Ready to learn about rock and roll’s cousin from the south? If so, you’re in the right place! In this article, music teacher Christopher S. explores some of the most influential rockabilly songs of our time and shows you how to play them on guitar…
The History of Rockabilly
The rock and roll style, dubbed rockabilly, is one of the earliest styles of rock and roll music. It dates back to the early 1950’s and comes from the good ol’ USA, especially from the south. It’s a blend of sounds from Western musical styles like country, sometimes bluegrass styles, and that of rhythm and blues. The style’s name in itself comes from the combination of “rock” (from the 1950s) and “hillbilly” music, a common term being used to describe country music of the 40s and 50s.
This style was very important for the development of rock and roll music, and it was the basis and influence of many famous bands from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It was a style which was, in a sense, a rite of passage to play if you wanted to play rock and roll.
The style’s defining features include strong rhythms, vocal twangs, and often the use of tape echo. It also tends to have fast lyrics and distorted guitars, which gives it a progressive feel, thus attractibg the ears of young listeners.
Notable Rockabilly Players
The first major artists to be associated playing rockabilly music were Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Bob Luman, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
The style started a legacy of rock and roll which spawned a variety of sub-styles and influencing styles such as punk rock. If you want to play rock and roll the way famous guitarists such as Jimi Page, Jeff Beck, and Jimi Hendrix did, then you have to learn, at minimum, the basics and some songs by the very first rock and rollers who played rockabilly.
Here are seven rockabilly songs that are easy to learn and will teach you how to play rockabilly guitar.
1) Hello Mary Lou by Ricky Nelson
This song was recorded and released in 1961 in California. Although it’s one of the later and poppier songs in our timeline of rockabilly music, this song is easy to play on the guitar and makes for a good intro to the musical style.
Below is a guitar tab showing how to play it. You’ll notice most of the song is played with chords. You just have to get that good country guitar rhythm down, and then there’s a short but sweet solo to learn.
2) Be-Bop-A-Lula by Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps
This song is a classic and probably one of the slower tunes of the rockabilly scene. It has a very swampy but typical singing style with country-influenced twangy guitar sounds. Below is the chord chart for the song. The strumming is a very simple down strum on the beat of a 4/4 rhythm. It’s a very easy song to learn because of its slow tempo.
3) Train Kept A-Rollin’ by Johnny Burnette and The Rock and Roll Trio
This is a great song because it really shows the rebellious side of the rockabilly sound and its true roots as the precursor to rock and roll. It begins with a rockin’ guitar lick and strummed chords with the rumbling sound and rhythm of a train. This song was considered almost a rite of passage for bands to play in the 70s and 80s. The well-known band The Yardbirds, with guitarists Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, also made this song well-known in the late 60s.
The easy part about this song is that you can almost get away with playing the chords by using only the top and the bottom string. Below is the intro riff and the chord charts.
4) Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On by Jerry Lee Lewis
This is another great tune that was a hit in 1957. The song acutely has its compositional origins from a pianist and club owner named Dave “Curlee” Williams – however, Lewis had been performing it and he released it on his recording session for Sun Records which made it hit the Billboard magazine charts.
The chords are played with piano but there are guitar licks and chord figures strumming throughout. Below are the tabs for the guitar parts.
5) Blue Suede Shoes by Carl Perkins
This is a very well-known rockabilly song released in 1955, made infamous by the one and only, Elvis Presley. It was released only a year after the Carl Perkins version. This song is very easy to play because it’s mostly stop and go chords. It has a driving bluesy rhythm, which is easy to strum.
Below are the chords to Elvis Presley’s version of the song. This would be a good version to learn because it’s the one that most people will recognize.
6) Ooby Dooby by Roy Orbison
This is yet another classic, well-known tune by a classic artist. This song was released again by Sun Records. It has a swampy blues rhythm and sounds great at both slow and faster tempos. Roy was even known to perform this song at various tempos. The original has some great rockabilly licks that, if you’re learning this style of guitar, they’re essential licks to learn! Below are the tabs for this song.
7) Twenty Flight Rock by Eddie Cochran
This is a comical song which was actually released in the comedy film titled The Girl Can’t Help It in 1956. It’s a song about a man who is complaining about seeing his girlfriend who lives on the 20th floor of an apartment build with no elevator.
It’s a very cool song and actually was the song that got Paul McCartney into the Beatles. McCartney retells the story of how, at the auditions to enter the Beatles, he played that song and John was so impressed that he actually knew all the words to Twenty Flight Rock that he got the spot.
Either way it’s a great song to learn when learning the rockabilly genre. Below are the tabs for this one.
So whether you’re just starting to learn the guitar or you’re already a skilled guitarist, I hope these songs will get you strumming and picking away at the rockabilly music that came from the 50s and 60s. Learn to play them all and you will see your rock playing improve tenfold!
Let’s rock again now!
Are there any other rockabilly songs you’d like to learn how to play on guitar? Share us with them in the comments below and we’ll help you out!
Christopher S. teaches bass guitar, guitar, and composition in Jamaica Plain, MA. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Humboldt State University and is currently attending New England Conservatory for his Master of Music degree. Christopher has been teaching students since 2004. Learn more about Christopher S. here!
Photo by Dena Flows
2 thoughts on “How to Play Rockabilly Guitar: 7 Easy Songs for Beginners”
I really need to learn “the Fool” – the Robert Gordon/Link Wray version. I have trawled the internet but no luck. Please Help and thanks for all the lessons – Jack
Can you Send about play tecnik rock n roll and piano rock n roll?