Smoke.
A true rockabilly Renaissance man, Pigat is also a guitar builder in his own right. He has recently taken to “rescuing” junky old guitars that are seemingly beyond repair or redemption – ancient, beat-up Hofners, obscure Russian jobs... that sort of thing.
“It’s one way I’ve been keeping sane during the pandemic,” he says. “I never do this with anything that could be properly restored. But I get these old instruments that are basically going to the garbage heap. And I’ve got nothing else to do, so I’ll put in as much time as is needed to get them back into a playing condition and make them into something different.”
Another one of Pigat’s pet pandemic projects has been a series of remote recording collaborations, via the internet, with a revolving cast of musicians. He calls it the Shut-Ins. “One of the installments of the Shut-Ins I’m working on is a suite for solo electric guitar,” he says. “I’ve got to keep myself interested, and this is one way to do that.”
- Let's Go! is out now via Little Pig.