How To Know If Formula Is Not Right For Baby 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, the different flavors of popular music have been on top stylistically. There are big differences between Sinatra and Hank Williams! But in other ways—structurally speaking—it’s surprising how closely different pop styles follow similar structural patterns. In this respect, rockabilly music has much in common with many different genres of popular music.

Growing out of a combination of country, blues, gospel, and rhythm and blues music from the early part of the last century, it should come as no surprise that rockabilly music has a lot in common with all of these genres. Specifically, rockabilly songs usually follow the familiar 12-bar blues pattern, which forms the basis of millions of songs written and recorded not only in the blues style, but also in country, rock and roll, folk music, and many others.

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

Well, you certainly don’t need to understand the 12-bar blues pattern to enjoy rockabilly music, but if you want to know how it works, here’s a dirty basic rundown!

A pattern is simply a structure that a songwriter uses to create a song that makes sense to the ear of a Western listener. There is no law that says a songwriter must stick to the structure, but you can’t go too wrong with it. The structure immediately makes the listener feel familiar and comfortable with where the story is going. A composer usually applies this structure to the verses of a song, and – unsurprisingly given the structure’s name – it is 12 bars, or measures of music, long. The end of these 12 bars conveniently leads into the next part of the song, whether it’s another 12-bar verse pattern or a variation used as a chorus, solo, or bridge.

Take the classic Carl Perkins song “Blue Suede Shoes” for example. The song sticks to a 12-bar blues structure and may be the best rockabilly song ever written. Consider the first verse of the song, where Perkins helps us count the measures, giving us the famous “Well, it’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go cat.”

The lyrics “one”, “two” and “three” fall on the first, second and third bars of the verse. Add “go cat go” and you’ve already gone through four patterns out of 12 bars. Perkins basically uses the same musical chord for these first four bars. This chord can specifically be an E or an A or some other chord depending on the key the song is played in, but is generally referred to as the “one” chord. This chord choice is related to the 12-bar blues, as the very common chord pattern (one, four, one, five, one) usually works hand-in-hand with the 12-bar pattern. That’s another discussion for another day and starts to dive deeper into music theory than most fans want!

After these first four bars, the song switches to what are known as four chords, and the melody of the song changes accordingly. The song stays four chords for two bars. In our example, Perkins sings, “Don’t step on my blue chamois now,” and we’re six bars in—halfway through the pattern. The word “shoes” starts the pattern back on the seventh bar on the “one” chord, and Perkins fills out the rest of bars seven and eight with some nifty guitar riffs.

Over the ninth and tenth bars, Perkins sings “do anything but put down my blue suede shoes” over the so-called “five” chord. He ends the pattern back on one chord with his great guitar lick again, and then the whole pattern repeats as he launches into the second verse, “Well, you can knock me down…”.

“Blue Suede Shoes” is a great example of the 12-bar blues pattern of rockabilly music. It’s actually somewhat unusual because the song doesn’t have a separate chorus section. Instead, Perkins builds the verse he uses as the chorus directly into the eight bars of the verse, so the two actually share the same 12-bar pattern, rather than using distinctly different patterns for each.

“Blue Suede Shoes” is simply a great example of the 12-bar blues pattern used in rockabilly and other popular forms of music. Things get even more interesting when songwriters start playing with and experimenting with the standard pattern. There are no hard and fast rules about how many bars a song or its individual sections should have. For example, Gene Vincent’s brilliant “Be Bop a Lula” uses a standard 12-bar blues pattern for the chorus (with Gene singing, “Be Bop a Lula she’s my baby. Be Bop a Lula I don’t mean Maybe.” and so on.) But his verse parts use an unusual eight-bar pattern, and it all works beautifully.

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

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