The Stones were a close second, because they were one of the few bands then who could play Berry's stuff and really sound like they knew what it was about. They had the right combination of technical skill, with that punk attitude of "Let's lay it down!" They did their homework, but they were also able to tap that feeling, that rhythm, which was so important in Chuck Berry's music.
It's not so much what he played -- it's what he didn't play. His music is very economical. His guitar leads drove the rhythm, as opposed to laying over the top. The economy of his licks and his leads -- they pushed the song along. And he would build his solos so there was a nice little statement taking the song to a new place, so you're ready for the next verse.
As a songwriter, Chuck Berry is like the Ernest Hemingway of rock & roll. He gets right to the point. He tells a story in short sentences. You get a great picture in your mind of what's going on, in a very short amount of time, in well-picked words. He was also very smart: He knew that if he was going to break into the mainstream, he had to appeal to white teenagers. Which he did. Everything in those songs is about teenagers. I think he knew he could have had his own success on the R&B charts, but he wanted to get out of there and go big time.
He was also celebrating the music and lifestyle of rock & roll in songs like "Johnny B. Goode" and "School Days" -- how anybody could make a guitar sound like the ring of a bell. Anytime you put the words rock & roll in a lyric, you have to be careful. But he did it perfectly. "Johnny B. Goode" is probably the most covered song ever. Bar bands, garage bands -- everybody plays it. And so many bands play it badly. As much fun as it is to play, it's also easy to destroy it. But it was probably the first Chuck Berry song I learned. It hits people on all levels: lyric, melody, tempo, riff.
It's funny -- my twelve-year-old son, Roman, came back from his guitar lesson today, and I said, "What song were you learning today?" He said, "We're learning 'Johnny B. Goode.' " That's the essence of the appeal of Chuck Berry. When you're a young guitar player now, you're confronted by all these guys: Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page. But you can sit down and get your guitar to sound like Chuck Berry in a very short amount of time.
The other thing is, Chuck Berry was a showman: playing the guitar behind his head and between his legs, doing the duckwalk. It's not like you could close your eyes and hear his playing suffer because of it. He was able to do all that stuff and make it look like it was so easy and natural.
I still listen to Chuck Berry Is On Top. Except for one or two songs, like "Blues for Hawaiians," the whole thing just rocks out. That's why I love it -- for the same reason I love AC/DC records. They just don't stop. That was another thing he did: He stayed in that groove. He could have done one or two of those "Johnny B. Goode"-type songs, or a couple like "Maybellene," then gone off and done whatever. But he stayed in that place, that groove, and made it his.
I also have a bunch of different compilations, and I hear the direct influence on me. The way he phrases things, that double-time stop, where you get the two notes bending against each other and they make that rock & roll sound -- that's what I hear when I listen back to a lot of my solos. It's a little bit of technique, but it's mostly phrasing.
And kids today are playing the same three chords, trying to play in that same style. Turn the guitars up, and it's punk rock. It's the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. That new band Jet has that vibe. I hear it in the White Stripes, too.
I think he's kind of forgotten, in a way. He doesn't get played much on the radio, although he's on my fucking iPod, in my top ten records. But as far as the general public goes, I think he is kind of an artifact.
But people will always cover Chuck Berry songs. When bands go do their homework, they will have to listen to Chuck Berry. If you want to learn about rock & roll, if you want to play rock & roll, you have to start there.
I've had the fortune to shake his hand once or twice, but I've never really had a chance to tell him any of this. It was always in passing, at an airport or something. The last time was in the Seventies. I was walking through the airport, and someone said, "It's Chuck Berry over there." Well, I had to go over and shake his hand. But he was tongue-tied. Then he was gone.
[From Issue 946 — April 15, 2004]