Every guitar player needs to go through a Chuck Berry phase.
Every. Single. One.
Like a million other boys that grew up in 1985, I watched Marty McFly rock out a high school prom with a classic cherry red Gibson ES-345 in “Back To The Future.” It’s one of those moments that impressed the hell out of me – and, no doubt, the entire world. Knocking the amp over, duck walking, playing on his knees – to a five or six year old kid, that was magic. The first time I performed on stage was at a family wedding in 1986 – the song was “Johnny B Goode.” I tried to knock over the amp. I was sent to my room not long after.
Maturing over the next few years, I learned where all of these “things” I loved came from: the duck walk, the showmanship, and (most importantly)…the song. The music of Chuck Berry came to me a .45 record single of “Johnny B Goode” backed with “You Never Can Tell” – one of the all-time great singles of rock and roll music. As a budding guitar player, this music was accessible – unlike so many songs I was hearing on the radio. The patterns all seemed familiar, the guitar playing was intense but clean and expressive, and (most of all) the LYRICS were inviting and made sense:
“They bought a souped-up jitney, ’twas a cherry red ’53,
They drove it down to Orleans to celebrate the anniversary.”
There’s no having to think about what that is. The story-telling was perfect. At the end of that .45 record, I felt like I was told a story about a kid named Johnny and a young married couple who started their life together. Very simple. Very relatable. Very clear. Oh — and you can dance to it.
I got the rest of the big Chuck Berry hits a few years later on a cassette tape that had it all. My favorite was “School Days” which rang through my head so, so many times during grade school. “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Too Much Monkey Business”, “Almost Grown”, “Reelin’ and Rockin’”, “No Particular Place To Go”, “Memphis, Tennessee”, “Sweet Little Sixteen”, “Sweet Little Rock ‘N’ Roller”, “Little Queenie”, “Carol”…. they don’t stop coming. These are the songs that I grew up listening to, every bit as much as Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee. Even before I really dug into the guitar as a teenager, Chuck Berry’s progressions were getting embedded into my brain at a very young age. The I—IV—I—V—I progression (note: NO 2nd IV CHORD) – this pattern that’s found in most of his songs made them all relatable. The story-telling lyrics separated all of those songs; there wasn’t a moment where you thought “this is the same exact song” – they sounded familiar – like a blues or country song would – but they lyrics brought each of those songs into a brand new story line.
When I got to be fourteen, I became a hard core blues fanatic. Freddie King, Muddy, Wolf, Robert Johnson, etc. One of my big heroes around that time was T-Bone Walker from Texas. Those jazzy double-bends and that full-court press pull offs were very reminiscent of a sound I had heard before when I was growing up. The duck walk – I found out that came from T-Bone too. It was one of those moments where you could look back through the years and see the progression of the music from Son House, to T-Bone, to Chuck Berry, to Hendrix, to Prince, and so on. Going so hard core into the blues at 14 years old, and being a guitar student at the same time, those years of hearing the music of Chuck Berry had me primed and ready to understand what was going on — the fundamentals of blues music were already stored in my brain from listening to Chuck Berry’s music. I really believe it’s that foundation that’s helped me as a guitarist and a musician for all of these years. The University of Chuck Berry was an absolute must for me – and I believe – for any guitar player.
It’s definitely easy for me to spot the guys who don’t seem to care about this foundation, or the progression of the music throughout the years. The dudes who seem to think music began in 1976 with KISS seem to be missing out on an entire school of musical thought. Many of them can play the classic rock ‘n’ roll Chuck Berry licks, but they never seem to make any sense of it. There’s a reason that so many incredible players from England, The USA, and more spawned from years at Chuck Berry “U” – to prove the point, how many legendary players site Berry as a major influence? It’s harder to find the list of guys who don’t.
With Chuck’s passing, I invite everyone to take the time and go back through his catalogue. The music is timeless and the songs speak well beyond their years. it gives me great satisfaction to know that there’s a record of Johnny B. Goode on the Voyager space probe, which is currently heading into open space away from our solar system, en route to “strange new worlds and new civilizations.” Whenever Voyager bumps into The Klingons, they should at least want to land their craft “way back up in the woods among the evergreens.”
Goodnight, Johnny B Goode!