As a song writer, I’ve written many rockabilly songs. Some of them have been fairly good (in my opinion!), some admittedly not so great. Many of my songs I’ve played in live shows and some have been well received by the audience while others have fallen a little flat. So I’ve often contemplated the question, “What makes a great rockabilly song?” In trying to find the answer to that question, I’ve looked to the great rockabilly songs of history. In this article, I’ll talk about a couple of the answers I’ve found. Of course, this is all my opinion and you may have different ideas about what makes a great rockabilly song, but it should be fun to explore the subject together.
One of the obvious aspects of rockabilly that made the music so exciting back in those early days was that it was fresh, new, and different. For us modern rockabilly songwriters, we no longer have that element of surprise working for us and that may seem to make the job more difficult. But in reality, it wasn’t the freshness alone that made those songs great. In fact, the truly great songs still sound great even though we’ve been listening to them for 60 years! They still sound fresh and exciting, so there must be something to them beyond the simple novelty of a new art form. If our modern rockabilly songs don’t measure up, we can’t hide behind the excuse that the genre isn’t fresh!
If I had to choose one word to describe this music, it would be energy. Great rockabilly music has a different kind of energy. Even the slower numbers keep you energized–like you never know whether the song’s going to stay slow or suddenly explode into rockabilly madness. And it doesn’t seem to matter how many times you’ve heard a song; you still anticipate the explosion. For me, no other music has the same energy as rockabilly. It’s a positive, happy energy that makes me smile every time I experience it!
Another important aspect of rockabilly is what I call “sleeper simplicity.” Or perhaps you could call it “sleeper complexity.” Rockabilly songs are generally quite simply constructed. The chord progressions are pretty predictable. The song section structure is usually a simple alternating between verse and chorus with a musical break or two tossed in. Bridge sections are rare. Not many surprises there. But this structural simplicity hides the complexity of the musical talent behind it. The guitar work is usually far from simple. Complex chord-based solos intertwine with single-note leads that can jump back and forth between minor and major musical scales at any time–not only within the same solo, but in fact even within the same section of the solo! Carl Perkins was a master at this type of soloing. And it’s not just the guitar breaks. Listen to how the lead guitar often weaves around and intertwines with the vocal. It’s not just a picker randomly firing off riffs. The player seems to almost be able to make the guitar a part of the vocal and it’s a complex talent!
The bass also adds its own unexpected complexity–especially on recordings or live performances that don’t use drums. The slap-bass style of many rockabilly bass players turns the bass into a double-duty instrument. The bass notes hold the bottom end while the slapping rhythms can get quite complex indeed. But in some ways, things get more complex with the bass when there is a drummer because now the drum and bass have to work together so they don’t compete with setting the rhythm. While this is true with the interplay between bass and drum in any type of music, the slap-bass rockabilly bassist has that additional aspect of percussive rhythm to consider. The bassist must ensure that those slaps integrate perfectly with the drummer’s rhythms. If they don’t, things get real sloppy real fast!
OK; those are just some of my thoughts on what makes a great rockabilly song. I certainly don’t have it completely figured out yet and I’ll keep studying it in my quest to get to the root of the answer. If you’re like me, you’ll find that analyzing the music in this way adds to the joy of rockabilly music!