The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was made for artists like Chuck Berry – pioneers who helped cast the style in their own image during its earliest years. With his gift for writing real-world anthems for teenagers and inventing his own guitar vocabulary by hot-rodding the blues of T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters, Berry duck-walked his way into history.
Berry, who turns 84 on Monday, October 18, is still parading across the world’s stages with Gibson ES-335s and ES-355s hanging at his hips. He’s also writing new material, trying to recapture the fire of his glory days and the hearts of listeners. But he’s got a high bar to meet, going back to July 1955 when his first single, “Maybellene” backed by “Wee Wee Hours,” reached #1 on the R&B charts and #5 on the Top 100 pop singles list.
Back then Berry was using a white Gibson ES-350T hollowbody, which he swapped for an ES-335 shortly after the model debuted in 1958, followed by ES-345s. These days he’s most often seen in major concerts or at Blueberry Hill, his monthly gig spot in his St. Louis hometown, brandishing the aforementioned ES-335s and ES-355s.
Berry told his own story in his 1988 volume with the no-frills title Chuck Berry: The Autobiography, but to really get a handle on his musical soul, you’ve got to go back to the music that made him a king. Here’s a rundown of 10 of Chuck Berry’s greatest riffs, essential listening for anybody who loves great rock ’n’ roll.
Berry adapted the traditional fiddle tune “Ida Red” to his own 12-bar blues and injected his six-string mojo. The song juxtaposes romance and motoring. Berry’s slyly picked intro sounds like a car using its horn to negotiate its way through traffic, his rhythm chops along like a steam locomotive and when the solo break comes he starts bending like T-Bone and finishes like a percolator. For rock guitarists, this is bedrock.
“Johnny B. Goode” (1958)
Another of Berry’s influences shines through on this semi-autobiographical tale of an aspiring guitar-picker who makes good – the great R&B bandleader Louis Jordan, who helped pave the way for rock ’n’ roll with his hard-swinging little big band. “Johnny B. Goode”’s finger-sliding intro borrows from Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman,” a tune that also influenced B.B. King. This song has been covered by an A-list of superstars that includes Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, The Beatles, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Prince and the Sex Pistols.
“Roll Over Beethoven” (1956)
If rock ’n’ roll has a victory song, this is it: Berry’s declaration that the music is here to stay. And his frantic intro licks – a fusillade of bending, sliding and picking over three easy-to-span frets – are like fireworks announcing that arrival. The tune was actually inspired by Berry’s sister, who often thwarted young Chuck’s attempts to play blues on the family piano by practicing her classical music lessons.
“Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958)
With its descending riff intro and a rhythm chunked from strummed chords and single notes, this tune perfectly captures America’s infatuation with early rock ’n’ roll.
“Memphis, Tennessee” (1959)
Johnny Rivers had an even bigger hit with the tune than Berry, but what’s cooler is Lonnie Mack’s instrumental version, released right on the heels of Berry’s original. Mack takes Berry’s sliding licks and chopping chords and turns them into an improvised symphony for his original issue 1958 Gibson Flying V outfitted with a Bigsby whammy bar.
“No Particular Place to Go” (1964)
Another song that blends America’s romance with automobiles with American romance. The chiming intro is pure Berry, as is the solo crafted from, simply, sliding chords playable with one finger. Simple genius.
“Havana Moon” (1956)
Berry feels this one-chord wonder would have been more popular if Fidel Castro wasn’t the scourge of the American press when it was released. It’s Berry’s attempt to co-opt Caribbean island music into the pop lexicon – one of the first world-music and rock hybrids.
“You Can’t Catch Me” (1956)
The New Jersey Turnpike gets a shout-out, and so does “Good Morning Little School Girl,” the blues classic that likely inspired Berry’s two-string bend opening riff. And later The Beatles paid Berry tribute by paraphrasing this song’s lyrics in “Come Together.”
“Rock and Roll Music” (1957)
Butt-stomping rock rhythm starts here, with yet another of Berry’s celebrations of the style he helped form. The Beatles and the Beach Boys both recorded versions of this number, which reached the U.S. Top 10 when Berry first slugged it out.
“School Days” (1957)
Another example of Berry’s knack for capturing the angst of teenage life. “School Days” is essentially a 12-bar blues, kicked off by one of Berry’s patented chiming chordal intros and goosed along by a simple but extremely effective shuffle beat. Pure bedrock.