Rockabilly Guitar- an Introduction

Rockabilly is a hybrid of Blues and Country with melodic and rhythmic elements borrowed from Bebop and Western Swing music.  Its is characterized by up-tempo, mostly Major,  Seventh and Ninth chords and  walking Bass-lines.  Usually employing an Upright Bass, a minimal drum set, “Slap-Back echo” on the Electric Guitar and Vocals and an acoustic rhythm Guitar. Many of the tunes follow a 1-4-1-5(eg. A,D,A,E) 12-bar progression.

Equipment-wise most guitarists use a Gretsch or Gibson hollowbody electric. Epiphone, Heritage, Washburn, Guild, Harmony and Eastwood, all make good quality instruments.  For solidbodies, Telecasters, Les Paul Juniors, Gretsch Rock-Jets, Fender Jazzmasters or Mustangs are all suitable.

Strings-  If you don’t bend strings often or play mostly rhythm, .011(med) gauge strings will stay in tune better than .010s.  When buying heavier gauge sets of strings(.012, .013s) try to get an unwound G(3rd) string.  Some players use “Flat-Wound” strings, they have a very authentic Jazzy, rich sound. If you want to sound like Cliff Gallup of G. Vincents Blue Caps, or Luther Perkins you need the flat-wounds. Flat-wound strings are fairly heavy and will limit your bending ability.  I wouldn’t recommend them for your main #1 guitar or if you’re a beginner.

Effects, one word; Echo.  You need either a digital delay, analog delay or a tape echo.  Amp reverb sounds OK if you don’t have an echo pedal but if you’re going to buy one pedal, get a delay.  You can trade your Fuzz/Distortion pedal for it.  Boss digital delays are good, I use the new Space Echo.  Digital is the easiest, most convenient type of echo, there’s some great analog pedals around too.  Next pedal: Tremolo, again Boss are very reliable, there’s quite a few boutique brands that offer more control, Fulltones are good.  A Volume Boost for solos is handy, you can use an EQ pedal or a compressor, I  often control it with the Guitars volume pot but a pedal is easier and more precise.   Some players(esp. Tele players) use a Compressor, they bring out subtle sounds like harmonics and chicken picking.   A Volume pedal is nice for Steel Guitar style swells.  You can make the guitar sound bowed(like a Cello or Violin).  A floor tuner-pedal goes without saying, again Boss is the standard.  Korg “Pitchblack” have a great display, easier to read than a Boss.  Petersons are expensive and too precise, they might work great in a studio, but live, they take forever.  TC Electronics makes the new “Polytune” which tunes all 6 strings at once.  Clip-on headstock tuners like the “Snark” are very handy( I always bring one as a back-up tuner).

Pedals that definitely don’t belong in your chain are; Chorus/Flange, Wah-Wah, Ring Modulators,Harmonizers, Talk box’s, Phase Shifters, and Fuzz.  Any distortion/overdrive should be coming from the amplifier.  Some players will use a mild distortion like a Blues Driver(Boss) if they have a clean sounding amp or no master volume.  Using a pre-amp before any effects and/or using the amplifiers effect-loop will give you a better signal.  I find that you should not need any noise suppression/gate unless you’ve got too many pedals.  A little 60 cycle hum from single coil pickups is OK.  You wont hear it when playing.

Always use the best, shortest cables possible. The plugs are generally the most expensive part of a patch cord so don’t be surprised to find that a 1″ cable is almost as expensive as a 20″ cable’.  It makes no sense spending thousands on a guitar, amplifier and effects, only to connect them with $5 patch cords, it’s the weakest link in the chain scenario.

Amplifiers.  Tube amps are warmer.  A Fender Deluxe Reverb, or Bassman is the best.  Twin Reverbs and Super Reverbs are a bit loud.  If you’re playing with a band, you’re going to want at least a 20 watt amp.  Other good tube amps are Traynor, Hiwatt, Laney,Vox, Peavey Tweed, Mesa Boogie,Ampeg and Epiphone.  For Boutique amps: Victoria, Matchless, Bad Cat,THD, Fuchs, Bogner, Top Hat. You want to veer away from; #1. Marshalls=Not really good for anything but metal, Dr Z, Bhuddas, Oranges, are all, loud fuzzy amps.

Listen to Elvis’s “Sun Sessions”, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio.  For new neo rockabilly, Brian Setzer‘s playing’s incredible, Lee Rocker‘s got 2 hot guitarist’s(Brophy Dale and Buzz Cambell). Deke Dickerson, Danny B Harvey, Paul Pigat, Jimmy Roy there’s quite a few incredible Rockabilly pickers out there.  You also want to go back and listen to the old Blues, Hillbilly-Country, and Western Swing Artists, that influenced early Rockabilly.

Most Rockabilly Guitarist employ some type of Fingerpicking or Fingerstyle playing.  The Master’s are Chet Atkins and Merle Travis.  This style basically involves playing a Bass note, generally the root or the fifth, underneath a Chord or Melody line.  To accomplish this, the Guitarist must  use a)Thumb Pick, b)Hybrid picking– which involves adding 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers of the right hand, to the flatpicking or c)Palming the pick- use thumb, 1st, 2nd and 3rd fingers.  Setzer has an incredible palming technique, it looks as if his pick dissappears when he Fingerpicks.  Thumb picks are a totally different technique from Flat-Picking.  Most players find them awkward to use and control.  Thumb picks are often used for Banjo, Lap Steel, Dobro, and Steel Guitar, so it is a very useful technique if you plan on learning any of these instruments.  The easiest way to “palm” your flatpick when learning is to hold it in your mouth.  Just bite down on the edge (the pointed part that contacts the strings) so you can grab it easily when you’re finished Fingerpicking (don’t put the whole pick in mouth).

Both the Beatles and CCR borrowed fairly heavily from Rockabilly.  Even Rock bands like Queen, Aerosmith and Led Zep have paid tribute to the Rockabilly genre.  Rockabilly style has been increasing in popularity since the early 80’s, when the Stray Cats had their first hit.  Check out the Blue Cats, Crazy Cavan, and Robert Gordon too.


Here’s the description from Allmusic . Aside from mixing up “Slapping” (a style of Upright Bass playing) and  “Slapback”, it’s fairly good.

Wiki page

For the Best Rockabilly records, CDs and T-shirts, check out Flying Saucer productions for crazy deals on Rockabilly/Psychobilly Music from around the world. Canadian distributor for RAUCOUS, CRAZY LOVE, FLYING SAUCER, and NERVOUS RECORDS!


    1. Thanks, stay tuned. I’ll be adding some better Jam-Along tracks featuring a full rhythm section. If there’s anything you’d like help with, let me know, Cheers

  1. Hi Gorehound,
    I’m writing from Surfdog Records. Thanks for posting about Brian on your blog, we really appreciate it! We’re gearing up to release a brand new Brian Setzer album this Fall and I’d love to add you on to our e-mail list so we can keep you in the loop. I did not see an e-mail address on your blog. If you would like to stay informed, please visit Brian’s Sign Up Page

    1. Sorry, there’s nothing on Google or You Tube. I recommend just using the Chord chart and figure it out from there.
      1 of the Everly’s Guitars is us tuned to Open G(D,G,D,G,B,D)sometimes capoed. So this might help you get the same sound.
      On the subject of TABs, use them as a starting point. They are USUALLY WRONG so don’t be afraid to change parts, that don’t sound right. Work with several from the same song, and look at the ratings.
      Writing your own TABs is an excellent exercise!
      Do you mean Lefty Frissel’s version ?
      If so, do you just need the Guitar riff part?

  2. I’m so glad that I saw this sentence on this page!

    “It makes no sense spending thousands on a guitar, amplifier and effects, only to connect them with $5 patch cords, it’s the weakest link in the chain scenario.”

    For a long time I’ve been telling people to throw out those HOSA cables and Monster Cables and get a really good quality guitar cable. Immediately you will notice more clarity in the chords.

    I went with PACS Cables ( and have been happy with my sound ever since!

  3. Really enjoyed all the good info on rockabilly guitar style, and sound. I am just starting to play this music and have a hard time fingerpicking. Is there another way to get a good sound picking chords and such? I am to old to start leaning that now. I am a country player for many years. Thanks and keep up the great work.

    1. You don’t HAVE to fingerpick to play Rockabilly. If you are comfortable with a flat-pick, try hybrid picking. You hold the pick normally but reach out with the 2nd and/or 3rd fingers to play high notes. Also you don’t need picks at all. When I first started fingerstyle, it felt like my fingers were and inch longer, but fingerpicking is easier without a Thumbpick/fingerpicks.
      This might help if you can apply it to Guitar

  4. Very well written, straight to the point information and no self-boasting. A hard to find combination in a good guitarist 🙂

    Thank you and keep up the good work!

    1. Thank you very much, I just started posting basic stuff for my students. It’s a great exercise to try explaining complicated theories in a couple of words or sentences. I’ve been teaching seriously for 5 years and love the way it forces you to simplify. Everybody learns differently, so I try to have a few approaches to every concept. I’m glad players are finding it useful. Check out the Deadcats on Flying Saucer, Paul Pigat joins us for 1 tune(Hanks Cadillac)on our new disc “Deadcats Look Like Hell”

  5. Awesome info! I’m a life long guitarist who has always played heavier 80’s material but recently have jumped in head 1st to the rockabilly scene and i’m loving it. I appreciate the tips on equipment, Artists and techniques. You nailed it on the head when you said the metal guys hide behind the effects, I was one of those, so this style really forces tecnique and feel. Thanks again


  6. Thanks Scott, I don’t mean to pick on metal guys. I admire players like Buckethead and P Gilbert is an awesome teacher, they just don’t move me. I grew up listening to Zep, Hendrix and Alice Cooper, and as far as “Heavy music” goes, I don’t think modern Rock or speed-metal holds a candle to the originators. Rock Players that can’t play Blues, are missing something in their feel and approach. Blues, teaches you how to “Imply” chord changes, instead of following them.

  7. whoa, whoa…

    no love for Carl Perkins?

    c’mon man! the Beatles worshiped him.

    [kickin article aside this slight oversight]

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