Rockabilly, that stripped-down combo of hillbilly picking and pomaded '50s cool, is a deceptive genre. A hayseed simplicity seems to lie at the core of its best-known songs—like "Blue Suede Shoes," "Be Bop A Lula" or "Mystery Train"—but proper hep-cat stylings require much more sophistication than it might at first appear.
The genre is quite alive and well, thanks in no small part to its current biggest name, Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. But in researching the proper playing of the style, I got a surprise. One of the most highly praised contemporary practitioners of what's been dubbed "neo-rockabilly" is a guitar player I hadn't yet discovered. His name is Vince Gordon, and he's the leader of the Denmark-based band The Jime.
Gordon's playing on the band's latest CD, New Set of Rules, starts with a style that's solidly in the tradition of early Sun Studios rock and roll. From that very Memphis starting point, he creates a style that's got plenty of jazz in it, a little country, and even some blues. The effect is a dizzy swirl of confidently played, blistering runs broken up by tasty chords given old-school cool with the Bigsby tremolo bar that's nearly always present on rockabilly guitars. The Advocate recently interviewed Gordon about playing '50s-style.
It seems like many things get called "rockabilly"—what do you think is essential in making something qualify as rockabilly?
That's an easy one. Upright bass played with the characteristic slap, and slapback echo on the guitar and vocal. A very common Internet search for my Rockabilly Guitar Page website is "slapback echo settings." I take that as a sign that most people think that the slapjack echo is an essential part of the rockabilly sound. This is as far as the sound goes.
For the playing itself, it's usually swing as opposed to straight 4/4 rock. Even though some modern rockabilly bands are very good at playing rockabilly in 4/4 straight—which is one of the few improvements over the original rockabilly from the '50s.
How long have you been playing guitar?
I started playing boogie-woogie piano at around 13. I then switched to guitar at age 15 after hearing Stray Cats on television on a school trip to London. I realized that rockabilly was what I'd been looking for all along and that—to me—boogie-woogie was just rockabilly on piano anyway. I still play piano and use it on our records. A song called "Around The World" on the It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me CD is a good example of that.
Are you self-taught, or do you have more formal music training?
I'm self-taught, but I did have about four very basic lessons of an hour each along the way from a guy who played primarily bossa nova guitar. The lessons were not about the guitar style, but about chords and scales. I also passed the acceptance tests for the music conservatory along the way, and for that, I studied theory on my own. I really like to get into the theory of music. To me, there's so much inspiration to find there. I see all kind of links between things I want to try out. My mind works like that [to] constantly come up with new ideas. It's great fun, actually, to work like that. When I sit down with my guitar I never know what I'm going to hear an hour later.
I sometimes record a song very quickly after it's written. That way I only ever play it a few times, and when I listen to it on CD it's like hearing someone else do it, 'cause I certainly can't remember how it goes!
What drew you to the style?
This was at the time of synthesizers and all those artificial bands and sounds they had in the '80s. Today I'm very surprised to see that music has gotten even more artificial. I thought it had hit the bottom in the '80s, when I was young. Anyway, the whole sound of rockabilly drew me to it. The fact that they used classic jazz instruments appealed to me: acoustic bass, acoustic drums and hollowbody guitar with a little distortion—very nice indeed. To me, anyway. Still is.
Is there a lot of rockabilly in Europe?
I guess there is, but not much good rockabilly. Too many guys seem to think that getting drunk, acting and dressing up like Elvis will make up for learning how to play your instrument properly. It's really strange to me, seeing that some of the best musicians the world has ever seen were into rockabilly. Elvis, arguably the best singer. Danny Gatton—many think he was the best guitarist ever. Eddie Cochran, a dynamite guitarist. And composers, you have Buddy Holly, all of The Beatles, and so on. Brian Setzer is also known for a high level of musicianship, and so are Scotty Moore, James Burton, etc. Why people don't learn from them and become good musicians is beyond me.
Where in Denmark do you live and play?
I live in the countryside in a small village. The next major city is Horsens, with 80,000 citizens (I know that's not "major" after U.S. standards, but here in Denmark it is!). Because the country is so small, we can play anywhere in Denmark. We play mostly outside of Denmark, though. We used to play quite a lot in the Netherlands, and did a tour of Spain in 2003.
Do you find it difficult to write tunes in this style?
No, I don't find it difficult to write in any style. I told myself not to write any more songs, actually, because I already have about 250 rockabilly songs written down, and there's no way I'll ever get a chance to record all of them in my lifetime. Up till now, 49 of those songs have been released, and I'm 42. I sometimes look at the list to see if I can take any of the songs off—another way of "getting them done!"
Who are your favorite performers?
Oh, I'm very old-school. I don't know why we're called "neo" rockabilly. To me, we're just rockabilly. The original guys were experimenting a lot and making it up as they went along, just as we do. My all-time favorite is Carl Perkins—the King of Rockabilly. I had the good fortune to see him live in Copenhagen in 1986. The best concert I ever went to. I mean, Stray Cats are good musicians, and I've seen them and Brian Setzer six or seven times, but Carl was something else. He had that extra something. Just like Ray Charles, who I also saw live. All my favorites are from back then. I'm big on Johnny Cash and also Bill Halley, who had a "big band" rockabilly formula of his own. Of course also Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent.
There's a lot of jazz in your playing. What is it that makes all this jazz stuff work over rockabilly?
There's so much jazz in rockabilly lead guitar already! That's why all these jazz things work so well. There's a very popular generalization about rockabilly that says it's country and blues, but that's not the whole truth. While the song structure in rockabilly borrows a lot from the basic 12-bar blues format, there's almost no blues in rockabilly lead guitar playing. Some R&B, but almost no blues.
I think the real formula for rockabilly lead is approximately 40 percent jazz, 30 percent country (think finger picking) and 30 percent rhythm & blues (think Chuck Berry). The jazz stuff is really all over the place, in scales and chords.
Cliff Gallup of Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps and Scotty Moore of Elvis Presley and The Blue Moon Boys are two very good examples of rockabilly guitarists heavily influenced by jazz, and you can hardly find two guitarists who defined the genre more and came up with more "standard" rockabilly guitar riffs.
You can order CDs and eBooks and read more of Vince Gordon's thoughts on rockabilly at his website, http://www.the-jime.dk.