Top 10 Essential Vintage Rockabilly Guitar Solos

(Image credit: Eric Fairchild/Courtesy of Gretsch Guitars (this page), Christopher Furlong/Getty Images (homepage))

A couple years back, (during the 2017 Winter NAMM Show), I walked out of the Observatory—a concert venue in Santa Ana, California—and took an Uber to my hotel in Anaheim. As soon as we left the curb, the driver—a young guitar-playing greaser with plenty of tattoos—asked me about the show I'd just seen.

"It was rockabilly," I said. "Jeff Beck and Darrel Higham played a bunch of Gene Vincent songs at a Gretsch Guitars event. Cousin Harley and Duane Eddy played too."

"Oh, cool," the driver said. "I love rockabilly."

I figured he'd say that—based on his greased-back hair and Sailor Jerry ink—despite that very wise saying about not judging a book by its cover.

But when I asked him what rockabilly bands he listened to, it was ASAP obvious that he really didn't know what rockabilly was—even though he had adopted "the look," a common practice in Orange County. He mentioned Johnny Cash at one point, but as soon as he listed some baseball-cap-wearing modern country dudes, I cut him off and filled the rest of our trip with a verbal version of what you're about to read.

Simply put, it's a guide to rockabilly guitar; to be more precise, it's a list of 10 killer vintage rockabilly songs that every rock fan—let alone every guitarist—should know and/or learn how to play. These are the songs modern players like Darrel Higham, TK Smith, Paul Pigat, Jim Heath (Reverend Horton Heat), JD McPherson, Buzz Campbell, Brian Setzer and Australia's Firebird Trio listened to back in the day—as did Jimmy Page, George Harrison, Dave Edmunds and Jeff Beck.

Nothing has changed; listening to these songs now—and learning the solos note for note—is just as helpful as it was back when Setzer's pompadour was a foot tall.

Rockabilly is a form of rock that dates to the mid-Fifties. Wikipedia hits the nail on the head here: "It blends Western musical styles such as country with rhythm and blues; some have also described it as a blend of bluegrass with rock and roll." I've always described it as horn-free (I will not waver on that), hard-driving early rock with a rural accent, delivered with a beat so heavy and deep that you think your head's gonna explode.

If you need a detailed history lesson, head here. If not, let's get to the tunes.

Two comrades—TK Smith and Paul Pigat—graciously added their two cents (more like $5.67!) to this list. Smith, a master guitarist (think Charlie Christian in a cowboy hat) and respected guitar builder (he's the man behind the Smith Special), was a fleet-fingered founding member of rockabilly bigwigs Big Sandy & the Fly-Rite Trio in the Nineties. Pigat, the Gretsch Guitars-endorsing gent behind Canada's Cousin Harley, is simply one of the top two rockabilly players within a 134.6666667-mile radius of wherever he might be standing, not to mention a mean country blueser and bebop jazzer. This list was compiled by Smith, Pigat and me. Enjoy!

You can find all these songs in a Spotify playlist. Click here to hear it.

Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps (1956)
Guitarist: Cliff Gallup

"This says all there needs to be said about the Cliff Gallup style, which has influenced everyone, whether they know it or not," Pigat says. Gallup—who was 26 when he joined up with Vincent, one of rock's great early heroes—was one of the mostadept, versatile and influential electric guitarists of his generation. You can find two Guitar World lessons dedicated to Gallup's ahead-of-his-time skills here and here. We've also supplied a handy little "Race with the Devil" lesson below.

The Johnny Burnette Trio (1957)
Guitarist: Grady Martin

"To me this is a perfect guitar solo—great guitar tone, too," Smith says. "I spent a good part of the Eighties chasing this tone. At that time, I was under the impression it was done with a Fender bridge pickup. I tried dozens of amps back then with my Tele with no luck. It wasn’t until later that I found out it was Grady Martin with a Bigsby pickup." For more about Martin (who also plays on Marty Robbins' "El Paso"), head here.

Joe Clay (1956)
Guitarist: Hal Harris

"I still remember hearing this for the first time," Smith says. "Hal Harris' use of the dominant 7th in the bass while he Travis picks, to me, is the quintessential rockabilly sound." Be sure to read up on Harris right here.

Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps (1957)
Guitarist: Cliff Gallup

"This is a great song to learn note for note," Smith says. "I still use some of these licks today." For this one, we've included the original version and a recent performance by Jeff Beck and Darrel Higham. By the way, "Crazy Legs" was written by guitarist/singer/actor Jerry Reed of Smokey and the Bandit fame.

Johnny Horton (1957)
Guitarist: Grady Martin

"Anything by Grady Martin is essential to a well-rounded rockabilly guitar player's arsenal," Pigat says. "He's truly a cornerstone of guitar history." For your viewing pleasure, we've included a 2016 live performance of the tune by the Subway Cowboys.

"Thumper" Jones (1956)
Guitarist: Hal Harris

"Somewhat crude—but great feeling on this one," Smith says. Thumper's voice might sound familiar to country music fans; he is, in fact, a very young George Jones. "How Come It" appeared as the B-side of "Rock It" in the spring of 1956.

Elvis Presley (1955)
Guitarist: Scotty Moore

"I think all young players should lock themselves in their rooms until they can cleanly play Scotty Moore’s lick on this tune," Smith says. "Learn it slow at first and get it right. I hear a lot of people play it sloppy." To help you get started, we've included a live performance by Moore and Eric Clapton, plus the internet's most popular "Mystery Train" lesson video (If you don't dig this lesson, there are plenty more to choose from on YouTube; some even have tab).

Danny Gatton (1992/1993)
Guitarist: Danny Gatton

Although this list is supposed to be an homage to rockabilly guitarists from the Fifties, this Danny Gatton track from the early Nineties accomplishes the same goal. It finds Gatton blazing through a medley of songs originally recorded by Elvis Presley and Scotty Moore in the Fifties—the songs he listened to as a kid.

For this list, "it's a tie between Gatton's 'Sun Medley' and the original recordings of the same tunes by Elvis and Scotty," Pigat says. "It's undeniable that Scotty Moore changed the world with his playing. It's also undeniable that Danny Gatton did the same." Below, you can check out live and studio versions of the song.

Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps (1956)
Guitarist: Cliff Gallup

What's this? A third song by Vincent and Gallup? Yes! I have a personal connection to this song; it represents my introduction to rockabilly—although I admit I knew John Lennon's mid-Seventies version before I knew Gene Vincent's version. Simply put, if you can play this solo correctly (and nail the tone), you're officially "playing rockabilly." It's a fine introduction to Gallup and to the genre—and it always makes me happy when I play it.

We've included an interesting live version by Tom Jones and Nigel Tufnel—I mean Jeff Beck! Please try your best to ignore the horns, which simply do not belong there. Don't get me started on horns...

Eddie Cochran (1957)
Guitarist: Eddie Cochran

Leaving Eddie Cochran off this list would be like leaving Doc Watson off a list of influential bluegrass pickers; his music and look had a huge influence on scores of later musicians, including Brian Setzer and Paul McCartney. His "Twenty Flight Rock" guitar solo, a lovable mish-mash of frantic hammer-ons and pull-offs, captures the frenzy of rockabilly. For the lesson video, we've included a guide to Setzer's juiced-up version of the song, which leads us into a different era—and to our bonus 11th song...

Stray Cats (1981)
Guitarist: Brian Setzer

When I joined a swing/jump-blues band in 2009, I discovered—based on all the jazzy new chord progressions I was learning (many of which bore a strong resemblance to this song)—that "Stray Cat Strut" isn't rockabilly at all. Pigat agrees: "Although not technically a rockabilly tune—it's probably closer to a swing—this tune single-handedly resurrected the genre in the Eighties. There were other great artists at the time [Don't forget Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love"], but no single song did as much for the music as this one, and it's a hell of a guitar solo."

In 2014, Setzer actually included it on his own list of "The 5 Best Guitar Solos Ever!" on "This might sound bigheaded of me," Setzer says in the article. "I thought that up when I was 19 years old. And people still come up to me who play guitar and ask me how I play it. It's lasted a long time."

You can find all these songs in a Spotify playlist. Click here to hear it.

A FINAL NOTE: Please remember this list isn't meant to be complete; that would be impossible, not to mention pointless. Regardless, I hope you get some use out of it.

Actually, let me leave you with two more clips. First, there's "Crazy Eyes Baby" by Australia's Firebird Trio. It's an example of how fun, exciting and brain-melting modern rockabilly and hillbilly blues can be in the right hands. Below that, check out Buzz Campbell & Hot Rod Lincoln playing "Slow Down" at the 2010 Winter NAMM Show. Nice solo (and great tone)!

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Damian Fanelli
Editor-in-Chief, Guitar World

Damian is Editor-in-Chief of Guitar World magazine. In past lives, he was GW’s managing editor and online managing editor. He's written liner notes for major-label releases, including Stevie Ray Vaughan's 'The Complete Epic Recordings Collection' (Sony Legacy) and has interviewed everyone from Yngwie Malmsteen to Kevin Bacon (with a few memorable Eric Clapton chats thrown into the mix). Damian, a former member of Brooklyn's The Gas House Gorillas, was the sole guitarist in Mister Neutron, a trio that toured the U.S. and released three albums. He now plays in two NYC-area bands.