The Four Aces and a Wild Card of Rockabilly Guitarists

By Sergio Ariza

Since January 19 is the 20th anniversary of Carl Perkinsdeath, we here at Guitars Exchange would like to take the opportunity to talk about our favourite rockabilly guitarists, from the original poker hand of greats from the 50s, Perkins himself, Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup, and James Burton; to the man who completed the four aces and a wild card at the start of the 80s, Brian Setzer. (Also a warm greeting to several others who could have made this list such as Eddie Cochran, Grady Martin, Hal Harris, Jim Heath, the great Danny Gatton and Roy Orbison, don’t forget to listen to his solos on Ooby Dooby).

Scotty Moore

Scotty Moore is the father of rockabilly guitar, anyone with a minimal interest in this genre should learn by heart each and every one of his ‘licks’ and solos during the Elvis period at Sun Records. Scotty fused his country influences into his playing, with Chet Atkins, and Merle Travis in the lead, with the blues of people like the inimitable Pat Hare, resulting in a new hybrid sound paving the way to rock & roll. His 1952 Gibson ES 295 helped Elvis meld white and black music on That’s All Right, his Gibson L5 from ‘54 laid the rails for Mystery Train and the Gibson Super 400 from ‘56 put the ‘power chords’ in Jailhouse Rock. It’s impossible to deny the incredible importance Scotty Moore has on the history of rock & roll, being practically the man who invented the job of lead guitarist in the genre. 

10 essential (rockabilly) songs: That's All Right, Good Rockin' Tonight, Blue Moon Of Kentucky, My Baby Left Me, Mystery Train, Baby Let's Play House, Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog, Too Much, Jailhouse Rock

Carl Perkins

Carl Perkins was called “The King of Rockabilly” and of course, he deserved it, exemplifying the style better than anyone. From the incredible crowd at Sun he was the best fit for the style, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis
were more rock & roll, Johnny Cash more country, and Roy Orbison ended up as a specialist in melodramatic ballads. Perkins was pure rockabilly, he was a hillbilly boy who grew up on country music, but when it came time to play the guitar, his style was very much influenced by black blues musician, John Westbrook, who he warmly referred to as Uncle John and he showed him a few tricks like ‘bending’. Even before Elvis and Scotty Moore fostered the Big Bang from Memphis, Perkins was already putting rhythm into bluegrass songs from Tennessee. When he heard Elvis play, he knew Sun Records was the place to be best appreciated, and that’s exactly what happened, he became the second biggest star on the label. That was where he would put out a fine string of classics, beginning with things like Honey Don’t, which he recorded with a Les Paul Gold Top from ‘52 or ‘53, and the immortal Blue Suede Shoes, where he used another Les Paul Gold Top from 1955 with a Bigsby, the song brought him stardom and global recognition, being the first song that Elvis recorded when he left Sun for RCA. By the time he cut Matchbox, in December of ‘56, Perkins had already bought a Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster, which he used for the legendary sessions with the Million Dollar Quartet, with Elvis, Jerry Lee and Johnny Cash. His career would never regain the same success as those years, and he passed up on the genre, moving on to become Johnny Cash’s lead guitarist in the late 60s, but his influence was enormous. It’s no surprise then that Paul McCartney said, “If there hadn’t been a Carl Perkins, the Beatles wouldn’t have existed”.

10 essential (rockabilly) songs: Movie Magg, Gone Gone Gone, Blue Suede Shoes, Boppin' the Blues, Dixie Fried, Matchbox, Your True Love, Glad All Over, Honey Don't, Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby


Cliff Gallup

Imagine this scene, a company just inks a young lad to be the next Elvis, they have the studio ready, a half-dozen of the best session players from the time, including a couple of ace guitarists. But when the kid arrives he’s accompanied by his own band, including a lanky guitarist who sports a Gretsch Jet Duo in his case, ready to play. The executives explain the situation and out of compassion, let them play something. Then this happens, Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps start to play Race With the Devil and at a given moment Gene screams “Let’s drag now!” and Cliff Gallup starts to rip a solo at an impossible speed for the period. Just like in the cartoons, jaws dropped on the floor after seeing such a whirlwind, and to make matters worse, Gene screams “Let’s drag again!”, and by the time Gallup had finished his 2nd solo the session boys were packing up their things and left the studio without a word being said. That same day, May 4, 1956, they also recorded Be-Bop-A-Lula, one of the genre’s classics and the song that made Vincent a star. Gallup would record 35 songs with him from that legendary session to the last one on October 18 of the same year. By then, married, with a child, he decided that the rock & roll lifestyle on the road wasn’t for him, so he retired to live the quiet life in a small Virginia town. Few guitarists have caused such an uproar in such a short time (just 6 months). Gallup became a legend, being idolised by such players as Jeff Beck (he even managed to record a tribute album in the 90s), Eric Clapton or Brian Setzer himself, who didn’t hesitate to place him at the top of the list of his rockabilly guitarists, ahead of the King’s men, Scotty Moore and James Burton.

10 essential (rockabilly) songs: Race With The Devil, Be-Bop-A-Lula, Blue Jean Bop, Crazy Legs, Jump Back Honey Jump Back, Double Talkin' Baby, Red Bluejeans and a Ponytail, Cruisin', Who Slapped John, Jump Giggles and Shout.

James Burton

James Burton only needed three guitars and less than 18 years to inscribe his name in gold in the history of rock & roll. By then he had already written one of the most famous riffs of all time, and turned into the man who completed the poker hand of the great rockabilly guitarists together with Moore, Perkins, and Gallup. But this was just the beginning of a  career which would make him master of the Telecaster, and with it he would leave his mark with his unique style on mythic recordings for people like Ricky Nelson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Costello, Roy Orbison, and of course, Elvis the King. But we’re going to discuss his rockabilly period, when he wrote the amazing riff in Suzie Q for Dale Hawkins, giving the rock edge to Bob Luman, and turning teen sensation Ricky Nelson into a respected rock star, with his guitar (Keith Richards claims “I didn’t buy Ricky Nelson records, I bought James Burton records”). And of course we can’t forget his time under Elvis’ orders in the 70s, when he became his right-hand man. His tremendous work as session player exceeds many of rockabilly limits but his fingerprint is indelible for all those who venture into this fascinating style.

10 essential (rockabilly) songs: Suzie Q (with Dale Hawkins), Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache, My Gal Is Red Hot (with Bob Luman), Believe What You Say, Travelin' Man, Hello Mary Lou, It's Up to You, Fools Rush In (con Ricky Nelson), Burning love, Patch It Up (with Elvis Presley).

Brian Setzer

Do you know one of the few things that a punk, a heavy, and someone interested in jazz can agree on? Brian Setzer. The leader of the Stray Cats is one of the most admired guitarists in the last 40 years, he resurrected rockabilly in the 80s thanks to his band success. But beyond the mere ‘revivalist’, good ol’ Setzer brought a few things to the genre, including some of his own classics like Rock This Town, and Stray Cat Strut, besides his aggressive punk and absolutely amazing guitar style. It all began in New York, 1976, Setzer was in Max’s Kansas City, one of the basic punk-rock scenes in the city, together with CBGB, when somebody played Be-Bop-A-Lula by Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps. Setzer couldn’t believe it, such a raw aggressive attitude with few elements fit in to perfection with the urgency of the punk movement, but there was something else, and the minute he heard Gallup’s solo he knew what it was. These guys played like real devils. For Setzer, it was a revelation, so he got himself an orange Gretsch 6120, started the Stray Cats and went to England to preach his new faith. He did it with such fervor on the way he raised the Gretsch as iconic models, bringing the company back and causing prices to soar. The company recompensated him in 1990 by making him the first ‘signature’ guitar since Chet Atkins.     

So, to wrap up, we let the youngest of our poker hand name the definitive list of rockabilly records: “The most definitive rockabilly record is The Sun Sessions by Elvis Presley, It’s got everything you need and more. I also must choose Gene Vincent’s first records, Blue Jean Bop and Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps. As for guitarists, you need to listen to Cliff Gallup playing with Gene Vincent, and Scotty Moore playing for Elvis Presley.”
Add to that Carl Perkins, James Burton, and Setzer with his Stray Cats and you have a splendid introduction to the world of rockabilly.

10 essential (rockabilly) songs: Rock This Town, Stray Cat Strut, Rev It up & Go, (She's) Sexy + 17, Runaway Boys, Built for Speed, I Won't Stand In Your Way, 18 Miles to Memphis, Bring It Back Again, Look at That Cadillac.