I recently came across a forum post where the poster asked the question, “Can I play rockabilly guitar on a Brand X guitar?” That sparked an interesting thread of comments about which guitar is best for playing rockabilly. That’s an interesting topic.
Since rockabilly music grew in large part out of country music, many of the early rockers used the same guitars that their country guitar heroes were using. These tended to be hollow-body electric guitars and in large part those hollow-body instruments define much of what we think of when we think of rockabilly.
Scotty Moore, who played guitar on Elvis’ brilliant early rockabilly tracks recorded for Sun Records like “That’s Alright Mama” and “Mystery Train” played a Gibson ES-295 on his early Sun recordings and has been a Gibson man–although not exclusively–throughout his career.
But it was Eddie Cochran who seems to have had the biggest impact on modern rockabilly guitar. Eddie played a beautiful orange Gretsch 6120 hollow-body guitar that he bought brand new in 1955. He modified the guitar with a new pickup in order to get the sound he was after. That guitar became his signature and it was as much a part of Eddie as the hands that played it. If there is one guitar that people think of when they think of rockabilly, Eddie’s 6120 is probably it. Eddie’s guitar also featured the now-famed Bigsby tremolo tail (sometimes known as a “whammy bar”) and so that has also become a must-have for most modern rockabilly guitarists. Gretsch Guitar Company just recently issued the Eddie Cochran signature 6120 guitar which you can pick up for a cool $12,000 or so!
While these two guitarists and the instruments they played seem to have set the modern standard for what guitar you must have to play rockabilly, not all players have used hollow-body guitars to make their rockabilly music. Cliff Gallup, who was the original lead guitarist for Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps and is considered by many to be the greatest rockabilly guitarist of all time, didn’t stray too far from the mold as he too played a Gretsch. But unlike Eddies, Cliff’s was a solid-body instrument: a 1955 Gretsch DuoJet.
Carl Perkins too used solid-body guitars. He played a 1952 or ’53 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top on some of his now-famous early recordings, including his smash hit “Blue Suede Shoes”. After the success of that record, Perkins bought a blonde Gibson ES-5 which is a hollow-body guitar. He continued to use both and as legend has it, around 1,000 other guitars throughout his career. When I saw him play in Clear Lake, Iowa around 1985 or 1986 he was playing a solid-body, although I shamefully can’t remember what it was!
Paul Burlison who played with the Burnette Brothers Rock and Roll trio played a Fender Esquire, a forerunner of the modern Fender Telecaster solid-body guitar which is so popular today, especially among country guitarists.
Those are just a few of the most famous original pioneers and what they played on. Today’s players use a similar mix of instruments. Still, Cochran’s guitar sets the standard. It’s the same model guitar that Setzer made famous with the Stray Cats. By and large, modern rockabilly players go for the hollow-body sound and it’s usually a Gretsch. But there are a lot of guys still rippin’ it up with Telecasters and other solid-body instruments.
So, what’s the answer to the original question: What guitar can I play rockabilly on? The best answer I saw on the original forum post that I came across said simply, “You can play rockabilly on any guitar… if you can play rockabilly!”
I couldn’t agree more. It’s not about the trappings. It’s about the feel. If you can create that feel on a Gretsch, or a Gibson, or a Fender, or a Ukulele, it’s still rockabilly and it’s good enough for me!