Rockabilly 101: Get That Rockabilly Tone

Rockabilly tone involves three basic elements which are: the guitar, the sound effect, and the amplifier. There's also more than one way to go about getting that rockabilly tone. This produces a thing we call twang, which is the cornerstone of rockabilly guitar.

The first approach is to use the same kind of equipment that the original pioneers of rockabilly used. Many great rockabilly players today seek out original equipment for that original sound. For the true purist, an original 1950's Fender, Gibson, Magnatone, Supro, or custom made Ray Butts EchoSonic Amplifier would do the trick. This can be accompanied with a 1950's Fender Telecaster, Gretsch, Gibson, or Guild guitar, and an original tape echo delay device.

Another approach is to use current equipment (or equipment that is currently manufactured, and readily available). There are many companies out there who make new equipment using a 1950's design, and pay close attention to maintaining the authenticity of this era. Having said this, you will probably want to choose equipment designed for an authentic sound, (as opposed to a guitar and amp that are designed to play very distorted heavy metal or techno).

The third approach, and one that many rockabilly players like Brian Setzer and the Reverend Horton Heat use is to select a combination of vintage and new equipment. The reasons many players choose this approach is probably due to the fact that some of the original 1950's equipment is priced higher than their price range, and that sometimes equipment from that era can be hard to maintain and keep working. An example of that is the original tape echo machines, that can break down, or are noisy to operate. There are manufactures who have new versions out (such as the Fulltone Tube Tape Echo), that use magnetic tape. There are also effects boxes that emulate the sound of tape echo, which has a noticeable hard slapback in comparison to many digital delay units. Also, many guitar players don't want to take a vintage 1950's instrument valued at 10 thousand dollars or more to play a gig in a rowdy nightclub. Gretsch and Fender have created faithful copies of their classic 1950's instruments, and there are many others out there to choose from.

The basic elements are a guitar (preferably with 2 single coil pickups and a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece); an echo unit that produces a tape echo effect; and an amplifier that can produce a fairly warm clean tone (tube amps are best at doing this). Having reverb and vibrato (or tremolo) on the amplifier are a plus.