Rabih Abou-Khalil grew up in Beirut and moved to Munich, Germany during the civil war in 1978. He lives part-time in Munich and part-time in the South of France with his wife.
From early on, he learned to play the oud, a fretless string instrument, similar to the European lute. He studied in the Beirut conservatory from oud virtuoso Georges Farah. After moving to Germany, he studied classical flute at the Academy of Music in Munich under Walther Theurer.He has often blended traditional Arab music with jazz, rock and classical music, and has earned praise such as "a world musician years before the phrase became a label—makes the hot, staccato Middle Eastern flavour and the seamless grooves of jazz mingle as if they were always meant to." Together with Anouar Brahem he has helped highlight the oud as a vehicle of eclectic "world jazz". Abou-Khalil's oud playing style has often been likened to jazz guitar: "Abou-Khalil spins more oud notes in 10 seconds than most jazz guitarists do in their short commercial lifespans".Abou-Khalil's music uses elements from Arab music traditions, together with many jazz, rock and classical references, particularly to the school of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, which itself broke ground in terms of introducing new global influences. Other influences include Frank Zappa, Bela Bartok, and such unexpected musicians as the Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener from Trinidad. Jazz elements are present in most of his recorded work, for instance in the use of the acoustic pizzicato bass, generally played by recognized jazz musicians like Steve Swallow and Glen Moore. At the Beijing Jazz Festival of 2003 he performed to great acclaim accompanied by tuba and clarinet as well as the percussion he has always favoured.