The Rocker's Guide to Red Hot Rockabilly: Essential Licks, Tricks and Riffs

Explore the styles and techniques associated with rockabilly and its main practitioners.
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In the mid-Fifties, the airwaves were dominated by rockabilly, a rowdy fusion of country and R&B characterized by slap­-style upright bass, hiccupy vocals, raucous drums and, of course, supercharged electric guitars.

In this lesson, we’ll explore the styles and techniques associated with rockabilly and its main practitioners, from Scotty Moore and Carl Perkins onward to Brian Setzer, who led the rockabilly revival in the early Eighties.

While fancy Gibson and Gretsch hollowbodies are the instruments most commonly associated with this early rock and roll style, you can get a convincing rockabilly sound from just about any electric guitar. Just be sure to keep your tone bright-use your bridge or middle pickup, or a combination of the two-and then crank the reverb and dial in a quick slap-echo. A touch of over­ drive is also desirable. A pompadour and bowling shirt wouldn’t hurt, either.


FIGURE 1 is inspired by Scotty Moore (“That’s All Right” and “Mystery Train”) and James Burton (“Hello, Mary Lou”). A Travis-picking example, it features an alternating bass line (notated in downstrokes and played with the pick) on strings 6-3 and a coun­terpoint melody (notated in upstrokes and picked with the middle and ring fingers) on the top two strings. Tackle the bass line first, and when you have it down pat, add the melody. And be sure that the plectrum­ articulated notes sound at a volume equal to that of the fingerpicked ones.


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FIGURE 2A is in the style of Carl Perkins (“Blue Suede Shoes”). Basically a stripped-down alternative to FIGURE 1, it features a syncopated bass line and is graced with hammer-ons and a pull-off. Try moving this figure around the neck to different keys. (You’ll need to employ a 1st-finger barre on the top two strings.) FIGURE 2B employs the E major pentatonic (add b3) scale (E­ F#-G-G #-B-C#)-a favorite among rock­abilly guitarists. In addition to shuffling the eighth notes, be sure to look out for the staccato (shortened) marking on the A chord in bar 2.


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The next two figures are influenced by the go-for-broke soloing styles of Cliff Gallup (“Race With the Devil”), Eddie Cochran (“Twenty Flight Rock”), and Brian Setzer (“Rock This Town”). FIGURE 3A is based on a hybrid of the A blues (A-C-D-Eb-E-G) and A major pentatonic (A-B-C#-E-F#) scales. Use your 3rd finger to fret the sliding dyads, striving for evenness through­ out. FIGURE 3B features a similar blues/ major­ pentatonic mix; the cool triplet-based pull-offs here are best played with a 4-3-1 fret-hand fingering.


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FIGURE 4A exemplifies the low-register twang and Bigsby-bar-inflected melodies of Duane Eddy (“Rebel Rouser”). If your ax has a Floyd Rose-type bar, execute the “scoops” as minimally as possible.

FIGURE 4B is inspired by Scotty Moore’s classic lead work in Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.” Played with pure rockabilly conviction, it’s simply a C minor pentaton­ic (C-Eb-F-G-Bb ) line played on the lower strings.


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FIGURE 5A illustrates a classic rockabil­ly treatment of a V-1 cadence in the key of D (A7-D), based on octaves along the 4th and 1st strings. Each lower note is pre­ ceded by a cool half-step slide. FIGURE 5B puts a different twist on this cadence, issuing a series of chromatically ascending dominant 13th chords voiced on the top four strings.


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This rollicking, 27-measure solo [FIGURE 6] is based on dominant blues changes in G. It’s divided into three distinct sections: a 12-bar I-IV-V (G7- C7-D7) progression (bars1-12), a iV-I-II-V (C7- G7-A7-D7) bridge (bars 13–20), and a i-IV-II-V­ I (G7-C7-A7-D7-G7) closing cadence. The feel is an up-tempo, rockabilly shuffle.

The solo opens with a four-measure stop­ time intro consisting of G major pentatonic (G-A-B-D-E) and G minor pentatonic (G-Bb­-C-D-F) moves. Encompassing the materials presented in FIGURES 3A–3B, the four-bar phrase also features some open-string embellishments. Stay in 3rd position for the first three measures, then slip down to 2nd position at the top of bar 4.

A simple bass line (another common rock­abilly trapping) is used for the IV chord (C7) in measure 5, which is followed by a C major pentatonic (add b3) (G--D-Eb-E-G-A) phrase. Shift from 2nd to 3rd position at the top of mea­sure 6. A blues-turnaround lick ensues in mea­sure 7-let the notes ring together here-and is capped with a pair of dominant 13th voicings (F#l3 and G13).

Measures 9-12 mark the end of the first section. Here, we encounter some of the more challenging moves of the solo. The first two measures (9-10) involve a set of sliding D6, C6, and C9 partials (some chord tones are omitted), played along the top three strings. (The open strings serve as a passing G6 chord, and are included to sustain the energy of the passage.) Physically. the octaves in measures 11-12 are easy enough, but the syncopated rhythms make this section a little tricky. Typically. this is the sort of rhythm the band will pick up on, helping to carry out the idea to its fruition.

A classic Gallup/Cochran/Setzer phrase opens the bridge (bars 13-14). Kicked off by a C-G dyad, the lick cascades down the C major pentatonic/blues hybrid scale (G-D-Eb-E-F­ Gb-G-A-Bb) in 8th position. (Dig into the first note of each triplet set for maximum propulsion.) Measures 15-16 are punctuated by G9, G13, and F13 chord jabs, followed by an A major/minor pentatonic (A-B-C-C#-D-E-F#-G) phrase in bar 17.

The final measures of the bridge section (bars 18-20) host a difficult but exciting chord passage that ascends from the V chord (D7) to the I chord (G7) via various D6- and D7-type voicings. Take your time with this challenging pas­ sage, putting it together in increments of four eighth notes at a time. Fret-hand fingering is up to you, but for the parallel voicings you may want to use a 3rd-finger barre.

Measure 21 kicks off the eight-bar outro with a syncopated set of octave jumps (G down to G), which leads to a G major pentatonic (add b3) run (G-A-Bb-B-D-E). Open-string embellishments fuel the final measures of the solo.


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