10 Ways to Play Like Chuck Berry

February 1, 2014
  •  PHOTO: Epsilon | Getty Images

    Historians tend to place Elvis Presley at the epicenter of rock and roll’s big bang, but we guitarists know better. For us, Chuck Berry had the whole package: great looks, songs, lyrics, voice, and stage presence, plus an innovative guitar style destined to become the most aped on the planet. And he was up and running a full year before Elvis hit the big time. Berry’s Chess recordings, many of which were cut with Willie Dixon on bass and Johnnie Johnson on piano, are generally regarded as his best work, especially those cut between 1955 and 1966, but it was the early stuff that caught the ears of up-and-comers like the Beatles (who covered five Berry titles), the Rolling Stones (who recorded a whopping 13 Berry tunes), the Beach Boys (who “rewrote” several C.B. songs), and the Yardbirds, whose guitarist at the time, Jeff Beck, morphed Berry’s “Guitar Boogie” into his own signature “Jeff’s Boogie,” all of whom exposed Berry’s music to a whole new audience.

    Essential listening includes Berry’s entire Chess catalog, including After School Session (released in 1957),One Dozen Berrys (1958), Chuck Berry Is on Top (1959), plus another dozen titles, all of which are partially represented on 1988’s excellent three-disc The Chess Box. Essential viewing includes, of course, 1986’sHail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, which documents Berry’s 60th birthday concert, and features guest appearances by Keith Richards (who organized the show), Eric Clapton, Etta James, Robert Cray, Julian Lennon (whose dad once proclaimed that if rock and roll had to be renamed, it’d be called Chuck Berry), and Linda Ronstadt. Still rocking at 85 (!), Berry continues to tour internationally, and still makes his monthly appearances at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room in his hometown of St. Louis.

    Never has so much been done with so little. You may consider Berry’s guitar style simplistic, but can you really play it? If you can quote the correct intros to “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Carol,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Little Queenie,” then you’ve certainly got a good handle on the true Chuck Berry style, but if you can’t, there’s no time like the present to investigate the real deal. But first, you’ve gotta...

    Chuck Berry’s most iconic guitar would have to be his 1957-ish Gibson ES-350T, which sported the company’s then-new P.A.F. humbuckers and was used to cut most of his Chess recordings (though Berry was also photographed with an earlier P-90 model, which was introduced in 1955). Next would be the various ES-335’s and ES-355’s he later became associated with. In between, Berry played a black Les Paul Custom and, in the ’80s, a Gibson Lucille signature model. Strings are anybody’s guess, though Berry’s bending accuracy points to the early use of an unwound G. Since his ’70s comeback, Berry has managed his own career, and his concert rider has included the following provisions: “Three professional AF of M musicians, capable and familiar with Chuck Berry’s music, to serve as a backup group which must consist of only a ‘show’ drummer with drums, a pianist and a grand piano, an electric bass guitarist with a bass guitar, and two unaltered Fender Dual Showman Reverb amplifier sets.” Now that’s rock and roll.
    Let’s begin with one of the rollicking rhythm figures that started it all. Surely, these root-5 and root-6 moves had been documented by other artists from Arthur Crudup and Bill Dogett to Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker long before the classic Chess recordings that put Berry on the map, but Berry brought something completely new and different to the party: Instead of punctuating every downbeat, he placed heavy accents only on the second and fourth beats of each measure in tandem with the snare drum backbeat, as shown in the Bb-based, straight-eighth I-, IV-, and V-chord figures in Ex. 1a. (Berry has always had a penchant for piano and horn keys like Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, etc.) String these together to form a basic 12-bar blues/rock-and-roll progression—Bb (4x), Eb (2x), Bb (2x),F (2x), and Eb (2x)—and then compare Berry’s subtle, yet extremely effective “got a backbeat, you can’t lose it” accents to the traditional four-on-the-floor method. Pretty cool, eh? Couple this straight-eighth guitar figure with the swing-eighth drum part illustrated in Ex. 1b, noting how the drum figure switches to straight eighth notes at the end of bar 4, and you’ve got one key to the kingdom of Berry that’ll come in mighty handy when it comes to accurately recreating the rhythm figures to such Berry classics as “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Carol,” “Little Queenie,” and, of course, “Johnny B. Goode.” Now, marry the alternate very- Berry rhythm figure shown in Ex. 1c to Ex. 1b, apply it to the IV and V chords from Ex. 1a to form a complete 12-bar progression, and you’ll be reelin’ and rockin’ in no time.
    From the get-go, almost anyone could immediately recognize a Chuck Berry song after hearing only a few notes of its instrumental intro. Case in point: Berry’s first hit, 1955’s “Maybelline” (an adaptation of the country song “Ida Red” in Bb), commences with a three-note, 5-6-root pickup into some honkin’ fourth intervals played on the second and third strings as paraphrased in Ex. 2a. (Tip: Leave out the fourth interval hit on beat two for total syncopated authenticity.) In Ex. 2b, Berry’s I-chord rhythm figure takes on a “boomchick” bass-chord pattern common to country music, and also features accented backbeats. Barring across the high-E string adds random dashes of Bb6 for extra flavor. Beginning with the same pickup from Ex. 2a played one octave higher (not notated— you figure it out), Ex. 2c features a pair of F-based third intervals that outline the V chord in this V-I intro à la “30 Days.” We’ll be seeing more of these shortly.
    Berry was incorporating the syncopated rhythms he’d heard during the ’40s and ’50s in the music of Louis Jordan, Illinois Jacquet, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, and others into his unison string-bending technique as early as 1955. The next four examples show how much can be done with just one note—F, in this case—and a swinging sense of rhythm. All of these—which work over the I, IV, or V chord—feature alternating bent and unbent unison F’s played on the third and second strings respectively, and may be ridden through an entire 12-bar progression (or three!). Take your time and work through the subtle variations in each one, beginning with Ex. 3a, which begins on beat one, and Ex. 3b, which starts an eighthnote later.Ex. 3c starts off like Ex. 3a, but displaces its third beat to the and of beat two, whileEx. 3d features the same rhythm displaced to beat two. It may seem simple, but this is incredibly powerful stuff when you learn to feel it. Finally, Ex. 3e, a harbinger of things to come, reveals our first taste of Berry’s stinging, signature double stops— one finger used to play two notes on different strings—which are applied here to a riff that could easily be expanded into a full horn section figure. Try using it to break out of any of the previous syncopated figures.
    Harmonic third intervals are also prominent throughout the Berry catalog. In addition to enticing the Beach Boys to copy it note-for-note on “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” the intro to “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man,” approximated in Ex 4a, presaged the intros to some of Berry’s most popular songs, but with third intervals instead of fourths (as we’ll soon see). Those raked strings and fast-moving thirds are trickier than they look, which may have influenced Berry to simplify future intros. Ex. 4b presents sliding third intervals of the kind found in the intro to Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” (Check out the chromatic movement at the end.) Play it as is, or follow it up with Ex. 4c’s V-I moves, which wouldn’t sound out of place underscoring the “if you wanna dance with me” lyric in “Rock and Roll Music.”
    Chuck Berry was one of the first artists to incorporate the Latin clave rhythm into rock and roll. Bo Diddley famously latched on to the entire two-bar traditional “shave-and-a-haircut—two bits” rhythm figure, but Berry most often utilized only the first half, which groups the eighth-notes in a 3+3+2 configuration. Ex. 5aenlists our previous unison bends to illustrate and Ex. 5b, which is grafted to the same rhythm, reveals one of Berry’s most important contributions to the rock guitar pantheon: double-stopped fourth (or inverted fifth) intervals played on the first and second strings to pound home the root and 5 of the key center— essentially rock’s first powerchord! While T-Bone Walker tended to play all three notes separately as an eighth-note triplet (5-5- root), Berry was arguably the first to discover the stinging tone this primal power chord could elicit. Ex. 5c blends in oblique unison bends on the clave accents, while Ex. 5d replaces these with sweet-and-sour double-stopped half-step bends on the second and third strings. Keef, Eric, Jimi, and Jeff were certainly listening!

    “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956) was the first Chuck Berry song to fuse an extended version of the rhythmic motif from “Brown- Eyed Handsome Man” with those aforementioned razor-edged fourths/inverted fifths, and the resultant instru-intro was nothing less than historic. Ex. 6a lays out Berry’s fourbar intro in Eb, played over rhythm section hits on the downbeats of bars 1 and 3. We begin by sliding into eleventh position via a 3-5-6 pickup, and then proceed to nail that beautiful 5-root double-stop for a full bar of curiously unaccented eighth-notes. Next, in bar 2, we add half-step grace-note slides to a descending Eb pentatonic riff, with single notes on the first two downbeats and double-stops on the third, and cap it with a b3-3-root run that takes us into bar 3’s half-clave accented repetition of bar 1 played an octave lower, followed by bar 4’s transposition of Ex. 5a to the key of Eb. Example’s 6b and 6c illustrate the type of IV-chord riffage Berry would typically play over bars 5 and 6 of the song’s 12-bar progression, but both of these work great over any chord in the progression.
    Berry knew when he had a winner on his hands, and “Carol” and “Little Queenie” soon followed in the fretsteps of “Beethoven.” Many players consider these intros interchangeable, but true Berry-pickers know that each one is unique unto itself. “Carol” is in C, and kicks off with a 3-5-6 pickup identical to “Beethoven,” but Berry’s ensuing stream of inverted fifths is cut short by a repeat of the pickup embellished with a b3-to-3 hammer-on. Bar 2 is identical except for one thing—Berry includes an Eb voiced on the G string below the first five inverted fifths, effectively outlining F9, the IV chord. Bar 3 features half-clave accents applied to a full measure of upper-register C5 power chords, while bar 4 uses one for a target, and then drops a slinky half-step double-stopped bend that pulsates with the eighth-note rhythm beginning on the and of beat one. Reminiscent of “Little Queenie,” Ex. 7b begins sans pickup with a slide into the first of five inverted fifths, followed by a partial F-based double-stop, hammered b3-to-3 double-stop, and final fourth-string root. To approximate the song’s four-bar intro, repeat Ex. 7b twice—once over a I-chord break (C), and again over a IV-chord break (F9)—and then repeat the riff from the last two beats on the first two beats of bar 3 before launching the unique, octave-jumping fourths and b5 bend shown in Ex.7c. It should also be noted that Berry mixed and matched many of these intros mid-song as four-bar, pre-solo breakdowns.
    Plenty of Berry tunes featured call-and-response vocal and double-stopped guitar phrases embedded in the body of the verse a la “School Day” (a.k.a. “School Days”) and “No Particular Place to Go.” For starters, the augmented V-chord triplets that introduced the former, approximated in Ex. 8a’s two-bar pickup, were downright startling for the day. And the way Berry placed his main vocal phrases as pickups, and then answered them with razor-sharp, double-stopped guitar fills in bars 1, 3, 5, 7, etc., was another sly way of putting his ax in the spotlight. Insert the song’s opening lyric (C’mon, you know it!) into bar 2 of Ex. 8a, then play Ex. 8b as bar 1 of the 12-bar progression in G (a particularly ring-y key for those lovely inverted fifths). You can hear where Keef got some of his swagger in the bent-and held, half-step bends illustrated in Ex. 8c (perfect for bar 5’s IV chord), while Ex. 8d, which matches up nicely with bar 7, found its way early on into Eric Clapton’s musical vocabulary and stayed there. (Tip: Check out E.C.’s “Hideaway” with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, and Cream’s “Crossroads.”) Hail, hail rock and roll, indeed!
    Or like ringin’ a bell, if you prefer. However you slice it, “Johnny B. Goode” (1958) stands as America’s national 12-bar, rock and roll anthem. (Fact: Chuck Berry lived on Goode Ave in St. Louis.) The song has been covered by hundreds of recording artists, let alone every bar and wedding band from here to kingdom come—heck, it’s even floating around somewhere in space! (If any extraterrestrials ever happen to stumble upon that Voyager capsule, I honestly hope “Johnny B. Goode” is the first disc they spin!) Here’s how to play it right: We’re back in Bb for the four-bar intro transcribed in Ex. 9a. Note how Berry adds a b3-to-3 grace-note hammer-on to the 3-5-6 pickup, creating a third variation of the original “Beethoven” lick. Bar 1 features half-clave- accented, half-step, grace-note slides into our beloved Bb5inverted fifths, which segue directly to Berry’s signature, descending 5-plus-root-to-b7-6-5-b3-3-root motif in bar 2. As in “Beethoven,” bar 3 repeats bar 1 an octave lower with clave accents, but without slides. The figure in bar 4, which Berry once described as pure Carl Hogan (guitarist with Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five), features a combination of Bb-pentatonic-major-based single notes and third and fourth intervals built from a common-tone D, and has since become a standard rock phrase. (Tip: Hit the ensuing IV-I chords with Ex. 3c.) The song’s chorus follows the same strategy as “School Day,” as Berry injects the simple but effective licks shown in Examples 9b and 9c into all odd-numbered bars, the same spots where cover artists from J. Hendrix to J. Winter tended to go bonkers.
    To paraphrase Garrett Morris’ character Chico Escuela, “Chuck Berry been berry, berry good to all of us.” Thanks, Mr. B! We owe you ... big time!!
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