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Rhythm Rules: Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly Antics

Grab your Gretsch and dig into the stylings of a modern rockabilly master.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• 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.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

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.

Click here for Ex. 1

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.

Click here for Ex. 2

Lastly, we’ve got a backing track for you to practice this over, so get rocking!