Rockin’ Bones

May 8, 2021

Liner notes for Rockin’ Bones, Rhino Records

Originally published in 2006

Rockabilly IS guitar music. While fans and historians can argue about many details regarding rockabilly, one thing can’t be denied: The guitar is the vital heartbeat of the music. Add a sax or piano, it becomes rock and roll. Add a fiddle or banjo, it’s country music. Without question, the sparse framework of rockabilly music is anchored by the twang of the electric guitar.

When people think of the classic rockabilly band, they imagine a swivel-hipped young singer with a good head of greased-back hair. There is also a doghouse bass player, slapping away with wild abandon, and a drummer in the back playing a simple rhythm. But if you had to imagine the lead guitar man, the most accurate depiction would be an older guy standing behind the singer playing a big jazz box, with a look on his face somewhere between boredom and disdain.

On the vast majority of classic rockabilly recordings, the singer is a young good-looking kid in his teens or early twenties, but the guitar man is five to ten years older, with a long background in country, jazz, or pop. The music known as rockabilly would never have its spark without the youthful energy and wildness of the teenage singer; but it also wouldn’t have its foundation or power without the lead guitar man behind him.

Perhaps the mold was cast when Scotty Moore laid down his classic guitar licks on Elvis Presley’s first recordings. Moore was several years older than Elvis and had a pure country music background—he did not share the King’s interests in rhythm and blues and pop music—but the results were spectacular when Moore attempted to play blues and sped up country licks to Elvis’s frantic vocalizing. It was something new, and different, and the mold of rockabilly guitar was set (hear Moore on the two Elvis tracks on this box set: “Baby Let’s Play House” and “One Night of Sin”).

Cliff Gallup, playing lead guitar for Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps, was an older musician who played for western swing bands and as a radio staff guitarist before joining Vincent’s band. His guitar playing was essentially equal parts Les Paul, Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, and George Barnes, but when pushed up to breakneck tempos, it became the epitome of rockabilly guitar playing that all players have tried to emulate since. After being in the group less than a year, Gallup quit the band to lead a quiet family life (he appears on both Gene Vincent tracks on this box set: “Woman Love” and “Cat Man”).

In Nashville, studio ace guitarists Grady Martin, Hank Garland, and Chet Atkins played on hundreds of classic rockabilly recording sessions. One could hardly imagine a less likely trio of rock and rollers, as they were all heavily into jazz and years older than the singers they recorded with. Their playing was innovative, however, and exciting, and their guitar solos have also become part of the blueprint of rockabilly (there isn’t much Nashville rockabilly on this particular box set, but check out Hank Garland and Grady Martin on Janis Martin’s “Bang Bang” and Jimmy Lloyd’s “Rocket in My Pocket,” both on disc one).

Similarly, on the West Coast older session men such as Joe Maphis and Barney Kessel played on rockabilly records for the likes of Wanda Jackson and Ricky Nelson (hear Maphis’s blistering work on “Fujiyama Mama” on disc two). On the East Coast, session men Mickey Baker and George Barnes kept busy with rockabilly acts such as Joe Clay and Janis Martin, lending some of the most memorable guitar solos to the genre. While these were all respected, older country and jazz guitar players who for the most part never considered themselves rock and rollers, their contributions to the canon of rockabilly guitar playing are immeasurable.

As the music grew in popularity, eventually younger proteges such as Eddie Cochran, James Burton, and Larry Collins came into the spotlight. Even though these players were in their teens at the time, they had been playing for years in the styles that their older peers had their roots in (you can hear these guys all over this box set. James Burton’s first session, Dale Hawkins’s “Suzie Q,” is on here along with his great version of “Red Hot” with Bob Luman and his trademark Tele twang on Ricky Nelson’s “Believe What You Say.” Eddie Cochran’s big hit “Summertime Blues” is on disc one, and it is this author’s opinion that it’s session-man Cochran’s hot guitar you hear on the classic tracks “Please Give Me Something” by Bill Allen and “Crazy Little House on the Hill” by Gene LaMarr. Larry Collins is of course featured on “Mercy” with his sister Lorrie on disc three and his own positively manic “Whistle Bait” on disc one.

So where did it all come from? The truth is, there wasn’t a radical change from what had been happening in the early 1950s with hillbilly boogie and rhythm and blues to what happened with rockabilly. Hillbilly boogie was a huge phenomenon that happened in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Easily the most obvious predecessor to rockabilly, it was defined by loud electric guitar, and a twelve-bar blues chord pattern, which was not terribly common in country music before that. For an example of hillbilly boogie on this box set, check out Louis Innis and Charlie Gore doing their cover of “Hound Dog,” retitled “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Female Hound Dog” on disc two.

There is no doubt that Merle Travis, and to a lesser extent Chet Atkins, were huge influences on all rockabilly guitar players. If you listen to “That’s All Right, Mama” by Elvis-that’s Merle Travis that Scotty Moore is emulating. That thumb-picking style of finger-picking guitar was revolutionary for the time, and Merle Travis was looked up to as if he was the Eddie Van Halen of his day.

Part of the charm of rockabilly is the merging of these influences—black and white, city and country, North and South—into something new and exciting. But whereas many white country boys were trying to play like B. B. King, they couldn’t quite get it right and were playing it too fast, the result being pure rockabilly. If you listen to the guitar playing throughout this box set, you’ll hear the influences, but you’ll rarely hear somebody with the technical proficiency to really pull off what they were attempting. This is the essence of rockabilly guitar playing!

Other regional celebrities such as Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith in the Carolinas, Paul Buskirk in Texas, Jimmy Bryant in California, were hugely influential with young country fans who were picking up the guitar for the first time. It seemed like every town had its local hot picker, and they wielded untold influence on hundreds of upcoming rockabilly guitarists.

A lot has been written about the confluence of styles that came together to make rockabilly, and the blues can’t be denied. Exciting electric blues players such as T-Bone Walker, Gatemouth Brown, and B. B. King were also huge influences on young guitar players, who heard their sounds while tuning into all-black radio stations, usually from the Deep South. It’s important to remember that most of America was as square as a cube during the 1950s. Most white kids couldn’t get their hand on a blues record if their life depended on it. But mainstream artists like Les Paul, Al Caiola, and even Lawrence Welk’s guitar player Buddy Merrill were seen on television and heard on the radio by whitebread America on a daily basis, playing electric guitar and sneaking in hipster licks among the polkas and waltzes. Les Paul’s influence on rockabilly guitar can’t be denied—in fact, next to Merle Travis he’s probably the single most imitated guitar player on this box set. His dazzling pull-offs, exciting take-off leads, and innovative uses of the electric guitar were electrifying to young musicians coming up in the 1950s.

Part of the charm of rockabilly is the merging of these influences—black and white, city and country, North and South—into something new and exciting. But whereas many white country boys were trying to play like B. B. King, they couldn’t quite get it right and were playing it too fast, the result being pure rockabilly. If you listen to the guitar playing throughout this box set, you’ll hear the influences, but you’ll rarely hear somebody with the technical proficiency to really pull off what they were attempting. This is the essence of rockabilly guitar playing! For example, if you listen to Buddy Holly’s early recording of “Down the Line,” you’ll hear the band trying to play something resembling bluegrass, but with guitar, bass, and drums. The result is pure rockabilly! Similarly, listen to Roy Orbison attempting to play blues licks on “Domino.” He doesn’t succeed at the blues but creates killer rockabilly in the process.

Besides the musical influences, the other important aspect that defined rockabilly, and rock and roll guitar playing in general, was the rapidly changing landscape of electronic innovation. Just as cars and airplanes changed from older, boxy-looking styles into sleek and futuristic designs in the mid-1950s, so did electric guitars and amplifiers undergo a radical change. The electric guitar was invented in the early 1930s, but the designs were primitive and not readily accepted until the ‘40s. As the technology evolved, players were able to get more and more volume out of their instruments, and also change from a tone that emulated the acoustic guitar to one that was purely electric—biting and trebly. Blues players experimented with distorted, overdriven tones that were insanely radical to the ears of the time. Country musicians were also some of the first to embrace the new advances in electric guitar technology, including the newly introduced solid-body electric guitars such as the Fender Telecaster and Gibson Les Paul. When rockabilly came along, many of the players were using the most modern technology available at the time—equipment that would take several years to become mainstream!

It wasn’t just the guitars and amplifiers that were changing. The technology of recording sound was evolving just as rapidly and played a major part in the evolution of rockabilly music. Recording studio engineers went from primitive disc recording to advanced, high-fidelity recording within a couple years in the early 1950s. Most important to the evolution of rockabilly was when they learned how to make tape echo using their tape recorders. The twang of the electric guitar, and the Merle Travis style in particular, lent itself perfectly to the slap-back sound of tape echo. In fact, if there is one piece of technology intrinsically linked with rockabilly, it is tape echo. Sam Phillips had just learned how to make tape echo at Sun Studios when Elvis Presley walked in the door, and it’s hard to imagine those Sun Records without the wash of tape echo. Owen Bradley had just learned how to make tape echo in Nashville when Gene Vincent, Johnny Carroll, and Jimmy and Johnny arrived to take their first stabs at the big beat. The tape echo on the guitar tone of Gene Vincent’s guitarist Cliff Gallup literally defines his sound (listen to “Cat Man” on this set, and you’ll hear that the echo is actually louder than the original signal!). If he had recorded there just a year earlier, his tone would have been dry and without effects. By the late 1950s and early ‘60s recording studios were using more than just simple tape echo, and turned more toward reverb as the effect of choice. In turn, guitar amp manufacturers began offering built-in reverb, and the sounds began evolving into something different. Thus the sound of the tape echo on the electric guitar will forever be linked with those years in the mid-1950s when rockabilly existed in its purest and most natural form.

In fact, it was precisely this rapidly changing landscape of music and technology that left rockabilly behind just a few years after its birth. Almost as if they were preserved in a time capsule, the sounds and images of 1950s rockabilly music and guitar playing exist within the grooves of the tunes on this box set as an era (and sound) frozen permanently in history. The playing styles and guitar tones of 1950s rockabilly have become legendary. Rather than fading into history, young players have taken the mantle to preserve this sound into future generations. Rockabilly guitar will never die!