Rockabilly solos

By Sergio Ariza

Rockabilly was one of the first manifestations of nascent rock & roll; in particular, of its whiter ‘country’ side. It’s not for nothing that the term 'rockabilly' comes from the contraction of rock and 'hillbilly', one of the varieties of the style. Hank Williams' Move It On Over can be seen as a clear antecedent of the style, although we could put an official date on the day that Elvis met Scotty Moore at Sun Studios in Memphis. Since then the style has been engraved in the memory of rock lovers and has had several resurgences; although always with the guitar as the main instrument. We are taking advantage of Cliff Gallup's birth anniversary (June 17th) and Scotty Moore's death anniversary (June 28th) to talk about our 10 favorite rockabilly solos.  

Gene Vincent (Cliff Gallup) – Race With The Devil

Imagine this moment: a record company has just signed a young man to become ‘the next Elvis’, and they have prepared a studio with half a dozen of the best session musicians of the time, including a couple of guitarists. But when the artist in question arrives he turns up with his own band, including a tall guitarist who takes a Gretsch Jet Duo out of its case and gets ready to play. The executives ‘explain the situation’ but, out of compassion, let the newcomers play something. Then suddenly it happens: Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps start playing Race With The Devil and at one point Gene shouts "Let's drag now!" and Cliff Gallup starts playing a solo at a speed impossible for the time. Like in the cartoons, several jaws drop to the floor watching that whirlwind, before Vincent insists once more "let's drag again!", by the time Gallup finishes his second solo, the session musicians are packing up their stuff and leaving the studio without anyone telling them. It is because of moments like that it's understandable that people like Jeff Beck and Brian Setzer have Gallup on an altar. The 35 songs he recorded with Vincent, in less than a year, before retiring to take care of his family, are the Holy Grail of the rockabilly guitar, along with the recordings by Elvis and Scotty Moore on Sun. The equipment with which he recorded those songs was a Gretsch 6128, with two DeArmond pickups, plugged into a Standel 25L15 amplifier, but the magic was in his fingers. It is not for nothing that his incredible speed and expertise are often seen as the foreunners of the future 'shredders'.

Elvis Presley (Scotty Moore) – Hound Dog

Scotty Moore's licks in the Elvis sessions at Sun are the A-B-C that every guitarist with a minimum of interest in the genre has to learn from beginning to end, with special attention to Mystery Train. But, if we talk about solos, Scotty offered some of the best in the early days of Elvis at RCA, such as Too Much or this wonder that came from the strings of his 54 Gibson L5 and which Scotty himself described as "ancestral psychedelia.” Not even the Jordanaires' choruses, placed there to soften the King's music, can take away a second of intensity from the two incredible solos of a Scotty unleashed.

Stray Cats – Stray Cat Strut

Brian Setzer was in charge of leading the first resurrection of the genre, in the early 80's, when he led his band, the Stray Cats. The bands’ first album, released in England in 1980, is one of the greatest classics of the genre and contains the best song of their career, the incredible Stray Cat Strut in which Setzer evokes the best of the greats of the genre, such as Moore and Gallup, from his 59 Gretsch 6120, but adds new things like greater fluidity and dexterity. Setzer is so proud of that solo that he counts it as one of his top five favourites in history. Maybe anything he lacks in modesty is overtaken by his class when it comes to playing.

Ricky Nelson (
James Burton) – Hello, Mary Lou

By the time Ricky Nelson recorded Hello, Mary Lou in 1961, rockabilly, and rock & roll had been buried by new teen idols, like Nelson himself. But Ricky was not just any teen idol, he was fascinated by rock and rockabilly, his idols were still Elvis and Carl Perkins, and, more importantly, he did not have any guitarist, but James Burton himself, the master of the Telecaster, who despite his young age had already left his mark with the riff of Suzie Q and his work with Bob Luman. No wonder Keith Richards later said "I didn't buy Ricky Nelson albums, I bought James Burton albums". Listening to his colleague on just this song we can understand why another follower of his - Brian May - declared it as one of his 10 favorite guitar solos of all time. And don't forget that May himself could appear on this list for his solo on Crazy Little Thing Called Love, a song on which he left aside his ‘Red Special’ for a moment to play, how could it be otherwise, a Telecaster. Despite appearing on television with a Jazzmaster, Burton recorded the song with one of his faithful Telecasters.

The Johnny Burnette Trio (Grady Martin) – Lonesome Train (On A Lonesome Track)

Johnny Burnette's
trio were one of the best exponents of rockabilly; their first album, released in 1956, is one of the great references of the genre. But although the guitarist Paul Burlison was quite good, this recording has the ace in the hole because of the presence of the wizard Grady Martin, one of the most respected session musicians from Nashville of the time. Martin came to record with Hank Williams and Elvis Presley (for example, on Devil in Disguise), and he is the one who performs the riff of Oh, Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison, in addition to being the guitarist on El Paso by Marty Robins. But as can be seen in some of his songs on his own or in his work with Johnny Horton, Martin was also an excellent rockabilly guitarist, with his Bigsby guitar, as can be seen in the excellent solo on Lonesome Train (On A Lonesome Track) in which you can appreciate his incredible tone and technique.


Carl Perkins – Blue Suede Shoes

Even before Elvis and Scotty Moore brought the Big Bang from Memphis, Perkins was already putting rhythm on bluegrass songs from Tennessee. The immortal Blue Suede Shoes is his best-known song (thanks also to the Elvis cover) and it shows his tremendous talent for the six strings in the expressive solo. For his recording he used a 55 Les Paul Gold Top and a Bigsby, and his success allowed him not only to buy all the pairs of blue suede shoes he wanted, but also to have his own Cadillac.

Eddie Cochran
– Twenty-Flight Rock

Eddie Cochran
got his first big break when his good looks and his resemblance to James Dean earned him a small role in The Girl Can't Help It, a film in honour of the greater glory of Jayne Mansfield's voluptuousness, in which Little Richard, Fats Domino and Gene Vincent also appeared. The song Cochran chose for it was his first absolute classic, Twenty Flight Rock. A song that belongs to rockabilly heaven, even though some enlightened people decided to cut Cochran's outstanding solo in the movie. For the recording Cochran used his 1955 orange Gretsch 6120, modified with a Gibson P-90 pickup, which gave him a warmer, jazzy sound.

Roy Orbison (Roy Orbison) - Ooby Dooby

Roy Orbison is remembered as having one of the best voices in history. That's perfectly understandable when you think that Elvis Presley recognized him as "the best singer in the world”. But we should also not forget that Orbison was a pretty good guitarist, so much so that when he appeared at Sun Studios, Sam Phillips was much more astonished at his aptitude as a guitarist than as a singer. Listening to Ooby Dooby one realizes that had he not had a privileged throat, Roy could have had a career as a lead guitarist.

Danny Gatton – Sun Medley

We've already said that Scotty Moore's work for Elvis on his songs for Sun is the most perfect definition of rockabilly, so let's do a little cheating and put the incredible Danny Gatton interpreting those classics, and those licks, adding his incredible style and expertise, with his expressive mix of jazz, bluegrass and rock that led him to be called the "best unknown guitarist in the world". He was also called the 'Telemaster', for his passion for Telecasters, but this time he appears playing a Gibson ES-295 that seems to have belonged to Scotty Moore himself.

Reverend Horton Heat - Psychobilly Freakout

Jim Heath
has been called "the godfather of modern rockabilly and psychobilly". His band mixes rockabilly with surf and punk with the same ease that Heath gets tasty notes from his Gretsch 6120, of which he has his own model, the Gretsch G6120RHH Reverend Horton Heat Signature Hollow Body. His best-known song is Psychobilly Freakout that appeared on his first album, Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em, released in 1990. On its own it offers an intensive course on his particular and aggressive style.