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How To Play Fifties Music

Updated on July 26, 2017
Elvis Presley, one of the most iconic rock stars of the 1950s.
Elvis Presley, one of the most iconic rock stars of the 1950s.

The 1950s were one of the most revolutionary decades in many ways, including music. This decade saw the birth of rock and roll and forever changed music. You can learn how to recreate the sound of the fifties; in this article, learn how to play fifties music styles, including rock, rockabilly, rhythm and blues, country and doo wop.


There are two chord progressions that are particularly associated with the fifties: twelve bar blues and the 50s chord progressions (also known as the doo wop progression). Twelve bar blues, or at least the variation most common in the fifties, follows the sequence of I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I. Some version of the progression can be heard in tracks such as “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets, “Tutti Fruiti” by Little Richard, “Be-Bop-A-Lula” by Gene Vincent, “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash, “Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis Presley, “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry, “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly, “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis, “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” by Big Joe Turner, “What'd I Say” by Ray Charles, and “Evil” by Howlin' Wolf.

The fifties chord progression is usually either I-vi-IV-V of I-iv-ii-V, but other variations exist. These changes are probably most associated with doo wop, but can be found in pretty much every genre. Examples include “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, “Everyday” by Buddy Holly, “Donna” by Richie Valens, “Lollipop” by the Chordettes, “Stand By Me” by Ben King, “Sh-Boom” by the Crew Cuts, “Poor Little Fool” by Ricky Nelson, “Sleep Walk” by Santo and Johnny, and “All I Have to Do is Dream” by the Everly Brothers.

Dominant seventh chords were more common in the 50s. The twelve bar blues progression was often played with the IV and V chords as dominant sevenths. The doo wop progression sometimes had V as a dominant seventh. Particularly associated with the 50s is the use of the tonic dominant seventh chord, which is rarely heard in songs written after the early sixties (except in songs meant to sound retro). Songs making use of the dominant seventh include "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets, "Back in the U.S.A." by Chuck Berry, "Lucille" by Little Richard and "Fannie Mae" by Buster Brown,


It is often said that Gretsch guitars are best for a fifties guitar tone. There is some truth to this: a Gretsch 6120 was used by Eddie Cochran, Duane Eddy and Chet Atkins, and a Gretsch Duo Jet was used by Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Gene Vincent guitarist Cliff Gallup. However, Elvis guitarist Scotty Moore played a Gibson ES-295, Buddy Holly played a Fender Stratocaster and James Burton played a Telecaster, and they all have a fifties sound. The conclusion is that pretty much any guitar can be made to sound fifties if it is played properly. That being said, hollow-body guitars were far more popular in the 50s than solid-body guitars so you should opt for a hollow body model if possible.

While solid-state amplifiers are the most commonly used type of amp today, valve amplifiers were used in the music of the 50s. You should really use a vacuum tube amp if you want a 50s tone. If you do have a solid state amplifier, you can get a pedal such as the Ibanez Tube Screamer to try to replicate a tube sound, but there is no alternative for the real thing.

A semi-acoustic guitar played through a tube amp is a good foundation for a fifties tone, but there are ways to enhance your sound. One of the signature aspects of rockabilly guitar is the “slap back echo” developed at Sun Studio. This is a short echo effect, and it should repeat only once, immediately after you play the note. In the fifties this effect was created by connecting a pair of tape recorders, but it can be achieved with most any tape echo (or digital delay or analog delay pedal, but a tape echo would be preferable). Just set the delay time somewhere between 50-120 milliseconds; there is no "correct" setting, so adjust to your preference. This will definitely make anything you play sound a lot more 50s.

If you want your tone to sound less rockabilly, you can use create a distortion effect on a valve amplifier. You can do this by excessively increasing the gain on your amp, or you can damage your speaker for a more extreme effect; Link Wray sometimes used a pencil to poke holes in his speaker to get a uniquely distorted tone. Ideally, you shouldn't use distortion pedals; these will give you more control over the effect and more options, but probably won't sound very fifties.

50s guitar solos were often in either the minor pentatonic scale or the blues scale. the minor pentatonic scale consists of the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 7th of the minor scale (for example, an A minor pentatonic scale is A, C, D, E and G) and the blues scale adds a flatted fifth to the minor pentatonic scale. When playing chords, let the guitar ring rather than apply a “muting” effect. In many songs of the fifties a chord was strummed on the first beat of the bar and allowed to ring for the remainder of the measure.

The “Bo Diddley Beat” is another way to make your guitar playing sound more 50s. It is a 4/4 pattern consisting of a dotted eight note, a sixteenth note tied to an eighth note, then an eighth note, then an eighth rest, then two eighth notes, then an eighth rest. Bo Diddley used it in songs such as “Bo Diddley,” “Mona,” and “Who Do You Love.” It was also used by Buddy Holly in “Not Fade Away” and by Johnny Otis on “Willie and the Hand Jive.” This rhythm will add a fifties vibe to your music.

It is very important not to overuse effects; effects like flanging and phasing existed, but had to be done with reel-to-reel tape decks and were difficult to create. These effects were rarely used except by experimental musicians such as Les Paul. Most fifties guitarists preferred a simpler and more minimal approach.


One way to make your music sound more fifties is to use an acoustic upright bass, as electric bass didn't become popular until the sixties. One notable technique is the slap bass style associated primarily with rockabilly. This involves plucking the string and letting it slap the fingerboard, resulting in a more percussive sound. Also, slapping the strings with the right hand is another technique. Overall, there should be a percussive element to your bass playing to make it sound like rockabilly. A great example is Elvis Presley's cover of “That's All Right, Mama;” because of the percussive quality of the bass, the track didn't even need drums.

Also, walking bass lines were used in many musical styles of the 50s. Fifties bass lines were usually pretty steady, so you shouldn't play anything too syncopated.


Drum kits were often small in the fifties, sometimes consisting only of a kick drum, a snare, and cymbals. A lot of fifties beats featured the standard bass drum on beats 1 and 3, and a snare of the back beat, which was accented. Rim shots also seemed to be used more in the 50s, often playing a shuffle pattern. Generally, drumming was simple and energetic.

Some fifties songs didn't even have drums, which is virtually unheard of in modern pop and rock music. Besides the aforementioned Elvis cover of “That's All Right,” other fifties tracks without drums include “Everyday” by Buddy Holly (in which the drummer kept time by slapping his leg in lieu of traditional percussion), and “Havana Moon” by Chuck Berry.

Jerry Lee Lewis playing piano
Jerry Lee Lewis playing piano


Fifties rock and roll piano, as played by the likes of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, often consisted of playing eighth notes at a fast tempo. The right hand mostly played chords in a high register, and the left hand played a bass riff. This style was largely influenced by boogie woogie piano, except it was usually played in straight eighths instead of triplets.

One important thing to remember is that you don't need authentic vintage gear to get a good fifties tone. Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats used a 1958 Grestch 6120, a Fender Bassman amp, and a Roland RE 301 Space Echo to achieve an excellent rockabilly tone. Except for the guitar, this equipment didn't even exist in the 50s.

The fifties may be long over, but using these tips, you can play music that sounds as though it is from the fifties.

Learn about 60s music:

Learn about 80s music:

Learn about 90s music:


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