Chuck Berry – The Rock and Roll Master
There aren’t many players who can lay claim to building the foundations of rock. If you have dug into the history of rock in its many forms, the name Chuck Berry should have come up from time to time. One of the most influential guitarists of all time, emerging from the 1950’s delivering high octane rock and roll, Chuck paved the way for generations to come.
He certainly did not invent rock and roll, but he took the tried and tested 12 bar blues formula, filled it full of energy and duck walked his way into the heart of guitarists across the globe.
A man so good, even The Beatles ripped him off (Listen to You Can’t Catch Me and spot the link).
He was even one of the first musicians to ever be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 1986 and was cited as “laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance”. His induction was even handled by one of his biggest fans, none other than Rolling Stones riff master, Keith Richards.
With fans such as the Stones Keith Richards and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry in tow, this guitar hero from St. Louis must have done something special right?
So what makes Chuck so influential:
1) He Delivered the Power Stance like No One Else.
This wide legged, low slung guitar pose shaped the way guitarists behaved on stage. Why stand there and play when you can command the stage, throw some serious rock shapes and show the world you’re the boss of that stage.
2) He Gave us the Duck Walk.
If you’ve ever seen AC/DC lead guitarist Angus Young move on stage, there will be no surprise that he’s a fan of Chuck Berry. The early origins of this strange movement date back to the 1930s where you might find T-Bone Walker duck walking across stages. Chuck Berry adopted this movement and it soon became his signature. He is often credited as the inventor and while we know the movement pre-dates Chuck’s career, he is certainly the one who brought it to the masses.
3) That Guitar Tone.
Chuck’s releases from the 1950s on the Chess Records label were some of his biggest hits. If you listen to the guitar on those tracks, it’s full of rock and roll attitude. Chuck was using his trademark Gibson ES-355 or ES-350, loaded with Gibson’s new PAF pickups. The legend has it, Chuck rarely toured with an amp of his own. He would plug into whatever the venue had, turn up and let it rip. Looks like the tone really is in the hands after all.
4) Keeping Things Flat.
Berry often seemed to prefer writing songs in “piano keys”. His biggest hit for instance, Johnny B Goode, is in the key of Bb. Bb is an unusual key for a guitarist to gravitate towards but Chuck Berry was no stranger to this. It is believed that he took this influence from his keyboard player Johnnie Johnson. In my opinion, the flat keys gave his music that extra rock and roll vibe that others from the era lacked. The notion of playing in flat keys to make music slightly darker and “heavier” is echoed today. Would Guns N Roses sound the same if Appetite for Destruction was recorded in E Standard rather than E Flat?
5) Stop Repeating Yourself, Repeating Yourself.
Chuck Berry brought the classical music motif to the rock and roll community. Chuck’s hits often start with a memorable guitar figure which shows up again and again throughout the track. The intro from Johnny B Goode is some slides and doublestops, and this is reintroduced as part of the guitar solo. In fact, the intro for this track was so good it was also used in a variant form in other tracks (Check out Roll Over Beethoven and Carol for more of the same).
6) Doublestop and Bending Heaven.
It would be a shame to close a list of Chuck Berry’s most influential qualities without mentioning that incredible guitar style. Full of bends and doublestops, Chuck was the king of making the guitar scream and shout in ways that no one else of the era was able to. If you want to get familiar with his playing, you need to master the double stop. A double stop is when you play two notes simultaneously. Berry would attack his semi-hollow Gibson and make those doublestops hit hard, often a centrepiece of his solos and motifs.
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