Rockabilly’s Definitive Band Lineup

By Buster Fayte, Featured Author, Sad Man’s Tongue

It seems that the modern rockabilly band lineup most commonly includes only a  singer/lead guitarist, an upright bass player, and a drummer. This sparse lineup  has everything you need: drums for the beat, bass for the bottom (and the  slapping style also augmenting the drummer’s beat), guitar to fill out the  rhythm and take the lead, and vocals. With the right people handling the  instruments, that combo can create wonderful music. But is that really the  “authentic” rockabilly lineup?

Like so many other things that have come to be seen as “authentic”  rockabilly, the truth lies in a bit more of a grey area than our modern  perception. No doubt the lineup I’ve just described was used on countless  recordings and even more live shows back in the early days of rock and roll and  rockabilly. But by no means was it the only lineup! After all, there was no law  or rule about what a band had to put on stage or in front of the recording  microphone to be considered rockabilly. And even if there had been, rockabilly  is and always has been about breaking the normal rules and expectations and  creating something fresh, brash, and new.

If you really insist on authenticity and getting back to the original lineup,  then you probably have to go back to the Memphis Recording Service studios and  Sam Phillips’ Sun Records with three young men named Bill Black, Scotty Moore,  and the unlikely-named Elvis Presley. Common rockabilly wisdom has it that these  are the three that started it all. So what was their lineup? It might surprise  many to know there were no drums involved at all in those early recordings!

After all, Elvis had shown up expecting to record a few country numbers.  Drums not being a big part of country music of that era, Phillips didn’t bother  to hire a drummer for the sessions. Instead he called on Scotty Moore to play  lead guitar and Bill Black to fill out the bottom with bass notes on the big  stand-up bass fiddle while Elvis sang and played along on his acoustic guitar.  When Elvis, goofing off while he thought the recording machine was off, launched  into a wild version of “That’s alright Mama”, Phillips told the boys to back him  up. Black started slapping the strings to provide the beat and Moore launched  into high gear with his leads. Elvis did what Elvis did best and rockabilly was  born. Totally and completely without drums! “That’s Alright Mama” was released  without drums and so was Elvis’ version of “Mystery Train” which may be the  greatest rockabilly performance ever.

So, the ultimate authentic rockabilly configuration must be bass, lead  guitar, acoustic rhythm guitar, and vocal, right? Well, not so fast. It wasn’t  long before other rockabilly artists of the time–who can only be called  “authentic” rockabilly–started experimenting with different combos. Drums were  introduced and pretty much immediately secured their place in the rockabilly  combo from then on.

Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, and Big Al Downing (who played piano for Bobby  Poe and the Poe Katz who backed up a young Wanda Jackson) brought the piano into  rockabilly in a big way and no one questioned the fact that the piano fit right  in. Bill Justice brought his saxophone into the picture and recorded quite  possibly the first rock and roll instrumental, the aptly-named “Raunchy” which  just missed the #1 spot on the Billboard charts in 1957.

And if all that wasn’t proof enough that an act didn’t have to stick to a  formula lineup, Sonny Burgess came along and put a piano and a trumpet  (a trumpet!) into some of his best tunes! Listen to “ol’ Gabriel blowin’ on his  horn” during the instrumental break in the manic “Red-headed Woman”. Nothing but  pure fun and pure rockabilly and in some of the old photos there are six guys in  the band–twice as many as the “authentic” lineup!

Gene Vincent was another one for a bigger, more full lineup. In many of his  old videos you see two electric guitars, piano, bass (bass guitar no less!),  drums, Gene on lead vocal, and often two additional Blue Caps to sing backup  vocals and provide extra finger snaps.

So, what exactly is the definitive, authentic rockabilly lineup?  Like so many things about rockabilly, there really is no one right answer once  you start digging into the historical facts. In short, if it sounds like  rockabilly and feels like rockabilly and rocks like rockabilly, well then it is  rockabilly. And it is no matter what the instrumentation!

Buster Fayte is an author and rockabilly musician. He Blogs at “Buster Fayte’s Rockabilly Romp” where he writes about the passion he shares with millions of musicians and fans for rockabilly and oldies music. Buster has written several books including the “Complete Home Music Recording Start Kit”. 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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7 Responses to Rockabilly’s Definitive Band Lineup

  1. Buster Fayte says:

    Thanks for the post guys!

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