Chuck Berry’s Gibson ES-350T: the sound upon which rock & roll was built, in 10 songs.

By Sergio Ariza

There were rockers who came before him, and those who came after, but if we had to measure the occurrence of rock & roll, Chuck Berry would be like that of Jesus Christ and one would have to count on the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ Chuck Berry. Of course, he didn’t come back to life in 3 days, and if there is a heaven and hell, it’s most likely that he’s on a highway to the latter, the one that his disciples AC/DC sang about, but Chuck Berry is the man who defined rock & roll music forever with his songs from the 50s. Some songs that were mostly played with his legendary Gibson ES-350T, which now the American brand pays its particular tribute to. We have had to wait for Berry’s death, but we already have the perfect excuse to praise the sacred guitar that he used on Johnny B. Goode...


Gibson began to market the model ES-350T with P-90 pickups from 1949, and stopped making it in 1956, although at that moment they started selling it with humbuckers and the model was still on the market until 1963. Nobody knows for certain when Chuck Berry bought his first model, with the P-90 pickups, whether it was  in 1955 or 1956, but rather when he got the second one, with the humbuckers, which was in 1957. I say all this because although it is normally accepted, but it’s not sure that Berry used the model on his first recording for Chess Records, the mythical Maybelline
in 1955, one of the most important songs in the history of rock & roll. While Elvis Presley had begun his career one year earlier, with a cover of a blues That’s Alright Mama, Chuck was going to follow the opposite example, a black artist adapting an old country song, and on this occasion the Ida Red by Bob Wills, breathing new life into it with his powerful guitar solo and intense rhythm.   

Other versions: Elvis Presley, the
Everly Brothers, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Johnny Rivers...


Brown Eyed Handsome Man

Recorded on April 16, 1956 when Berry already had his legendary guitar with which he made some of the most famous promotional photos of his career, duck-walk included of course. Brown Eyed Handsome Man
was Berry’s challenge to the puritan white society of the time, in which he boasted his tremendous success with the white girls and began with another explosion from his guitar. That beginning, playing several strings at the same time with such speed and precision, would be copied almost note for note by the Beach Boys in Surfin’ USA, a song that was, in its time, a plagiarism of Sweet Little Sixteen by Berry.

Other versions:
Buddy Holly, Nina Simone, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Lee Lewis...      

Roll Over Beethoven

If Maybelline was his first hit, Roll Over Beethoven
was the song that defined his style, creating the most famous guitar lick in history (which he himself would perfect) and giving the first great lyrics of a music in which there weren’t many. And now that rock literature wins Nobel prizes, Chuck Berry was their first poet laureate, the man who told Beethoven and Tchaikovsky to get lost and went on to announce the irresistible arrival of rock & roll. However, we aren’t sure if he’d be happy with such pomp.

Other versions: The Beatles,
Electric Light Orchestra, Jerry Lee Lewis, Iron Maiden...

Too Much Monkey Business

Released in 1956, it would be the song that served to inspire
Bob Dylan to write Subterranean Homesick Blues and began his electric revolution. Berry spits out words at top speed over his 350T, and possibly a Fender Tweed. Over the years, another of his many disciples, Johnny Thunders, would write a veiled tribute with the graphic Too Much Junkie Business.

Other versions: The Kinks, The Beatles,
The Yardbirds, The Hollies...

School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)

Recorded in early 1957, School Days
is one of the last appearances of his iconic first 350T. In the recording, besides the faithful Willie Dixon on bass, he was accompanied on guitar by Howlin’ Wolf’s Hubert Sumlin. This song is the graphic definition of what is referred to in Johnny B. Goode, when he says, “he could play a guitar just like a-ringin’ a belland in its beginning Chuck himself reproduces the bell of an alarm clock and during the chorus, the school bells. He liked the song so much it would be his model for the also exceptional No Particular Place To Go, released in 1964.

Other versions: Eddie Cochran, AC/DC,
Jan & Dean, Ol’ 55...


Rock and Roll Music

John Lennon
said if you had to give rock & roll a different name, it should be Chuck Berry. Then this definitive anthem would have to be called Chuck Berry Music. It also has the honour as being one of the first appearances of his second 350T. Of course, the most iconic cover of the song was sung by Lennon himself when he was with The Beatles.

Other versions: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Humble Pie, Bill Haley...


Sweet Little Sixteen

It is the biggest hit of Berry’s golden age, reaching #2 on the American charts (in 1972 it would reach an atypical #1 with My Ding-A-Ling), Sweet Little Sixteen
is an ode to adolescence, particularly teenage girls, which would also serve as a geography class of the U.S.A., and in 1963 it became, with different lyrics, Surfin’ USA by the Beach Boys.

Other versions: The Searchers, The Beach Boys, The Animals, Ten Years After, John Lennon...


Johnny B. Goode

One of the five most important songs in rock & roll history, and possibly the most famous intro in history, all that and more, is Johnny B. Goode. It is an autobiographical number with which Berry gave the new music its definite anthem. If you have ever plugged an electric guitar into an amp and didn’t try to play a bit of Johnny B. Goode, you should have yourself looked at by a doctor, it’s that serious. Berry takes his influences,
Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker, and gives the electric guitar its definitive sound. Basically, this instrument was made for someone, at sometime, to do something like this.

Other versions:  Jimi Hendrix, Sex Pistols, Elvis Presley, The Beatles,
Grateful Dead, Johnny Winter, Marty McFly…(although basically anyone who has plugged an electric guitar into an amp has played Johnny B. Goode)


Almost Grown

When Chuck Berry cut
Almost Grown, on the 17th of February in 1959, he already had his Gibson ES-335, but seeing him the same year in an appearance on television with his beloved 350T, makes us think that he also used it in the recording. It is one of his best songs and was chosen to open his legendary album Chuck Berry Is On Top. On the recording, beside the loyal Johnnie Johnson on piano and Willie Dixon on bass, Etta James and the young Marvin Gaye backed him on vocals. It was another double-sided A with another gem called Little Queenie and appeared in the essential movie and soundtrack of American Graffiti by George Lucas.   

Other versions:
David Bowie, The Animals, The Lovin’ Spoonful...


Back In The USA

Another song in which we bet he used his 350T, according to other television images in which he appears doing ‘playback’ with her. It is another anthem that inspired The Beatles on their Back in the USSR, and ends by giving a title to a legendary album by MC5.

Other versions: MC5,
Linda Ronstadt, Bruce Springsteen...