How to Play Rockabilly Guitar

How to Play Rockabilly Guitar

First, if you are a beginner, concentrate on learning the basics of chording, melody and rhythm. Trying to play any particular “style” will confuse you. I recommend Justin Sandercoe or Marty Schwartz’s videos on YouTube. TheFred Sokolow method is a good Beginner Rockabilly method but you should focus on the rudiments, not style. If you prefer TABs to standard notation(Piano music), remember TABs don’t teach you to count and they don’t force you to visualize the notes separately from the Guitar fingerboard. Learning to read music gives you an insight into the relationship of notes that TAB does not.

When you feel comfortable playing chord changes and simple, single string melody lines, in a steady, consistent fashion, you can start thinking about style.

Anyone that tries to play “Rock” Guitar, Metal, Punk, Rockabilly or Surf, without a solid understanding of Blues playing, is wasting their time. Blues playing will show you how to follow a chord pattern, how to solo(Improvise over a set pattern), how to leave space, and how to switch from lead to rhythm smoothly. Blues harmony is much simpler than Jazz or Classical music. Hearing the I-IV-I-V progression, of a 12-bar is a good place to start understanding the “Circle of Fourths and Fifths”

I often hear Guitarists say that Blues is overly simple, lame, predictable, just a vehicle for wanky soloists. Yes it CAN be all of these things, but to learn about “Style” you have to start with a simple style. Blues is only lame, when it is played by lame players that approach it as a lame style. A self fulfilling prophesy of lameness.

Blues uses all the techniques that you will have to master in order to play any Rock Guitar style. Bends, hammer-on/offs, slides, slurs, arpeggios, scratches, double stops, rakes, trills and vibrato. It also teaches you to use lead lines like a voice. The call and response or question/answer technique is a very common way to start giving your solos direction. I meet very good technical players that can only recite riffs, they already know. A solo is a statement, it needs to have beginning, a point and an ending. It is because 12-bar patterns are so predictable, that make them a perfect progression to learn how to solo over.

When you become comfortable playing and soloing over Blues patterns, try adding some Country or Jazz flavor. Both styles use different scales and techniques that can be mixed with Blues playing to make it more interesting. Both styles can be fairly complicated so lets look at some simple examples.

A good place to start playing Country, is the Beatles and the Stones. “Act Naturally”, “Honky Tonk Women”, “Far Away Eyes” , R.Miller’s “King of the Road” all demonstrate fairly straight forward grooves and lead breaks. A few things are apparent. They all use Major keys, your minor pentatonic scale is useless to you, (if you don’t know how use it with the Major scale). The groove is steady, clock-like. Some Country does swing, most doesn’t.  In Country Music, the vocal melody almost always leads the chord changes. What I mean is, you  can tell where the chord progression is going, from the singer. The Guitar playing is more melodic. Country Guitarists listen to Pedal Steel Guitars and Banjos! They are both Open-Tuned instruments, tuned to a Chord. Many solos/melodies are just the notes in a chord, with 1 or 2 extra notes added. Country playing uses a lot of open strings, drones, as well as the Blues Guitar techniques. The changes aren’t nearly as predictable as blues and often use half bars. This will register to the untrained listener as an odd stop or chord change. They will add a beat or 2, to a note, chord or stop, making a chorus for example, a 1/2 bar longer than expected. This may explain better

Jazz Guitar uses no open strings, very little bending(slide notes instead). Playing “Chord-Melodies” is very common, it means the highest note in each chord forms a melody. There is much more contrast between consonance and dissonance. Jazz is hard to fake, if you don’t understand musical theory. Let me specify, “Hot” Jazz, Bebop, Swing(not Weather Report, “Cool” Jazz). I found the best way to get a feel for Jazz Guitar, is to “Scat” sing(or hum) a simple melody, then learn it on the Guitar. The first way to make your Blues playing sound “Jazzier”, is to use 9th chords and avoid playing the Root and Fifth( key of C, would be C and G). From Wiki: “Jazz guitar players tend to improvise around chord/scale relationships, rather than reworking the melody, possibly due to their familiarity with chords resulting from their comping role”, in English, Jazz cats don’t play Riffs Here’s an eg. Notice first the “Syncopated Rhythms”, NOT very “Clock-like”, Guitarist use “Chromatic” scales(notes right beside each other; E,F,F#,G,G#). They play ahead AND behind the beat, there is quite a bit of tension but it always resolves. Here’s an awesome Jazz Guitar resource;

The more you learn and apply these styles, the easier it will be for you to excel at playing Rockabilly. But don’t just listen to Rockabilly, listen to the players that influenced Carl Perkins, Scotty Moore and Cliff Gallup. Don’t just copy their riffs, copy their approach.


  1. Very Nice website. Love your blogs, and great links/resources. In regards to scatting, thanks so much for bringing that up. One of the things that turned me off to what jazz guitarists were doing back in the 80’s, was that too many guitarists were playing from “their head”, and that’s just not the place one needs to be coming from. Listening to, and striving to emulate phrasing characteristics of horn players, and/or vocalists, sounds so much nicer than playing a blur of meaniningless notes, contrived from a scale pattern, and played because the guitarist knows “hey, these will fit”! That whole approach seemingly gave credence to the misconception that, “Man,…I don’t want to learn any of that theory stuff! It just takes away from your ability to play with soul”!!
    Hopefully, now it’s widely known that either extreme can lead to skewed development. Maybe “whistle while you work” should be the mantra, so that it’s ultimately coming from the aural part of your brain. Everything you’re saying (that i’ve read) seems to be “Right on” when it comes to advice. As Redd Volkhart, and Eric Johnson have confirmed, just gotta mix up various styles into your playin, keep growing, and keep it interesting,..keeps the staleness and overly contrived soundingness out. I look forward to learning more from your website! ~ Thanks

    1. Thanks, I totally avoided really learning my scales(when I first learned to play) because I don’t like shredders or players that don’t use any dissonance. I never realized that scales just show you the perfect movements and help you internalize Intervals. You don’t HAVE to use them for soloing, they are useful for building chords and progressions too. Humming or scat singing is the best way to learn to improvise. You have to learn the riff or song in your head before you play it on Guitar, and having it resonate IN your skull(while singing), is different than hearing it with through your ears. Music theory isn’t hard, math always scares people but reading standard notation IS fairly hard for Guitarists( between the sharps and flats and figuring out which position to play pieces in). Cheers!

  2. Ha!

    [I spoke too soon]

    Here is the C.P. mention I was lookin for. Now it leaves me wondrin though…

    who, by jove, influenced the man?

  3. Thank you for this blog. I am actually a beginner so I m trying to learn everything there is to learn. It is a little difficult if you are teaching your own self, though. However, I am really determined to become a great guitarist. When the time comes that I am ready to learn a specific style, I will surely come back to your post. Thank you so much.

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