One of the characteristics that people most often think about when they think of rockabilly music is the famous “hiccupy” vocal styles. Elvis, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, and many others used this technique to different extents when recording their seminal rockabilly tracks. But rockabilly music wasn’t always about the vocals. Several great rockabilly instrumentals hold their place in rockabilly history as well.
- Bill Justis, “Raunchy”: “Raunchy was the first rock and roll instrumental hit and reached #2 on the American charts in 1957. It was recorded by Sam Phillips in his Memphis Recording Service studios and released on his Phillips record label. The record sold over a million copies and set the stage for future rock instrumental hits. The sax sound on this recording is nasty. Nasty but beautiful!
- Link Wray and his Wraymen, “Rumble”: Link Wray is one of the icons of 50s instrumental rock and roll and “Rumble” is as evil as it gets. This is actually a very simplistic song and the guitar work is not all that complex, but it has tons of attitude and no one could dare complain! If there is one defining rock and roll instrumental, this might be it.
- Duane Eddy, “Rebel Rouser”: Eddy is another of instrumental rock’s crowed princes. “Rebel Rouser” is also another signature tune of the genre. Starting with Eddy’s tremolo guitar sound seeped in reverb, this one is a precursor to the surf guitar sounds of the 60s. It then launches into another nasty-sounding sax solo and ends off on a key change. You didn’t hear too many key changes in rockabilly music and this is one of the most famous!
- Joe Maphis and Larry Collins, “Hurricane”: Larry Collins was the impish little-brother half of the Collins kids. Larry and Lorrie were literally just children when they started making hit records. While most of their songs featured Lorrie’s vocals, it was often little Larry–a guitar wizard at the ripe old age of 10–who stole the show with his jumping-bean stage antics and blazing guitar work. Country star Joe Maphis–also an amazing guitarist–served as Larry’s mentor and they often performed together with their signature double-necked guitars. Sometimes they both played one neck of the same guitar. “Hurricane” is about as wild as it gets and squeezes more notes into less than three minutes than just about any other song I can think of. These guys prove that “shredding” didn’t start with Eddie Van Halen!
- Arthur Smith, “Guitar Boogie”: For those who insist that rockabilly music started in 1954 with Elvis, I submit this gem from Arthur Smith. Recorded in 1948, this is pretty darned close to rockabilly if you ask me! This is a wonderful guitar-based song with the lead work done on an acoustic guitar instead of the twangy electric guitar featured in most rockabilly songs. If it isn’t rockabilly, then it’s certainly rockabilly’s roots!
Those are just five instrumental tunes that prove that rockabilly wasn’t just about the vocals. Rockabilly instrumentation and virtuosity often didn’t get its rightful due, maybe because the music evoked such a happy-go-lucky, fun-loving vibe that people forgot to notice just how good those players really were. These rockabilly instrumentals, along with scores of others, give the instrumentalists a chance to show off!