In the early days of Rock and Roll, there were dozens upon dozens of top hits sung by duets. In many cases, the duos were mediocre artists who simply recorded catchy tunes; and in some cases the duos were quite talented. But, there is no duet in the history of rock and roll that had the musical talent of the Everly Brothers.Here are some technical facts. When a person talks normally, the pitch of the voice is at the very lower end of his/her singing range. So, the higher the pitch of a note, the greater is the tendency for that note to be flat (slightly off key). Some singers compensate for this by using a strong vibrato or “aiming high.” The Everly Brothers sang in the upper register of their singing-range (like the blue-grass singers of their native Kentucky), used no vibrato, yet their pitch was dead-on accurate. I know this because I have run their music through the sophisticated equipment in my home recording studio and found virtually zero variance between the notes being sung and the intended pitch.
Their unique sound stems from the fact that they used a tight harmony, meaning the harmony note was close (on the musical scale) to the melody note. This harmony was so tight, that when I watched the Everlys perform, I couldn’t tell which brother was singing the melody note and which was singing the harmony note. Oddly, I contend that both notes combined represented the melody in many of their songs. Not only was their intonation perfect, so was their timing. In other words, the two singers sounded as one; and the quality of their voices was beautifully mellow, like my Steinway grand piano.
The final technical fact is regarding their guitars. They began by using big, thick, non-electrified Gibson guitars. Musicians call this type of flat-top, hollow-body monster a Dreadnought, a name originally coined by Martin Guitar Company after the HMS Dreadnought, the deadly British battleship built prior to World War I. Don and Phil sometimes used an “open-tuning” for their instruments, meaning some strings are tuned down to form a chord, (D-G-D-G-B-D), and may have used a banjo string (like high-G, as their father Ike did) to get a greater-than-normal two-octave chord range (thus, producing a full-sounding, very “open chord”). All this resulted in a powerful sound. Notice how Don frequently started a song with a series of highly rhythmic, big-sounding chords that would catch the listeners’ attention and hook them in to listening to the rest of the song. Think of the intros to “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake-up Little Suzie,” or “Bird Dog.”
I could recite much of the Everly family’s biography from the Kentucky coal mines to the years of moving from state-to-state singing for local radio stations before Don and Phil, on their own, hit the big-time in Nashville. I will detail only the most important fact. After taking their recording of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant’s “Bye Bye Love” to several labels and getting turned down (even by Columbia), Chet Atkins discovered Don and Phil and got them onto the Cadence label that had been formed by Archie Bleyer originally to record Julius LaRosa (of TV’s Arthur Godfrey Show). Who played lead guitar on the Everly Brothers’ early recordings? Believe it or not, Chet Atkins did.