How To Play Rockabilly Guitar

There are only a few styles of music that I have known to make a drastic impact on a person’s lifestyle.  Rockabilly is one of those styles of music.  Rockabilly guitarists are known for the 1950s style clothes, hair, cars, and music.  But whatever their style may have been, Rockabilly music had a huge impact in the music industry.  Legends like Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley defined the popular Rockabilly genre and supplied teenage fans with music they could dance to.  This article is a feature on Rockabilly music, its roots and the impact it had on music of all kinds.

Rockabilly hollow body guitar

So what is Rockabilly music?  Check out this great article for some answers about the popular music style at;=5884892.

What is rockabilly music? I’ve had to think long and hard to answer that question! Technically, rockabilly is a particularly wild and unrestrained form of music that grew out of the roots of country music and blues music in the early 1950s. It raged strong into the early 60s when it was overshadowed by forms that grew out of it, particularly acts that were part of the British invasion. But the form never really died and it was further defined by a resurgence in the 1980s when elements of punk and jazz were infused into the basic form. It continues to evolve today more than 50 years after it first appeared on the pop scene.

Rockabilly music has undoubtedly influenced virtually every form of rock and roll that has come after it. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and countless other bands and artists site rockabilly music and rockabilly musicians as the most influential force in their development as musicians. Once you become familiar with the sound of rockabilly, you will hear it in many popular songs that you’ve known and loved for years never realizing from where the roots sprung.

By and large, the original rockabilly musicians remain mostly unknown to most lovers of modern pop music and of those that they do know, they don’t really understand their rockabilly roots. For example, Elvis Presley is, as everyone knows, the King of rock and roll. But most people don’t really understand where Elvis started: with rockabilly music. In fact, he’s considered one of–if not the–inventor of the genre.

Similarly, virtually everyone knows the song “Blue Suede Shoes” and they may know it as an Elvis song. However, the song was written by a rockabilly legend named Carl Perkins who had an even bigger hit with it than Elvis did. Carl never had another big hit and is sometimes shrugged off as a “one-hit wonder” because of the fact. However, what most people miss when they dismiss him like this is the incredible influence Perkins has had on modern rock and roll music. The Beatles’ George Harrison idolized Perkins and studied his music intensely. And he was by far not the only one who cites Perkins as a major influence. Perkins’ guitar playing has served as the basis of education for countless young guitarists throughout the years.

So, does any of that actually answer the original question? What is rockabilly anyway? Rockabilly is raw excitement. It’s unrestrained music created by brash, young musicians who were inventing the rules as they were going along. It’s no-holds-barred fun. It makes you dance. It makes you smile. And it makes you want to hear more. To millions of fans throughout the world, it’s the perfect form of rock and roll music!

Vintage Rockabilly guitar - closeup dice on fretboard

Now that you’ve gotten a little bit of information about Rockabilly music, how about a little more?  This next guitarist has made a profession out of the Rockabilly lifestyle and offers us a glimpse into that music.  Find the feature and video here at

Hello, everyone. This is my first blog post for Guitar World, so I thought I’d introduce myself.

My name is Buzz Campbell. I’ve been playing guitar professionally for the last 20 years. Based out of San Diego, California, I started my own group in 1991 called Hot Rod Lincoln.

I also worked from 2000 to 2004 with Sha Na Na, a 1950s-style band that performed at Woodstock, in the movie “Grease” and on their own TV show, which aired from 1975 to 1981. I left that group to become a full-time member of the Lee Rocker Band.

Lee is the bassist for the Stray Cats, who had some giant hits in the early ’80s, such as “Stray Cat Strut,” “Rock this Town” and “Sexy and 17.” I’ve been playing lead guitar for Lee since 2004.

I still perform with the latest version of Hot Rod Lincoln, now called Buzz Campbell & Hot Rod Lincoln, and I’ve just released my debut CD as Buzz Campbell, a solo artist. It’s called Shivers & Shakes.

I hate to classify myself as anything, but I guess if you were to see and hear me play, you’d most likely say I’m a rockabilly-style player.

If you haven’t heard the word rockabilly before, first let me say shame on you for not knowing your music history. However, you’re in good company as radio stations don’t seem to know the genre, either.

Rockabilly started in the mid- to late ’50s, when rhythm and blues collided with country or “hillbilly” music. Hence “rock-a,” meaning rock ‘n’ roll (which in its earliest form was upbeat blues music) and “billy,” meaning country or hillbilly music. Smash it together, and you get rockabilly!

Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Gene Vincent and hundreds of other known and lesser-known artists invented — and for a short time — had hits in the late ’50s with this genre. In the mid-’80s, there was a short resurgence of this style of music (Stray Cats, Pole Cats, Guana Batz, Levi Dexter & The Rockats, The Blasters, etc.).

We rockabilly guitarists are a dying breed. Although most people from age 8 to 80 usually dig our sound, we are still very much unknown. Even Sirius/XM satellite radio has blues and roots country stations, but searching the channels for rockabilly music is like trying to find a good Mexican food in the Midwest. Luckily, with Internet radio and blogs like this, we are being slightly represented.

So do yourself a favor: Take a break from Lady Gaga and check out some rockabilly. Here are some helpful places to go and get some information about it:

Here’s Buzz Campbell & Hot Rod Lincoln in action at the Gretsch Booth at Winter NAMM 2010:

Now if you are interested in playing and/or listening to Rockabilly music, there are certain artists that you must know about.  Check out this list of musicians that have defined Rockabilly music at,-Some-Acts-Are-Mandatory-Listening&id;=6191239.

Rockabilly music spanned a surprisingly wide range of styles. Some acts were more country and others more blues. Some were characteristically wild while others were a bit more polished. So which acts really define the genre? Of all the acts that made rockabilly music throughout the mid to late 1950s, there are a few that really have to be considered mandatory listening for fans of rockabilly music.

  1. Elvis Presley: Naturally, you have to count the King among those that you really need to be familiar with if you want to know rockabilly music. Rockabilly sprung up from many sources, so in my opinion, you can’t really say that Elvis alone “started” it all. But he certainly started a branch of the genre and there’s no doubt that he catapulted it to incredible heights of fame.
  2. Carl Perkins: Along with many others, I call Perkins the “Godfather of Rockabilly.” Carl didn’t have Elvis’ incredible magnitude and sheer force of presence, but he may have actually been the more talented total musician of the two. The songs he wrote really cemented the tone for the genre and his influence on guitar players that came after him is undeniable. His only smash hit, “Blue Suede Shoes,” might be the most perfect rockabilly song ever written and was the first song to hit the top five in each of the pop, country, and Rhythm and Blues charts. It was also the first gold record for Sun Records for which he and Elvis both recorded in the early years.
  3. Wanda Jackson: The tiny lady with the growly voice, Jackson holds the title of “Queen of Rockabilly.” Her departure from the cowgirl outfits that other women performers tended to wear to sensually-glamorous dresses set a new standard for female performers as did her attitude which was brimming with confidence and mischief. Jackson’s early rockabilly numbers are classics of the genre.
  4. The Burnette Brothers Rock and Roll Trio: Johnny and Dorsey Burnette along with guitarist Paul Burlison, created an absolutely wonderful body of all-out energy rock and roll. Their “Train Kept a’rollin'” featured some of the most creative guitar work of the genre (possibly played by ace session man Grady Martin). Johnny had a standard-setting wild and energetic vocal style and the band always played all out. The band never reach superstar status, but they certainly should have!
  5. Gene Vincent: Vincent and his Blue Caps were another incredibly influential group. His “Be Bop a Lula” carved a new and different facet onto the rockabilly diamond with its unique style. The original Blue Caps featured another of the greatest guitarists of the genre, Cliff Gallup. Gallup’s solo work on the early recordings set the standard for hundreds of guitarists that came after him and continues to do so today. His solo work on “Race With the Devil” is often mentioned as some of the greatest soloing in the history of rock and roll.
  6. Eddie Cochran: Cochran died tragically young in a car crash that also seriously injured his friend Gene Vincent. Cochran had the charm and charisma that many thought could give him what he needed to even surpass Presley as a rock and roll idol. He was a natural musical talent and another of rock and roll’s foundational guitar players. His good looks and easy nature also made him the standard by which many modern rockabilly bands define their visual image. He died before he ever realized his full potential, but left some wonderful rockabilly classics behind such as “Something Else,” “20 Flight Rock,” and the popular favorite, “Summertime Blues.”

There are so many other great artists who made critical contributions to the history of rockabilly and rock and roll that it hardly seems fair to limit this list to just these few. But if you have to limit it to mandatory listening, then these artists absolutely must be on that list!

Playing Rockabilly is just as much fun as it is listening to it.  There’s a great video on playing some Rockabilly chords on the guitar here at

Here is another Rockabilly guitar video lesson for those of you interested in learning more about the style.  Find the video here at

Rockabilly has influenced musicians and listeners for years; hopefully this post has generated some of your own interest in the popular style.  Mike’s Guitar Talk is your source for guitar information so be sure to check back in for more.

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Have fun and stay tuned!


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