By Buster Fayte , Featured Writer, Sad Man’s Tongue
One of the hallmarks of great rockabilly is the flashy guitar work featured on so many recordings. Although the original rockabilly guitarists weren’t playing like the metal shredders of today, their guitar work was as innovative as rockabilly as a whole and many of today’s great players point to these cats as their heroes and guitar role models. Let’s take a look at a few guitar players who define the rockabilly genre and have made their mark on the rock and roll world.
Scotty Moore: Moore played guitar on Elvis’ great early Sun Records rockabilly recordings, so I guess that makes him the original rockabilly guitarist. Moore’s style was very chord based and heavily country influenced. He played some of the most recognizable guitar solos in all of rock and roll.
Cliff Gallup: As a member of the Blue Caps who backed Gene Vincent, Gallup played manic major-scale-based solos that jacked the energy of Vincent’s tunes up to hyper speed. Many guitarists cite Gallup as a major influence. He played fast and clean. Gallup was never really much for the rock and roll life however, and bowed out of the limelight relatively early. In later years he was notoriously anonymous and very humble regarding his shaping influence on the world of rock and roll.
Carl Perkins: Perkins is perhaps the most influential rock guitarist of them all. He had a great, active style of lead guitar playing and wove his licks in and out of his vocal lines masterfully. His style seemed somewhat unstructured, but he had a way of taking a solo to a point where you thought it might fall apart until just at the last minute he tied it all together into something that made perfect sense. He often switched back and forth between minor- and major-scale fingerings–even within the same solo, which kept the listener suspended in a space between the blues and country which is exactly what rockabilly was all about!
Eddie Cochran: Although he was only 21 when he died in a tragic car crash, Cochran had already proven himself an amazing guitarist. He was working as a studio musician as early as age 14 playing guitar on many recordings. Eddie was a natural talent and worked in many styles. He was particularly good at the hybrid finger-and-pick style known as Travis Picking (after country great Merle Travis) which was expanded upon and perfected by Chet Atkins. The young Cochran would blow older, more experienced guitarists away with his mastery of the instrument. He was supremely confident in his playing and never seemed to be infected by the bug that many guitarist catch which causes them to showboat and prove how many notes they can fit into the spaces. Many of Eddie’s hits feature classically understated guitar work.
Grady Martin: As an A-list session cat, Martin played on countless rockabilly and country classics. Another master of chord-based solos, he could just as easily whip up a note-based solo that would knock your socks off. Although there is plenty of gray area in the discussion, it seems to be more and more widely accepted that it was actually Martin who played some of the most memorable guitar solos for the Burnette Brothers Rock and Roll Trio in place of the band’s regular guitarist Pual Burlison (who was no slouch himself!)
Joe Maphis: Mainly known as a country performer, it was Maphis who was behind the incredible playing of 10-year-old Larry Collins of The Collins Kids. Maphis mentored Larry and taught him to play in a wild, rollicking style. Maphis himself played on a wide range country and rockabilly recordings and was an influence on many other guitarists including Chet Atkins. Maphis played a custom-made double-necked Moserite guitar and passed that tradition on to Larry Collins who played a smaller version of Maphis’ guitar. And this was years before Jimmy Page picked one up!
Brian Setzer: Of course, the modern era has its heroes too and Setzer is undoubtedly top of the heap. He changed the sound of rockabilly guitar with the Stray Cats, adding a heavier, more distorted sound and a great dose of jazz chording influence. Setzer has definitely influenced the current crop of modern rockabilly players.
Jim Heath: AKA The Reverend Horton Heat. Heath has made his mark heading more toward the offshoot psychobilly genre that spawned from rockabilly during the revival of the 80s. His style is powerful, loud, and irreverent and is certainly an influence on many modern psychobilly and rockabilly players.
I know there are many others I’ve neglected to mention. Together these players have molded and fashioned not only rockabilly, but also rock and roll in general. Just another way that rockabilly music has shaped our modern world!
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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