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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...
1. LOVE THE ONE YOU’RE WITH
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.
2. CREATE A NEW SENSATION
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.