On my blog recently there’s been a discussion starting about the “rules” of being a modern rockabilly band. In one of my posts I admitted that when I first started playing in a rockabilly band years ago, I didn’t even know enough about rockabilly to realize that my bass guitar wasn’t “authentic” rockabilly gear. All I knew is that I loved the sound of the music and I wanted to play it. I soon found out that there were a lot of fans who felt that we couldn’t be a real rockabilly band because I wasn’t playing slap bass on an upright bass fiddle. A reader in the UK relates a similar experience because he doesn’t play the “right” guitar for rockabilly. This all brings up an old sore spot with me and opens the discussion once again about what’s important: The look or the music?
Going for the look Of course, it’s fun to dress like the original rockabilly cats and chicks from the mid to late 1950s when rockabilly was fresh and new and Elvis was taking the world by storm along with all of the other musicians he inspired. And by and large, it doesn’t cost a whole lot of money to achieve the rockabilly look. You can find all kinds of great clothes at garage and rummage sales along with second-hand stores. Just rifling through the far back of your parents’ (or grandparents’!) closets can reap wonderful rewards for rockabilly clothing.
But things get more complicated when you’re in the band. Now it’s not just the clothes that make the rockabilly look. It’s the instruments. And it’s a lot more expensive to set yourself up with a vintage instrument from the 50s era. And new instruments made to look like the old ones are not exactly cheap either. So what’s a new aspiring rockabilly act to do? If they don’t feature a standup bass and a Gretsch 6120 hollow-body guitar (like the one Eddie Cochran played), they’re not taken seriously. They’re viewed as imposters, not real “rockabillies”.
The original rockabilly club was not exclusive Nothing could be further from the spirit of original rockabilly! Rockabilly was not an exclusive club that was open only to those kids that came from wealthy families that could afford the “right” instruments. No way! By and large, our heroes were dirt poor. These guys were vibrant, young players who took whatever they happened to have at hand and made music with it! And as modern rockabilly fans, we’ve all reaped the feast of amazing music that these musicians made on those instruments.
Now, it just so happens that hollow-body electric guitars and stand-up basses are the instruments that a lot of these guys owned back then. After all, those were the same instruments used by country musicians of the day and since rockabilly was so firmly rooted in country, it made sense that rockabilly musicians–many of whom started out playing country first–used those same instruments. But not all of them followed that mold.
For instance, as far as guitarists go, they used many different guitars to make their music. And they weren’t all hollow-body guitars. No one thinks less of Carl Perkins because his smash hit “Blue Suede Shoes” was recorded with a solid-body Les Paul guitar. Buddy Holly played a solid-body Fender Stratocaster on his wonderful early rockabilly and no one at the time discounted him. Cliff Gallup, who played for Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps used a solid Gretsch DuoJet guitar and most rockabilly fans consider his guitar work as some of the absolute best rockabilly playing of all time.
It’s not the look, it’s the music In other words, it wasn’t about the “look” back then. It was about the sound and it was about the energy. It’s fun to have the “look” these days and most bands try to put their own spin on the classic look. But ultimately when I go to a rockabilly show, I’m far less concerned with what the band looks like as I am with what they sound like. If they rock and their music makes me move and smile the way rockabilly does, well then, that’s good enough for me! The rockabilly community could really use with less concern about the look and more concern about letting go and enjoying the sounds. After all, that’s what it’s really all about anyway.
If you’re a group of kids and you don’t have tons of dough, but you want to start a rockabilly band, you’ll probably run into the self-appointed “authentic-look” police sooner or later. Don’t let them stop you. Pick up the instruments you have and crash into those first strains of a great rockabilly tune. If they can’t see past your look to listen to and enjoy the music, it’s their loss…not yours!
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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