It's always dangerous trying to make a case for such-and-such a musician being “the father of rock & roll” or similar- there's always some smart alec who will point out the trio of hitherto unknown musicians who really started the genre sometime back in the 12th century BC. That said, I think you'd have to work pretty hard to deny the undeniably great and now very sadly late Chuck Berry's influence on the development of rock & roll music.
My first exposure to Chuck was indirect, and I think a great many guitar players of... “a certain age” will join me in this – the 1985 classic “Back To The Future”, where Michael J Fox grabs a very fetching red Gibson ES 355 and invents rock & roll.
To my 12 year old self, his version of “Johnny B Goode” was far and away the greatest thing I'd ever heard and that red Gibson was the epitome of cool – I was hooked. Of course, it didn't even occur to me that it was a cover of a real song, I thought it was written specially for the film!The innocence of youth...
As a tribute to Chuck and the incredible legacy he leaves us with, this month's post will be a potted history of the great man and a brief overview of his playing style.
Born October 18th1926 in St Louis, Missouri to building contractor and Baptist church deacon Henry William Berry and public school principal Martha Bell – the fourth of six children – the young Charles Edward Berry began taking an interest in playing music during his early teenage years, taking inspiration from the blues legend T-Bone Walker in both guitar licks and showmanship (gifts which he would later pass on to one James Marshall Hendrix, but that's another story).
Chuck's school years at Sumner High School, St Louis, saw him develop a keen interest in music and give his first performance aged 15. In 1944 it also saw the first of several occasions when Chuck would fall foul of the law, robbing three Kansas City shops at gunpoint with a group of friends before stealing a car. He was convicted and sent to to the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, near Jefferson City, Missouri, but even there he was still able to continue his musical activities, forming a vocal group within the prison.
Chuck was released on his 21st birthday, and just over a year later married Themetta "Toddy" Suggs on October 28th 1948. During this period he worked a variety of jobs – janitor, car factory worker, even a spell training as beautician! By 1950 he was able to buy a "small three room brick cottage with a bath" on Whittier Street, which is now listed as the Chuck Berry House on the National Register of Historic Places, and on October 3rd of that year, the Themetta gave birth to Darlin Ingrid Berry.
After Darlin's birth, Chuck began looking for ways to use music to boost his income, and began working with a variety of local bands, including blues legend T-Bone Walker and took lessons from longtime friend Ira Harris. Both these artists would have a massive influence on Chuck's unmistakeable guitar style, and by 1953 Chuck had cemented a firm partnership with legendary blues pianist Johnnie Johnson which would go on to yield some of his biggest hits.Critical to their success as the combination of blues and R&B with country music, appealing to audiences across the racial divide.
Chuck is famous for two aspects of his playing – first, the classic 5th-6th boogie rhythm pattern, copied by innumerable artists (not least Status Quo), this relies on a steady straight 8th rhythm, using a standard root-5th powerchord voicing and stretching two frets over to get the 6th with the little finger on the downbeats of beats 2 and 4. Although not part of a normal triad chord, the 6th provides a sweetness and a sense of movement that helps drive a rhythm part along, and it's presence on the downbeats of 2 and 4 echo the "backbeat" idea with the snare drum.
This, in common with many of Chuck's guitar ideas, was copped from boogie piano players and adapted to fit the then still very new electric guitar. You'll see a heavy piano influence in much of Chuck's playing, for the simple reason that there were very few guitar players and very little recorded music (compared to today) to learn from. His genius here was adapting vocabulary from other instruments to fit the nascent electric guitar.
The second aspect is his dynamic, ballsy lead style that prioritised attitude and energy over technique. Chuck frequently professed admiration for T-Bone Walker and jazz legend Charlie Christian (amongst others), and you can see some elements of their playing in his jazzier single note lines, but his lead style was primarily focused on raw energy.
Much of Chuck's technique relied on two note "doublestop" ideas, often drawing inspration from the blues and stride pianists of the day – a perfect example is the iconic lick that kicks off the "Johnny B Goode" guitar break. This makes absolute sense for a number of reasons – pianists could capture the sheer high energy fury of a rock and roll tune far better than the guitar vocabulary of the day could (because at this point there was no such thing as a rock guitarist, just blues and jazz players). Also, the guitar amps of the day were very clean affairs, designed to reproduce the sound of the guitar as clear and distortion free as possible. This was great for jazz and to a lesser extent blues players, but failed to convey the energy needed for rock and roll, so by using two string ideas, Chuck was able to create "natural" distortion, thickening the sound of his guitar breaks and ensring that none of the rhythm was lost when he took a solo (in the process, eliminating the need to hire a dedicated rhythm player and thus split the money more ways... always a onsideration for struggling musicians!). Check out Eric Clapton's take on Chuck Berry's playing here, from the 1986 documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll:
When you analyse a song like Johnny B Goode, it's important to realise that Chuck wasn't really thinking in the same terms as we might, using scales and pentatonics. Lacking the massive musical educaion infrasructure that we now take for granted, Chuck took the eminently logical approach of visualising the root chord of the key he was playing over. For example, Johnny B Goode is a blues in Bb (legend has it, it was actually recorded in A and the tape sped up as a marketing ploy to make Chuck sound younger, but nevertheless it sounds in Bb) – so Chuck would visualise the outline of a Bb and Bbm barre chord (E Shape). Note the use of both major and minor – this is a key element of blues, like much of the blues vocabulary it would find itself sped up and used as the basis for rock and roll. Seen in this light, the Johnny B. Goode intro and guitar solo is an elegantly simple use of chord shapes and tones to create a hugely memorable, genuinely iconic rock & roll moment.
Other favourite Chuck Berry ideas that have become part of the accepted lexicon of rock & roll include doublestop bends – using a partial barre across two strings to get a dirty, gritty, guttural sound – unison bends and unusual chord ideas such as the augmented triads simulating car horns in “No Particular Place To Go”
It's hard to overstate Chuck Berry's contribution to rock & roll, and by extension, to the modern world of rock and metal, and the myriad offshoots of those two genres. His parting gift – an album dedicated to his wife, released this year and recorded at age 90 – is all the more inspirational for showing that he never, ever lost the drive to write, perform and create right to the very end.
RIP Charles Edward Berry – the world would sound very different had it not been for you.