Chuck Berry's guitar is to rock
& roll what Louis Armstrong's
trumpet is to jazz; the load wall of the whole building, the fundamental piece
on which everything else was built. There is no one, with a minimum of
curiosity, who has not wanted to pick up a guitar and jump to emulate Berry,
duck step included. His riffs and licks are the necessary alphabet that you
have to learn if you want to play rock. Not in vain, Berry spent the last 50
years of his career traveling the world alone with his guitar because he knew
that wherever he went there would be a band that knew his songs by heart. From
the first second of each song his guitar was responsible for making it clear
from who the song was that we were listening to, a kind of ‘signature of the
house’ from which we have selected 10 of our favorites.
Maybellene (July 1955)
It was Muddy Waters himself who recommended Chuck Berry to the Chess brothers to sign him up. Perhaps Berry's country style seemed strange to Muddy; but he certainly knew when someone was an ace on the guitar. From the early stages of Maybellene, his first single for Chess, you can hear something totally new, with his Gibson ES-350 T with P-90s sounding distorted through a small tube amp. His adaptation of the country song Ida Red was the one that defined his style with very thoughtful lyrics, a strong rhythm and that guitar solo, that is pure rock & roll.
Roll Over Beethoven (May 1956)
The first appearance of the mythical intro that we all have associated with Chuck Berry. The 'lick' on which rock & roll was built could not have a better song to introduce it than this song in which Berry asks Beethoven to roll over and break the news to Tchaikovsky, that rock & roll had arrived to stay. A hymn of rebellion that began in a much more prosaic way: the back story is that Chuck's sister had monopolised the family piano for her classical music practices, and it had made young Chuck desperate...
Too Much Monkey Business (September 1956)
Released in 1956, this would be the song that would inspire Bob Dylan to write Subterranean Homesick Blues and start his electric revolution. But, in addition to Berry’s incredible vocal attack, the song has another very remarkable intro with his guitar, which serves as a kind of an appetiser for the unremitting blast of words that follows.
Brown Eyed Handsome-Man (September 1956)
The B-side of Too Much Monkey Business begins with another explosion of his guitar. That beginning, playing several strings at once very quickly and accurately, would be copied almost note by note by the Beach Boys on Surfin 'USA, a song that was based on another of Berry's great classics, Sweet Little Sixteen. Note that the use of thirds in Berry’s songs is one of the brands of the house.
School Day (March 1957)
When Berry later says in the lyrics of Johnny B. Goode that he plays the guitar as if he were "ringing a bell" he may be remembering this song, whose beginning reproduces the bell of the alarm clock. He then proceeds to make his guitar speak in a call-and-response game, in which each phrase of the letter responds with a riff copying the melody, putting his guitar as the main focus in his description of the day to day life of the adolescents of the time. The tune was so good that in 1964 he would use the music and the melody again for No Particular Place To Go.
Johnny B. Goode (March 1958)
"If rock and roll had to be called differently, it could be called Chuck Berry" is one of John Lennon's most famous quotes. Well, if rock and roll had to have a hymn, it would have to be Johnny B. Goode. Possibly the most famous intro in history, played with his second 57 ES-350 T with humbuckers. When asked what was his inspiration for this song was, Berry was clear: "I did the Big Band Era on guitar." He did not lie, Berry adapted the 'lick' with which begins Ain’t That Just Like A Woman by Louis Jordan to his style, also borrowing elements from Roll 'Em Pete by Big Joe Turner, and producing as a final result the song that turned the electric guitar into the instrument most associated with rock & roll. It was ‘normal’ that when Carl Sagan decided to compile a record with the sounds of the planet Earth, he chose this song as a representation of the style and put it inside his mythical Voyager spacecraft. Now he and Beethoven share space in space.
Carol (August 1958)
Chuck Berry knew that he had found the perfect sound with Johnny B. Goode, so he did not take long to employ it again with Carol. But for those who think that they are exactly the same; if you listen again, you will appreciate the differences. Keith Richards, possibly his most outstanding student, twice recorded the song with the Stones, once in 1964 on his debut album and again in 1969 for the live Get Yer Ya Ya's Out. But when he went to play with the master in the tribute concert they did in 1986, he saw how Berry corrected himself until he found the right tempo and 'bend' notes. And no one plays Chuck Berry like Chuck Berry himself.
Little Queenie (January 1959)
Another new variation on Johnny B. Goode, although this time, more than the intro, is a nod to the small instrumental bridge before the solo in the middle of the song. This track begins with a small slide with Berry on his brand new Gibson ES-335 that had been purchased a year earlier. That model, together with the 345 and 355, would be the one that would accompany him for the rest of his career.
Back In The USA (June 1959)
An idyllic view of the US that could have a good deal of irony because if he’s having to “look hard” for a 'drive-in' to eat is because of the color of his skin. The Beatles, as Berry fans, also saw it that way and made Back In The USSR in response. Musically it is another twist to his well-known riff.
Come On (October 1961)
Come On has a completely different sound, it opens with a slide and soon the horns accompany Berry himself who in this song is accompanied by his sister on voice. You can see his subsequent influence on Motown, surf music and the group that has taken the most from his music, the Rolling Stones. A group that started their career with this song as their first single.
This is just a small sample from the architect of rock & roll. Someone who wrote the book that all the other guitarists of rock history have followed, from Keith Richards to Angus Young, from Jimi Hendrix to Tony Iommi. "Hail, Hail Rock & Roll!" Or, what is the same, "Hail, Hail, Chuck Berry!".