Watch the Beyond Johnny B. online guitar lesson by Chris Buono from 40 Day Rhythm SWAT Camp
Though he is best known for the blend of even-and swing-eighth notes in "Johnny B. Goode," Chuck Berry didn't always play blues rhythms. As one of the original "fusion" artists, Berry also borrowed from country, Latin and R&B - besides making up a few sounds of his own. We'll look at some examples of the wide variety of rhythms found in the Chuck Berry catalog.
Berry's first hit record, "Maybelline," has a rhythmic feel that's commonly called a "two beat" - that's two beats per measure, with the bass playing the chord's root on beat 1 and its fifth on beat 2. The guitar doubles this bass-line, and adds chords on the upbeats (Fig. 1). This beat is the meat-and-potatoes of country music, but Chuck Berry's distorted guitar, intense drumming and ragged feel is anything but Hank Williams.
Latin influences show up on another hit record, "Brown Eyed Handsome Man." Here, the guitar plays a rhumba rhythm over shuffle drums and a quasi-mambo bass-line (Fig. 2). The tune also features a mariachi-style guitar solo - it's a regular south-of-the-border musical tour.
Rhythm and blues, New Orleans style, provides the basis for "Nadine." The rhythm section's feel on this track is similar to that found on recordings by Fats Domino and others - it combines elements of the two-beat and Latin feels. The key of Bb offers a definite advantage - note the use of the open A string in the bass-line (Fig. 3).
It's back to blues, albeit with a twist, for "Memphis" (Fig. 4). It's and oft-covered, never duplicated cut that features a very odd combination of Jimmy Reed-style rhythm, a pre-Reggae intro, tribal drumming, and rock n roll fills. (By the way, the song starts on D, but it's in the key of G).
When playing Berry's music, it's important to keep a loose right wrist to strum, rather than pick the strings. Let your fretting hand do the work of muting any idle strings, and keep a relaxed feel.
Chuck Berry will undoubtedly be remembered more for his rock n roll hits than tese other, off-beat gems. But part of what kept him so popular for so long was an ability to innovate within the relatively narrow boundaries of his style - a true lesson for nayone playing "roots" music today.