Built of equal parts country, blues, rock 'n roll, and perhaps Romilar, rockabilly music is considered by many to be the punk rock of the 1950's. It came blasting our of garages and sheds across the U.S., much like rock 'n roll did, as a loud and clear response to the sad state of pop music of the time Perry Como, Mantovani, Pat Boone, and their terminally mild ilk. Rockabillys unusual balance of backwoods twang and R&B stomp was the perfect antidote to the distressing condition of the Top 40 charts. With it's frantic rhythmic propulsion and twangy tonal variations, it was and still is a music that is appealing to players and listeners alike. Imminently danceable and a blast to play as well, this stuff is the bomb, as the children like to say. Let's check out a few fundamentals of rockabilly, starting with some typical equipment and settings.
Although a lot of the original cats used Gretsch or Gibson hollowbodies (Eddie Cochran, Merle Travis, Scotty Moore, Ersel Hickey) on a lot of the primordial rockabilly sides, you can get a perfectly functional rockabilly tone out of a Strat or Tele, or a Gibson solidbody. The great Paul Burlison of the God-like Rock n Roll Trio used a Telecaster and a little tweed Fender amp and pretty much helped set the standard for the genres sound. What I usually gravitate to is a clear, trebly sort of tone rear pickup turned all the way up, or a combination of both pickups with the front backed off a little, volume on 7 or 8, and both tone controls full up. You're looking for a bright, snappy tone with a bit of thump to it.
Amps and Settings
I might sound like a Fender snob here but, OK, I am. I just don't think you can beat a nice old Deluxe or Super amp for this stuff. Give me 30 watts of nice warm tube tonality any day and I'm happier than a pig in slop, Sonny. A Twin Reverb is terrific for extra clarity; the Ampeg Reverb-O-Jet is great for twangin (and gets extra credit for its spiffy moniker). Anyway, you get the idea. Like I said, I'm generally looking for a clear, trebly tone. And don't panic if you're used to playing through hi-gain, solid-state or hybrid type set-ups I've never met a guitarist who wasn't fairly well delighted with the way a small-to-medium size tube amp breaks up in all the right ways, yet maintains a ringing tone thats just right for High-billy Music.
I play through a Fender Blues Deluxe amp. It's a 40 watt tube (6L6) amp with a single 12 speaker, which I replaced with a Celestion 30. I usually run the volume around 3 or 4 and all the tone controls all the way up, except the bass, which I set around 9 or 10 (they go up to 12, which is one better than Spinal Tap). A smidge of reverb is OK, but I don't really drench it out. I set the reverb on 2 or 3. It kinda depends on how strong your reverb tube is, and where your amp is set up. A lot of wood or carpet in the room may make you want to dial up a bit more, but if you're playing in a garage (bless your pointy little head, you'd be right where you should be for this kind of music) then the hard surfaces may give you all the boomy-ness you need and you might not need to use much reverb at all.
The single most common effect used in rockabilly is without question the tape echo. Scotty Moore actually had one built into the amp that he used on many of the seminal Sun Record sides with Elvis. The most sought-after tape units nowadays are probably the Maestro Echoplex and the Roland Space Echo or Chorus Echo, both of which have a few different features but each use a tape cartridge.
Which leads us to a bit of a dilemma: The hardcore, purist cats will say that nothing sounds like a tape echo, and there is some merit in that point of view. But the things are cranky as hell, and kind of high maintenance you need to keep the tape heads clean, and probably keep an extra tape cartridge or two in your gig bag, along with some denatured alcohol and some Q-tips.
Luckily, a couple of the current effects manufacturers got hip and made some reasonably priced analog delay pedals. Some even feature a kind of anti-fidelity knob that allows you to roll a bit of the high end off the actual delay, in effect simulating the much desired quality of a gnarly old tape cartridge running across a grimy tape head, which is the quintessential sound for rockabilly. It is also the sound of a tape echo unit about to die a wobbly, undignified death, even as you peel off Tele-triplets mid-Train Kept A Rollin.
I use a DOD EchoFX/FX96. It's cheap, sounds great, and is made in the U.S. of A., by God! I set mine up to give a single, quick repeat a few milliseconds after the original signal. Hit a quick single note then mute it immediately while you're searching for the right delay time. You may like 2 or 3 repeats, but it's funny that may sound really authentic while youre sitting around dialing up a sound, but I've found that by the time your drummer and bassist get thumpin, it's a bit too soupy.
OK, thats the basics, gear-wise. This ain't rocket science, its rock 'n roll. I like to use the same approach to what I play as well. I'm no Chet Atkins or Brian Setzer, but with a basic knowledge of a handful of chords, a couple of boogie and shuffle rhythms, first and second position pentatonic scales and some nifty chord perversions, not to mention a bit of discipline, you should be all hopped up and flat-out gittin it in no time at all.