Rockabilly Guitarists Define the Genre

by Buster Fayte

When you think about what makes rockabilly what it is, one of the first things that comes to mind is the guitarists of rockabilly. Since rockabilly bands were (and still are) typically simple combos of any combination of drums, acoustic guitar, bass (traditionally acoustic double bass), and electric guitar, the electric guitar naturally often takes front and center and serves to define the sound of the band. It’s no wonder then that rockabilly guitarists have often become the biggest stars of the genre.

When Elvis Presley first walked into the Memphis Recording Service studio in the early 1950s, he intended to record country music. Sam Phillips, the owner of the studio and Sun Records, brought in a bass player named Bill Black and an electric guitarist named Scotty Moore to help with the sessions. Obviously Elvis turned the experience into something different than country and it was Moore’s country-laced yet rocking riffs that complimented Elvis’ new style so perfectly.

About the same time, a boy named Johnny Cash walked into the same studios with his band, the Tennessee Two which included Marshall Grant on upright bass and Luther Perkins on guitar. Luther had a more reserved style than other rockabilly players of his time, but he certainly had his own sound and that sound not only complemented Cash’s stark, rich voice, but also completely defined Cash’s presentation. He often looked like he’d rather be anywhere else than on stage playing guitar, but it worked amazingly well.

Another country boy was picking out the licks for Sun Records at the same time. Carl Perkins (no relation to Luther) is known by many as the Godfather of Rockabilly. His style, while seemingly unstructured, nonetheless defined the rockabilly genre brilliantly. He became the role model for countless guitarists that came after him including three young Brits you might have heard of named George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and John Lennon.

Cliff Gallup was the original lead guitarist for the Blue Caps who backed the rebel Gene Vincent on his great early work. Gallup is considered by many to be the greatest rockabilly guitarist of all. In exact juxtaposition to Luther Perkins, Gallup brought a completely uninhibited and go-for-broke style to his playing. His solo work on Vincent’s “Race With the Devil” stands as one of the greatest rock and roll guitar performances ever.

Eddie Cochran was a natural talent who could play virtually anything on the guitar as well as bass, drums, and piano. He mastered the hybrid pick-and-finger guitar style known as Travis picking that was made famous by country legend Merle Travis and perfected by the amazing Chet Atkins.

While Paul Burlison played many of the most famous licks that define the sound of the Burnette Brothers Rock and Roll trio, session player Grady Martin is actually the genius behind the string work on many of the most compelling Burnette recordings.

And there are many, many others. Fans will be disappointed in me for omitting their favorite player here. Modern players such as Brian Setzer, The Reverend Horton Heat, Danny Gatton, Jinx Jones, Darrel Higham, and others deserve mention for keeping the guitar front and center in the modern rockabilly world.

No matter how you look at it, or who your favorite rockabilly guitarist is, it’s those guitarists who’ve largely defined rockabilly music for the past half century!

Buster Fayte is an author and rockabilly musician. He has written several books including the Complete Home Music Recording Start Kit. He also maintains the Rockabilly Romp blog at where he writes about the passion he shares with millions of musicians and fans for rockabilly and oldies music. He writes original songs, sings, and plays both guitar and bass.

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About Sad Man's Tongue: Rockabilly Bar & Bistro - Prague

We are a Bar and Bistro where old school meets the new school, dedicated to preserving the roots of rock and roll and it's modern adaptations as well as preserving the cultural identity of our neighborhood through our food, the the principles of the slow food movement. A little bit of rockabilly and retro combine with the kustom kulture of today, in an atmosphere devoid of Pretension.
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8 Responses to Rockabilly Guitarists Define the Genre

  1. Reblogged this on Basil Wheel.

  2. Buster Fayte says:

    Thanks for posting this, man!

    • Sad Man's Tongue: Rockabilly Bar & Bistro - Prague says:

      If zou keep writing them like that then how can I not repost them. Love them.

  3. Agree very much with the above. I was tempted to say that all the classic rockabilly records have great guitar riffs even the classics by Elvis but then I remembered Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich. But, those apart, the guitar riff is usually a fundamental element.

    • Sad Man's Tongue: Rockabilly Bar & Bistro - Prague says:

      Thanks for the input Howard. The guitar riff is certainly a fundamental element.

  4. Pingback: Gene Vincent – Blues Stay Away From Me (1956) « Throughhisown's Weblog

  5. Pingback: Danny Gatton – After Hours « Throughhisown's Weblog

  6. Cliff Gallup was to me the greatest of all the rockabilly guitarists. Simply because no one sounded like him before. Cliff not only had speed, but you could hear every note he played. His style was anything but straight forward. I’m pleased that Cliff recorded with Gene during 1956, leaving us with all that great rockabilly music that we can still draw on today.

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