Grab your Gretsch and dig into the stylings of a modern rockabilly master.
• Soup up a blues progression with basic chord substitutions.
• Create rhythm parts inspired by such rockabilly greats as Eddie Cochran.
• Heat up your Travis picking with some rockabilly attitude.
In recent columns we’ve been exploring unsung guitar heroes, so let’s switch things up a bit and investigate a modern master—the reigning king of rockabilly swing, Mr. Brian Setzer.
Born in 1959, Setzer was drawn to music at a young age after hearing the Beatles’ “She Loves You” on the jukebox while out with his parents. He would go on to raid his father’s record collection after hearing him sing the Carl Perkins song “Honey Don’t” (which Setzer assumed was a Beatles original). This discovery of rock ’n’ roll and rockabilly classics sealed Setzer’s fate, and soon he was set on emulating Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent.
He formed the rockabilly revival group, The Tomcats, which became a mainstay of the Long Island music scene. While it was clear the group would remain a novelty act in their home country, the suggestion that they could hit it big in the U.K. was enough of a reason for the three young Tomcats to sell all their belongings and fly to London. The Toms had become strays, so a change in name to The Stray Cats seemed only fitting.
The group started out rough, even sleeping in Hyde Park, but after their first gig, every record label in town wanted a piece of the action. The Stray Cats were a hit, and their debut album peaked at No. 6 on the U.K. charts (this self-titled record never saw a U.S. release). Their third record, Built for Speed, resulted in their most commercial success. It reached No. 2 on the U.S. charts and songs like “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut” are still considered classics.
Setzer would go on to lead a revival of big-band swing music. The Dirty Boogie was another big hit for him and this infectious album netted him two Grammys.
For this lesson, let’s check out two examples of what Setzer might play over a simple blues progression.
Ex. 1 opens up with a repeating palm-muted riff (which is brought to life with a little slapback echo) and some chord stabs outlining a G13. Over the IV chord in the fourth measure, notice the Em7b5 chord: This is a very common substitution because Em7b5/C can function as a C9. (In fact, whenever I play this min7b5 shape I always see it as a rootless dominant 9.)
This is answered by another C9 voicing that we embellish in a typical Setzer fashion with dips on the whammy bar. (It’s worth noting that if you really want to sound like Setzer, then a Bigsby is the only real answer. But we work with what we have, right?) After returning to the original riff, we shift to a basic Travis-picking phrase over the D7 chord before arpeggiating a C9 chord with a little wobble on the arm.
For the ending, we have a I-VI-II-V-I progression with some jazzy extensions, specifically G13-E7#9-A7-D7sus4-G. Why does this work so well? Each chord shares a common melody note—G. We end on a typical Setzer chord too, a great sounding G6/9.
In Ex. 2 we’re upping the difficulty with a Travis picking idea. (For more info on this technique, check out Tom Monda’s superb column on the subject here). The secret is to get the alternating bass note movement committed to memory so you no longer need to think about it and can focus instead on the melodic syncopation.
Take this one super slowly and commit it to muscle memory, because playing this one up to speed will require your thoughts to be in other places ... like what chord is coming up next or even singing. (Don’t get me started on how Setzer pulls that off!) Also consider adding little bluesy bends to the Bb and F notes that are fretted with the fourth finger. It’s not easy, but it sounds great if you can manage it.
Once you’ve got the pattern down for the G7, it should take just a little adjustment to apply the picking scheme to the C9 chord and then again to the D9. It’s really just a case of first nailing the technique. Once you “get it,” you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can apply the pattern to any chord progression you come across.
The ending has the same basic idea as in the last example, but I’ve changed the chords for variety: This time we play G13-E7b13#9-Am9-D9-G. The idea is to create a descending melody (D-C-B-A-G) on top of the chords, which brings a sense of logic to harmony that could be considered a little jazzy.
Lastly, we’ve got a backing track for you to practice this over, so get rocking!
Looking for more great gear for the guitar player in your life (yourself included!)? Check out this year's Holiday Gear Finds!
D'Addario XPND Pedalboard
DR-05X Stereo Handheld Recorder
Wampler Pedals Ratsbane
Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
LegendaryTones, LLC today announced production availability of its new Mr. Scary Mod, a 100% pure tube module designed to instantly and easily expand the capabilities of many classic amplifiers with additional gain and tone shaping. Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
Originally released as the Lynch Mod in February 2021, the updated Mr. Scary Mod features the same core circuit as the Lynch Mod but is now equipped with a revised tube mix combo per George’s preference as well as a facelift in a newly redesigned electro-galvanized steel enclosure. As with the Lynch Mod, each run will be limited and the first run in Pumpkin Orange with Black hardware is limited to just 150 pieces worldwide.
The Mr. Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage on top of the cathode follower position, keeping note definition and articulation while further increasing sustain. Each Mr. Scary mod is meticulously built by hand in the USA, one at a time, and tuned using high-grade components. Equipped with a single ECC81 (12AT7) in the first position and ECC83 (12AX7) in the second, the Mr. Scary Mod can clean up beautifully when rolling down your guitar’s volume, and still adds scorching gain when you roll it back up. This is a gain stage that’s been tuned and approved by the ears of the maestro George Lynch himself.
“The Mr. Scary Mod excels with dynamics and is incredibly touch-responsive, allowing me to shift from playing clear, lightly compressed cleans to full-out aggressive sustain and distortion –and control it all simply by varying my guitar’s volume control and picking,” said GeorgeLynch. “In many ways, it’s an old-school approach, but it’s also so much more natural and expressive in addition to being musically fulfilling when you can play both the guitar and amp dynamically together this way.”
The Mr. Scary Mod installs in minutes, is safe and effective to use, and requires no special tools or re-biasing of the amplifier. Simply insert the module into the cathode follower preamp position of compatible amplifiers (includes Marshall 2203/2204/1959/1987 circuits) and
immediately get the benefit of enjoying a hot-rodded amp that delivers all the pure harmonic character that comes with an added pure tube gain stage. The handmade in the USA Mr. Scary Mod is now available to order for $319.
For more information, please visit legendarytones.com.
October Audio has miniaturized their NVMBR Gain pedal to create two mini versions of this beautifully organic-sounding circuit – including an always-on gain device.
The NVMBR Gain is a nonlinear amp that transitions gracefully from clean boost to overdriven tones. Volume increases from just over unity to about 10db before soft-clipping drive appears for another 5db of boost. Its extraordinary ease of use is matched by outstanding versatility: you can use it as a clean boost, push a stubborn amp into overdrive or create a just-breaking-up sound at any amp volume.
October Audio’s new family of mini NVMBR Gain pedals includes a switchable version that allows you to bypass the effect: one option features brand logo pedal graphics, while the other sports a fun “Witch Finger” graphic with a Davies knob as the“fingernail”.
The second version in the new lineup is an always-on device featuring the Witch Finger graphic and Davies knob, with the same NVMBR Gain circuit that lies at the core of the switchable version.
- Knob controls gain and clipping simultaneously
- Stunning silver hammertone finish
- Switchable versions are true-bypass, available with classic or witch finger graphics
- Authentic Davies knobs, including the “fingernail”
- 9V center negative power supply required
- Dimensions: 3.63 x 1.50 x 1.88 in
Witch Finger (always on NVMBR Gain) demo
All October Audio pedals are assembled in Richmond, VA, and available for purchase directly through the online shop. Street price is $109 for NVMBR Gain footswitch versions and $89 for the always-on device.
For more information, please visit octoberaudio.com.