by Jesse Gress
You can trace rockabilly back to Merle Travis. In themid ’50s, when rockabilly pioneers such as Scotty Moore, Paul Burlison, Cliff Gallup, Joe Maphis, and Carl Perkins hot-rodded the basic Travis fingerpicking pattern, all hell broke loose. Suddenly records of that era by Elvis Presley, Johnny Burnette, Gene Vincent, and Ricky Nelson jumped with new, juiced-up energy.
From the mid ’60s through the 1970s, a small group of fringe artists kept the rockabilly fire burning, recording mostly on private labels. Thanks to the Stray Cats, rockabilly made a resurgence in the early ’80s. Since then, rockabilly has been a vibrant color in the electric guitarist’s palette. Whether you dig blues, jazz, or country, rockabilly has something for you.
The riffs, chords, turnarounds, and endings in this rockabilly guitar lesson will give you a firm grasp of rockabilly basics. If the moves don’t come easily, be persistent. Listen to a steady diet of rockabilly, practice diligently, and before you know it, you’ll be ready to rock the joint all night long.
Read on for the full rockabilly guitar lesson…
Rockabilly Guitar Lesson
Tab, notation and Power Tab files available here.
Cop the Tone
Before playing a note, it’s essential to get the right tone. For rhythm work, it’s hard to beat the sparkle and shimmer of a hollowbody Gretsch. If you don’t have a Gretsch, you can get the job done with a two-pickup guitar and a small amp. Combine the neck and bridge pickups, dial up a clean tone with a hint of edge, and you’re ready to bop. (If you’re a Strat-cat without a neck/bridge pickup modification, use the neck, middle, or combined positions for rhythm, and reserve the bridge pickup for solos.)
For an authentic sound, you’ll need a healthy dose of single-repeat slap echo. Tape echo rules, but a DDL works fine. Start with a 50ms delay time and increase it according to your mood. No feedback or regen allowed, and don’t even think about modulation! A touch of tremolo is cool, but save the reverb for your surf gig. Don’t overdo the volume either. When recording the Gene Vincent/Cliff Gallup tribute Crazy Legs, Jeff Beck discovered that he couldn’t re-create the vibe until he turned his amp down and played with a much lighter touch.
The Travis Connection
The first step is to get a handle on the basic Travis-picking technique, which phrases three melody notes over an alternating octave bass line. (These examples are notated for a pick-and-middle-finger technique, but you can also play them fingerstyle.)
Begin by fingering an open-E chord. Use downstrokes to pick the alternating E quarternotes in Ex. 1a. Next, pluck the open-string melody notes in Ex. 1b with your middle finger. Repeat the two examples until each feels comfortable. Combined, these moves produce the Travis-picking pattern.
Though improperly notated, Ex. 1c makes it easier to see both these figures coalesce into a single rhythmic motif—i.e., 1a + 1b = 1c. Featuring opposing stemming, Ex. 1d shows the figure correctly notated. Opposing stemming makes it easier to indicate precise note duration, but often makes music harder to read. The trick is to visualize the combination of opposite-stemmed parts as a single rhythm figure. In other words, when you see the rhythm in Ex. 1d, think 1c.
Strive to keep the bass part tight and well defined beneath the ringing melody. Repeat the figure until your motor memory kicks in; then create a 12-bar, I-IV-V progression by barring the same fingering at the 5th fret for the IV (A) chord and at the 7th fret for the V (B). Keep it purring, jack up the tempo, and let go!
The next four examples apply Travis picking to E6 and E7. In typical rockabilly fashion, Ex. 2a uses a 6 for the second melody note. In Ex. 2b, delay the 6 by a quarter-note so it drops on the and of beat three. For another cool variation, try reversing B and C#.
Now let’s create an E7 pattern by replacing the 6 with b7, as in Ex. 2c. The quarter-note delay happens again in Ex. 2d. As with Ex. 2b, try reversing the last two melody notes for a third variation.
Transpose the E6 and E7 moves to A and B, and you’ve got your IV and V chords covered. Palm-mute the low-E string to get a genreapproved, staccato thunk.
Beam Me Up, Scotty
Rockabilly architect Scotty Moore made Travis picking his own by thinning the pattern and displacing the melody by one beat. The combined parts in the next examples reveal Moore’s signature rhythmic motif. Examples 3a, 3b, and 3c apply this rhythm to E, E6, and E7, respectively.
Ex. 3d introduces an important new move: Hammer a C# (the 6) from the open-B string as you simultaneously pick beat four’s E. Stay loose—this tricky maneuver may take time to assimilate. Once you get it wired, transpose it up and down the neck.
Moore often fused his pet pattern to a bar of Travis picking, resulting in Ex. 4a’s two-bar, E6 figure. Things get busier in Ex. 4b: Bar 1 has a hammered 6, while bar 2 features a minor-to-major (b3-n3) hammer-on. As indicated, flatpick both notes in bar 2, beat four.
When Elvis covered Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” Moore played a figure similar to Ex. 4c. Hint: Clamp the basic chord form and add or delete notes only as necessary to execute the melody.
Tired of jumping all over the neck to get to those IV and V chords? The next two examples contain open-position A7 and B7 rockabilly moves. Play Ex. 5a as written, and then in bar 1, try replacing E and C# with Gn and E. Hey—it’s good to have variations at your fingertips. In Ex. 5b, notice how B7 ’s alternating bass switches from A7 ’s root-5 pattern to a root-3-5-3 pattern.
Catching the Mystery Train
The “Mystery Train” riff (Ex. 6a) has been reinterpreted many ways since it was originally recorded by Little Junior Parker. To play the first two upstemmed chords, “fan” your middle finger across the appropriate strings as written, or articulate each string with a separate finger. Use a pick to strum the chord on beat four.
Ex. 6b is similar to what Danny Gatton played when he redid the “Mystery Train” riff that Moore recorded with Elvis. In Ex. 6c, each chord is extended to the first string.
Some rockabilly rhythms sound best played entirely with a flatpick. The swinging Ex. 7 is a dirty two-bar figure reminiscent of Joe Maphis’ work with Ricky Nelson. Hold that open-E chord stationary and fret the extra melody notes (Gn, F#, and C#) with your pinky.
Ex. 8 recalls the two-octave riff Paul Burlison used to propel “The Train Kept A-Rollin’” with the Rock ’N Roll Trio in 1956, and on his own 1997 remake. Finger those fat intervals as written, or just barre them with your first finger.
When you want to make some noise, play the Burlison-style doublestop pull-offs in Ex. 9. Careful—it’s a real pinky workout. The constantly shifting minor-major tonality (Gn and G#) creates a spicy #9 sound. This riff sounds equally twisted against the IV and V chords, so be sure to transpose accordingly.
The next group of examples illustrates how the greats would use minor triads to imply major-6th chords. Ex. 10a shows root position, first inversion, and second inversion C#mtriads functioning as E6. (This works because C#m is the relative minor of E ). Examples 10b-10d nail theses voicings to a swinging, two-bar rhythm. Notice how we repeatedly approach each tonic chord from a half-step below before chromatically descending to D6. Transpose these voicings up a fourth or fifth to A and B, arrange the moves into a 12-bar form, and you’ll be jumpin’ all over the joint!
As an original Blue Cap, Cliff Gallup lit up the first two Gene Vincent albums with unprecedented rockabilly flash. The Gallup-style turnaround in Ex. 11 features wild, ascending octaves followed by rolling single notes that create the illusion of chordal activity.
You can use the chromatic 6/9 chordal run in Ex. 12a as a souped-up V-I ending, as shown here. In this context, the top note of our 6/9 voicing functions as the root.
But there’s another way to view this progression: You can use it as a I-IV move. Fret the chords exactly as before there’s no physical change— but hear them differently. The first chord is the I, the last chord is the IV. In this IIV setting, you’d name the chords E6/9, Eb6/9, E6/9, F6/9, F#6/9, G6/9, G#6/9, and A6/9.
This flip-flop works because of the dual-purpose 6/9 voicing. Take the last chord in Ex. 12a: C#, F#, B, E (low to high). Viewed as E6/9, these chord tones are 6, 9, 5, 1. Viewed as a rootless A6/9, the same notes become a new set of chord tones: 3, 6, 9, 5.
You can use the inherent momentum of this chromatic climb to drive other voicings. Try each of the three E9 chords in Ex. 12b, as well as the E6/9 grip. Just fret your chosen chord anywhere on the neck, and imitate Ex. 12a’s up-and-down half-step movement. When you’ve exhausted these possibilities, make the climb with each of the three major-6th surrogates in Ex. 10a.