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12 Classic Rockabilly Licks

You can trace rockabilly back to Merle Travis. In themid 50s, when rockabilly pioneers
such as Scotty Moore, Paul Burlison, Cliff Gallup, Joe Maphis, and Carl Perkins hotrodded the basic Travis fingerpicking pattern, all hell broke loose. Suddenly records of that
era by Elvis Presley, Johnny Burnette, Gene Vincent, and Ricky Nelson jumped with new,
juiced-up energy.
From the mid 60s through the 1970s, a small group of fringe artists kept the rockabilly fire
burning, recording mostly on private labels. Thanks to the Stray Cats, rockabilly made a
resurgence in the early 80s. Since then, rockabilly has been a vibrant color in the electric
guitarists palette. Whether you dig blues, jazz, or country, rockabilly has something for
The riffs, chords, turnarounds, and endings in this rockabilly guitar lesson will give you a
firm grasp of rockabilly basics. If the moves dont come easily, be persistent. Listen to a
steady diet of rockabilly, practice diligently, and before you know it, youll be ready to rock
the joint all night long.
Read on for the full rockabilly guitar lesson

Rockabilly Guitar Lesson

Cop the Tone
Before playing a note, its essential to get the right tone. For rhythm work, its hard to beat
the sparkle and shimmer of a hollowbody Gretsch. If you dont have a Gretsch, you can get
the job done with a two-pickup guitar and a small amp. Combine the neck and bridge
pickups, dial up a clean tone with a hint of edge, and youre ready to bop. (If youre a Stratcat without a neck/bridge pickup modification, use the neck, middle, or combined positions
for rhythm, and reserve the bridge pickup for solos.)
For an authentic sound, youll need a healthy dose of single-repeat slap echo. Tape echo
rules, but a DDL works fine. Start with a 50ms delay time and increase it according to your
mood. No feedback or regen allowed, and dont even think about modulation! A touch of
tremolo is cool, but save the reverb for your surf gig. Dont overdo the volume either.
When recording the Gene Vincent/Cliff Gallup tribute Crazy Legs, Jeff Beck discovered
that he couldnt re-create the vibe until he turned his amp down and played with a much
lighter touch.
The Travis Connection
The first step is to get a handle on the basic Travis-picking technique, which phrases three
melody notes over an alternating octave bass line. (These examples are notated for a pickand-middle-finger technique, but you can also play them fingerstyle.)

Begin by fingering an open-E chord. Use downstrokes to pick the alternating E quarternotes
in Ex. 1a. Next, pluck the open-string melody notes in Ex. 1b with your middle finger.
Repeat the two examples until each feels comfortable. Combined, these moves produce the
Travis-picking pattern.
Though improperly notated, Ex. 1c makes it easier to see both these figures coalesce into a
single rhythmic motifi.e., 1a + 1b = 1c. Featuring opposing stemming, Ex. 1d shows the
figure correctly notated. Opposing stemming makes it easier to indicate precise note
duration, but often makes music harder to read. The trick is to visualize the combination of
opposite-stemmed parts as a single rhythm figure. In other words, when you see the rhythm
in Ex. 1d, think 1c.
Strive to keep the bass part tight and well defined beneath the ringing melody. Repeat the
figure until your motor memory kicks in; then create a 12-bar, I-IV-V progression by
barring the same fingering at the 5th fret for the IV (A) chord and at the 7th fret for the V
(B). Keep it purring, jack up the tempo, and let go!

The next four examples apply Travis picking to E6 and E7. In typical rockabilly fashion,
Ex. 2a uses a 6 for the second melody note. In Ex. 2b, delay the 6 by a quarter-note so it
drops on the and of beat three. For another cool variation, try reversing B and C#.
Now lets create an E7 pattern by replacing the 6 with b7, as in Ex. 2c. The quarter-note
delay happens again in Ex. 2d. As with Ex. 2b, try reversing the last two melody notes for a
third variation.
Transpose the E6 and E7 moves to A and B, and youve got your IV and V chords covered.
Palm-mute the low-E string to get a genreapproved, staccato thunk.

Beam Me Up, Scotty

Rockabilly architect Scotty Moore made Travis picking his own by thinning the pattern and
displacing the melody by one beat. The combined parts in the next examples reveal
Moores signature rhythmic motif. Examples 3a, 3b, and 3c apply this rhythm to E, E6, and
E7, respectively.
Ex. 3d introduces an important new move: Hammer a C# (the 6) from the open-B string as
you simultaneously pick beat fours E. Stay loosethis tricky maneuver may take time to
assimilate. Once you get it wired, transpose it up and down the neck.

Moore often fused his pet pattern to a bar of Travis picking, resulting in Ex. 4as two-bar,
E6 figure. Things get busier in Ex. 4b: Bar 1 has a hammered 6, while bar 2 features a
minor-to-major (b3-n3) hammer-on. As indicated, flatpick both notes in bar 2, beat four.
When Elvis covered Arthur Big Boy Crudups Thats All Right, Moore played a figure
similar to Ex. 4c. Hint: Clamp the basic chord form and add or delete notes only as
necessary to execute the melody.

Tired of jumping all over the neck to get to those IV and V chords? The next two examples
contain open-position A7 and B7 rockabilly moves. Play Ex. 5a as written, and then in bar
1, try replacing E and C# with Gn and E. Heyits good to have variations at your
fingertips. In Ex. 5b, notice how B7 s alternating bass switches from A7 s root-5 pattern
to a root-3-5-3 pattern.

Catching the Mystery Train

The Mystery Train riff (Ex. 6a) has been reinterpreted many ways since it was originally
recorded by Little Junior Parker. To play the first two upstemmed chords, fan your
middle finger across the appropriate strings as written, or articulate each string with a
separate finger. Use a pick to strum the chord on beat four.
Ex. 6b is similar to what Danny Gatton played when he redid the Mystery Train riff that
Moore recorded with Elvis. In Ex. 6c, each chord is extended to the first string.

Some rockabilly rhythms sound best played entirely with a flatpick. The swinging Ex. 7 is a
dirty two-bar figure reminiscent of Joe Maphis work with Ricky Nelson. Hold that open-E
chord stationary and fret the extra melody notes (Gn, F#, and C#) with your pinky.

Ex. 8 recalls the two-octave riff Paul Burlison used to propel The Train Kept A-Rollin
with the Rock N Roll Trio in 1956, and on his own 1997 remake. Finger those fat intervals
as written, or just barre them with your first finger.

When you want to make some noise, play the Burlison-style doublestop pull-offs in Ex. 9.
Carefulits a real pinky workout. The constantly shifting minor-major tonality (Gn and
G#) creates a spicy #9 sound. This riff sounds equally twisted against the IV and V chords,
so be sure to transpose accordingly.

Harmonic Sleight-of-Hand
The next group of examples illustrates how the greats would use minor triads to imply
major-6th chords. Ex. 10a shows root position, first inversion, and second inversion
C#mtriads functioning as E6. (This works because C#m is the relative minor of E ).
Examples 10b-10d nail theses voicings to a swinging, two-bar rhythm. Notice how we
repeatedly approach each tonic chord from a half-step below before chromatically
descending to D6. Transpose these voicings up a fourth or fifth to A and B, arrange the
moves into a 12-bar form, and youll be jumpin all over the joint!

As an original Blue Cap, Cliff Gallup lit up the first two Gene Vincent albums with
unprecedented rockabilly flash. The Gallup-style turnaround in Ex. 11 features wild,
ascending octaves followed by rolling single notes that create the illusion of chordal

You can use the chromatic 6/9 chordal run in Ex. 12a as a souped-up V-I ending, as shown
here. In this context, the top note of our 6/9 voicing functions as the root.
But theres another way to view this progression: You can use it as a I-IV move. Fret the
chords exactly as before theres no physical change but hear them differently. The first
chord is the I, the last chord is the IV. In this IIV setting, youd name the chords E6/9,
Eb6/9, E6/9, F6/9, F#6/9, G6/9, G#6/9, and A6/9.
This flip-flop works because of the dual-purpose 6/9 voicing. Take the last chord in Ex.
12a: C#, F#, B, E (low to high). Viewed as E6/9, these chord tones are 6, 9, 5, 1. Viewed as
a rootless A6/9, the same notes become a new set of chord tones: 3, 6, 9, 5.
You can use the inherent momentum of this chromatic climb to drive other voicings. Try
each of the three E9 chords in Ex. 12b, as well as the E6/9 grip. Just fret your chosen chord
anywhere on the neck, and imitate Ex. 12as up-and-down half-step movement. When
youve exhausted these possibilities, make the climb with each of the three major-6th
surrogates in Ex. 10a.