The Greatness of Chuck Berry

I’ve spent the last day thinking about what made Chuck Berry the indispensable man of rock-n-roll. Actually, I’ve spent a number of years thinking about it; in any case, here’s what I’ve come to. Of course the songwriting is brilliant; we can take it as a given. And the combination of speed and clarity is miraculous. But the thing that makes him revered among later rockers is the sound: in a three-man rock ensemble of drums, piano, and guitar, there are three percussion instruments. Four if you count his voice, which has some of the same properties as his playing. Even when the guitar is playing melodically, the attack on the  high strings is like the strike on a snare drum. As we know, other guitarists had discovered the instrument’s percussive properties, but that was mostly done on the low strings, as in the boom-chicka-chicka of Maybelle Carter’s playing on the Carter Family’s recordings or various blues guitarists. Berry was the first one I can think of where you can hear the pick strike the top two strings. The standard in jazz and pop music of the time was a sort of liquid sound–think Chet Atkins or Les Paul–so this was a departure. In the bridge on “Johnny B. Goode,” when Lafayette Leake (and not the usual Johnny Johnson, which surprised me) assails those high chords on piano and then the guitar comes in, that sound cuts to the bone. And we like it.