What is Rockabilly?

Michael Pollick

Rockabilly is a genre of music which grew out of impromptu jam sessions between musicians in the American South during the early to mid-1950s. Performers in such Southern cities as Memphis, Tennessee or Jackson, Mississippi often performed traditional blues songs in the upbeat style of Texas swing or popular country music. Early rockabilly musicians emulated the emotional vocal stylings of black blues singers, while adding the slap bass and bright pedal guitar sounds of Texas swing and artists like Hank Williams. Drummers also developed a looser rhythm pattern with a strong back beat for the genre.

Vintage microphones are associated with rockabilly.
Vintage microphones are associated with rockabilly.

While dozens of musicians in the Memphis music scene gained local attention with their new sound, a few were able to take it to a higher level of exposure. A Texas swing band leader named Bill Haley reworked his countrified version of a blues song into a minor single called "Rock Around the Clock." It contained many of the elements of true rockabilly, but still retained some of its dance band flavor. Only when the song was featured in the movie Blackboard Jungle did it become the country's introduction to the genre's sound.

Modern rockabilly is often played through vintage amplifiers.
Modern rockabilly is often played through vintage amplifiers.

Get started

Want to automatically save money while you shop online?

Join 3 million Wikibuy users who have found 
$70 million in savings over the last year.

Wikibuy compensates us when you install Wikibuy using the links we provided.

Meanwhile, other artists continued to perfect the sound for their younger fan base. Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison all recorded rockabilly songs at the Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. Carl Perkins was especially proficient at the rhythmic guitar picking style associated with the genre, as was Luther Perkins and Scottie Moore. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash both combined elements of blues singing and country music to create the signature rockabilly vocal sound. Singers often used whoops, shouts, hiccups and heavy echoes to capture the raw energy of the form.

The development of the electric guitar had a major influence on rockabilly music.
The development of the electric guitar had a major influence on rockabilly music.

Once rockabilly went mainstream, however, it lost much of its popularity among the teen demographic. Former rockabilly artists such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly became more popular as "rock and roll" singers. Other performers such as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash either pursued careers outside of the United States or became more associated with country music. The genre's influence can still be felt in modern rock music. Several bands such as the Stray Cats have continued to perform in the rockabilly tradition, while other artists have recorded songs using only the spare arrangement of slap bass, drums and hollow body electric guitar.

Roy Orbison recorded rockabilly songs at Sun Studios in Memphis.
Roy Orbison recorded rockabilly songs at Sun Studios in Memphis.

You might also Like

Discussion Comments


The most important part of Rockabilly isn't the type of instrumentation or fashion, but the sweat that springs up from your skin when you dance to it.

The entire point of Rockabilly is that it's not a purist style; it's a hedonistic mix of everything energetic in music crossing racial, social and political boundaries. Rich and poor, white and black, conservative and progressive, all boppin' to the same big beat.


(In response to the above article) Yeah, I guess so.

There is more than the origins, however, that make up the pure genre we call "rockabilly."

First of all, to actually PLAY rockabilly, it's got to boil your blood, shake you up, make you want to scream at the top of your lungs. Rockabilly comes from deep down in your soul.

It's simplistic, yet curiously sophisticated.

Rockabilly is f-u-n, and that's the t-r-u-t-h.

Rock till ya drop~


Post your comments
Forgot password?