How Much Formula Is Too Much For A Newborn Rockabilly Music Followed a Simple Formula to Create a Revolution – And Also Broke The Rules!

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Rockabilly Music Followed a Simple Formula to Create a Revolution – And Also Broke The Rules!

In some ways, different flavors of popular music are across the board stylistically. There is a big difference between Sinatra and Hank Williams! But in some ways — structurally speaking — it’s surprising how different pop styles follow similar patterns. In this way, rockabilly music shares similarities with many other genres of popular music.

Growing up out of a combination of country, blues, gospel, and rhythm and blues music in the early half of the last century, it should not be surprising that rockabilly music shares a lot with one of those genres. In particular, rockabilly songs follow the standard 12-bar blues pattern that forms the basis of millions of songs written and recorded not only in the blues style, but also country, rock and roll, folk music, and many others.

So, what exactly is the “12-bar blues” pattern? For musicians playing in any of the styles I’ve mentioned here, the pattern is second nature. Musicians who don’t pay much attention to music theory may not even realize they’re playing a pattern — it just appears in so many songs that it’s ingrained in them. But many non-musicians have probably heard the term and wondered what it’s all about. And for rockabilly fans, why should you care?

Well, you certainly don’t have to understand the 12-bar blues pattern to enjoy rockabilly music, but if you’re curious about how it works, here’s a basic low-and-dirty overview!

A pattern is simply a structure that a songwriter uses to make a song meaningful to the ear of a western listener. There is no law that says a songwriter must you are attached to the structure, but one cannot go too far wrong with it. The structure brings immediate information to the listener and makes them feel at ease where the song is going. The composer uses this structure commonly in the verses of a song and — not surprisingly, the name of the structure — is 12 bars, or musical measures, long. The end of those 12 bars leads freely into the next section of the song which is either another 12 bar pattern or a variation used as a chorus, solo, or bridge section.

Let’s take Carl Perkins’ classic “Blue Suede Shoes” as our example. The song adheres to the 12-bar blues structure and may be the greatest rockabilly song ever written. Think of the first verse of the song where Perkins helps us count the steps by giving us the famous “Yeah, one for the money, two for the show, three ready, now go cat go.”

The words “one,” “two,” and “three” fall on the first beat of the first, second, and third measures of the verse. Add in “go cat go” and you’ve made four bars out of 12 in the pattern. Perkins uses the same musical chord in the first four steps. That chord can be an E or an A or any other chord depending on the key in which the song is played, but it is usually known as the “one” chord. The choice of that chord is related to the 12-bar blues in a regular break pattern (one, four, one, five, one) that works hand in hand with the 12 bar pattern. That’s another discussion for another day and it starts to dive deeper into music theory than most fans want to find!

After those first four bars, the song transitions to what is known as a “four” chord and the melody changes accordingly. The song lives on four chords in two bars. In our example, Perkins sings, “Now don’t tread on my blue suede” and we have six bars — halfway through the pattern. The word “shoes” kicks off the seventh bar of the pattern after the “one” chord and Perkins fills in another seventh bar and eighth bar with a nifty guitar riff.

Over bars nine and ten, Perkins sings “do anything, but take off my blue suede shoes” over what is known as the “five” chord. He finishes the pattern back on the same chord with his big guitar lick again and the whole pattern repeats again starting “Well you can knock me down…” in the second verse.

“Blue Suede Shoes” is a brilliant example of a 12-bar blues pattern in rockabilly music. It’s really unusual because the song doesn’t have a separate chorus section. Instead, Perkins builds what serves as his chorus directly into the last eight bars of the verse so that the two share a 12-bar pattern instead of using different patterns for each verse.

“Blue Suede Shoes” is a good example of a 12-bar blues pattern used in rockabilly and other forms of popular music. Things get more interesting when songwriters start playing around and experimenting with a common pattern. There are no set rules about how many bars a song or its different sections should have. For example, Gene Vincent’s brilliant “Be Bop a Lula” uses a typical 12-bar blues pattern for the chorus (where Gene sings, “Be Bop a Lula you’re my baby. Be Bop a Lula I don’t mean maybe.” and so on etc.) But his verse sections use an odd eight-bar pattern and they all work well.

If you think of the 12-bar blues as a rule pattern, then songs like “Blue Suede Shoes” show that the rules make great rockabilly music. And songs like “Be Bop a Lula” prove that, in rockabilly, rules are made to be broken!

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