RIP Chuck Berry, and a musicological note

If there is any one figure who truly deserves the title “father of rock’n roll”, it’s Chuck Berry — and even those who would give the title to Little Richard would have to concede Chuck is the musical patriarch of all rock’n roll guitar players. Which does not mean he is the only influence — progressive and hard rock players, especially, drew inspiration from Western classical music and jazz — but Chuck Berry licks can be heard in guitar players from AC/DC’s Angus Young to, yes, the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones.

Chuck joined the Great Gig In The Sky, but his legacy endures. In an article linked in Instapundit’s obituary, a musical point came up that made me go ‘aha’ and deserves some elaboration:

One of the brilliant things Keith did was that he found Johnnie Johnson. He was the incredible piano player on those Chuck Berry records, and he was driving a bus. He came in and he was the heart of the band, infused it with authenticity, brilliance and generosity. Chuck was there as he had inspired us all but, through the process, Chuck was thorny at best, and a nightmare at worst, while Johnnie was a saint. Keith had come to the realisation that, unlike most guitar rock’n’rollers, Chuck Berry’s music was different; it was in piano keys, not in guitar keys. When Keith saw how Johnnie worked, he realised that, probably, Johnnie had been part of most of the songwriting that Chuck Berry did. Like a musicologist, a lifelong aficionado and student of Chuck Berry’s, Keith was just talking about what he had heard. He made a discovery which was in the film.

What does he mean, “guitar keys” and “piano keys”?

Guitarists who write songs on their own  tend to gravitate to keys that have one or more open strings in the guitar tuning they are in, preferably on the tonic (“ground note”), and if the dominant is also an open string, better still. This isn’t just for ease of playing, by the way — but also for the extra resonance/”ringing” that open strings add.

In standard guitar tuning (EADGBE), that causes lots of rock songs to be written in E, A, or D, less so in G or B. A similar argument applies to bass players who write songs, BTW: Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris (bassist, band leader, and primary composer) definitely favors E, A, and D (both major and minor each), with a fondness for modulations (key changes) to keys like F# minor.

Guitarists are well aware of this, and some deliberately use alternate tunings (scordaturas, in classical-speak) as a compositional device. (This is the reason, BTW, why you see e.g. John Petrucci change guitars so many times during a Dream Theater concert: retuning live would just take up too much time.) Some guitarists use just a single alternate tuning mainly or exclusively: e.g. Keith Richards uses open-G tuning most of the time (xGDGBD, where the x indicates he doesn’t use the lowest string). Many metal bands tune one or more half-steps down for a darker sound: I don’t quite know who started the trend, but I do know Jimi Hendrix tuned a half-step flat on “Voodoo Chile”, and surely inspired others to do the same (such as his onetime roadie “Lemmy”, later frontman of Motorhead). A very common alternate tuning in alternative rock and metal is “drop D”, in which the bottom string of standard tuning is lowered a whole step — this allows for playing power chords (=root-fifth-octave) with a single finger, permitting rapid power chord motions that would be nearly impossible in standard tuning. Guess what: most classic songs of a band like Tool are in… D.

Okay, what does all that have to do with Chuck Berry and his pianist? Look at the keys of just two of Berry’s best-known classics: B flat (Johnny B. Goode, a tribute to his pianist Johnnie Johnson) and E flat (Roll Over Beethoven). These are (somewhat) awkward keys on a guitar in standard tuning, and most guitarists who play in standard won’t use them if they can help it, let alone start writing songs in them. But they do  work just fine for boogie-woogieing on a piano 🙂 Actually, most guitarists I know will play Johnny B. Goode in A (as Ted Nugent did in his tribute to Berry), although the most famous Roll Over Beethoven cover (that by The Beatles) of course preserves the original key.

Keith Richards actually went as far as to suggest Berry co-wrote his songs with pianist Johnnie Johnson, which led to a notorious fistfight between the two. However, one need not reach that far or “pitch” that strongly (no pun intended) — there is a much more benign possible explanation. Berry’s first steady gig had started as a last-minute replacement for the soloist in Johnnie Johnson’s jazz trio (after saxophonist Alvin Bennett had suffered a stroke) — and presumably Berry had learned to “fit in” with Johnnie’s pre-existing piano arrangements. Not coincidentally perhaps, Eb and Bb happen to be the “home keys” for alto and tenor saxophones, respectively….

As a final note, allow me to include this letter by Carl Sagan to Chuck Berry:


Enjoy the Great Gig, Chuck.



It’s a Booknado!

And… it’s the new CLFA Booknado, with several new releases from my fellow CLFA authors.

Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance


The March 2017 CLFA Booknado blasts into town on the wings of an epic nation-wide tempest! Howling winds of freedom sweep away the dull, the didactic, and the formulaic offerings from Big Publishing. Read freely! Click on any book cover image below to learn about new releases and special low-price and free promotions*:


Lost Children (The Minivandians Book 3) by Tom Rogneby
Ruarin and DaddyBear continue their journey home after surviving the dark of winter in the North. Old friends are there to help them, but tragedy and mystery await them in an ancient city.

Recon: A War to the Knife by Rick Partlow
Tyler Callas is the pampered heir of a high-level Corporate Council executive, groomed from birth to take a seat beside her as a member of the ruling class of the Commonwealth society. But the bloody war with the alien Tahni has hit close to home and Tyler wants to join…

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First or third person? To I or not to I?

One of the questions a beginning writer struggles with is: which person to write?

It’s also a subject that some writers are very passionate about. My Beautiful But Evil Space Mistress™, for instance, describes how she was taught one can only write “real literature” in the third person — and in response embraced first-person with a vengeance. (She does, however, state pros and cons in her article.)

You will have people arguing that first-person is only for beginners, because it looks easy. (“Play bass, because it’s the easiest instrument” comes to mind — not so, if you want to play like Geddy Lee, John Entwistle, Chris Squire, Jack Bruce, or any other bass virtuoso.) On the other hand, others argue third person is easier for a beginning writer, as you’re not tied to a single character’s POV (point of view, perspective) and there’s the largest variety of classic examples to ‘learn from by osmosis’.

Personally, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The choice between third person and first person reminds me a bit of learning English vs. learning a “strong grammar” language like German, Russian, or Hebrew. English is much easier to learn than those, but paradoxically more difficult to master. As a beginning writer, I wrote my debut novel, On Different Strings, in third person omniscient because I basically couldn’t imagine how to tell this tale otherwise.

First, a couple more definitions:

  • grammatical person (which I prefer over the ambiguous ‘viewpoint’) refers to whether one writes as “I”, “He”/”She”, or (quite rare) “You”.
  • POV (point of view) is exactly that, POV. True, in first person you substantially have just one POV, except by stratagems such as included letters, reports, … or a telepathic protagonist. But in third person, the ‘camera’ can switch angles many times in a book. Doing so too abruptly may be disorienting, hence the oft-quoted rule: ‘no more than one POV per scene’.
  • as ‘voice‘ I would define the idiolect — the specific way of speaking — of each character, as well as (in third person) of the narrator. If one does not give them distinct voices, everything will merge into one ‘glop’.

First-person definitely complicates plotting and character description — I see it almost as a form of constrained writing. On the other hand, you do not have to worry about the mechanics of “proper” viewpoint switching as there is none. Also, it simplifies character “voicing”  — the narrator and the viewpoint character are one and the same. Also, it becomes more natural to hold back information from the reader and not give the plot away.

The first time I wrote anything in first person — which was The Tenth Righteous Man for the CLFA Anthology “Freedom’s Light” (the story appears in full in the “Free Preview” of the book on Amazon) — the people I sent it to all remarked on how “immediate” the writing was. (That it was based on truly mind-boggling actual events did not hurt.) Note that I did not write in a chatty contemporary American idiom: the character spoke in my head in his mother tongue, with the formality befitting his social status, and I tried to capture the cadence of that speech in the English prose I wrote.

Encouraged by the response, I wrote the psychological romance Winter Into Spring likewise in first person, but now in the American idiom of its Midwestern viewpoint character. Unlike in The Tenth Righteous Man, where substantially only a single ‘voice’ is heard, the second protagonist and their antagonist needed distinct speaking voices—the limited parts of the supporting characters less so.

In third person, as already mentioned, you can “switch camera angles”, you can get in multiple character’s heads (which is only possible in first person if the protagonist is a telepath), and you must have a distinctive narrator voice aside from the character voices. The narrator voice seems like a natural outlet for those who like to write more formal, literary language — this is a bug to some who want to read/write a whole book  ‘written the way people talk’, and a feature to the rest of us. In the case of On Different Strings, since one of the two protagonists is an academic of upper-class British background with a neo-Victorian outlook on life, his voice is the most formal and literary in the book, while the narration is more informal, though less so than the plain speech of his best friend and eventual soulmate, a rural Texan woman with limited education but immense musical talent.

Little did I know there’s more than one kind of ‘third person’. Pat Wrede distinguishes between three subtypes, for which I will quote her figurative descriptions (highlights mine):

  1. Tight third person (also known as intimate third-person, third-person-personal, limited third person, third person subjective, etc.) This is the viewpoint where the writer sticks with a single viewpoint character, providing his/her thoughts and emotions directly. The only way for the reader to find out the other characters’ emotions is for the viewpoint character to guess or infer them from what those characters say and do.
    [Wikipedia uses the term “third person subjective” for alternating single viewpoint characters.]

  2. Camera-eye third person (also known as third-person objective, observer-in-the-corner, third-person-impersonal, fly-on-the-wall, third person indirect, camera-on-the-shoulder, [third person dramatic], etc.). In camera-eye third person, the narrator does not give the reader anyone’s thoughts or emotions. The writer just describes expressions and actions, provides dialog and tone of voice – the stuff that a camera or observer could see, and nothing more. Sometimes the writer’s “camera” sits on one particular viewpoint character’s shoulder; sometimes it’s further away, or changes focus; but it always shows only what is happening from the outside.

  3. Third person omniscient [a.k.a. “all-knowing narrator”, a.k.a. just “omniscient” — what one might irreverently call “G-d perspective”, Ed.], in which the narrator is an invisible character who knows everything that has ever happened or will ever happen and everything that anyone is thinking or feeling, and who can report as much or as little of this as seems appropriate.

In case this wasn’t obvious, most classic works of literature were historically written in third person omniscient. And in fact it is still widely used to great effect. But yes, there is intrinsically a bit more ‘distance’ from the characters — which may be a bug or a feature, depending.

And then there’s alternating persons. One variant, alternating first person, is fairly common in genre romances: the narrator voice switches back and forth between the two sides of the relationship, usually at chapter breaks or at most at scene breaks. Some indication is needed to see which character’s side of the tale we are told: simply putting their name in italics atop the chapter/scene seems to work reasonably well.

Rarer, and to many readers disorienting, is alternation between first persons and a third-person narrator. I have seen this used to great effect, but it strikes me as the literary equivalent of a Jack Russell Terrier (or its American cousin, the Rat Terrier): I couldn’t imagine a better dog than mine, but they are not for first-time dog owners.

There are additional modes of telling a story. A fairly old one is the epistolary novel, which first became popular in the 18th century — Dangerous Liaisons and The Sorrows of Young Werther come to mind. The tale is told through a sequence of letters, documents, newspaper articles… sometimes interspersed with small connecting passages. In a contemporary or futuristic novel, Email messages, blog posts, instant messaging chats,… can be used in a similar fashion. In fact, limited inclusion of epistolary material can greatly enrich a first-person or third-person tale: consider, for instance, the quotes from the fictional Encyclopedia Galactica in Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, or the ‘book within a book’ The Theory And Practice Of Oligarchic Collectivism  inside Orwell’s immortal Nineteen Eighty-Four.

At the end of the day, of course, there is no single answer: whatever gets the tale told most compellingly works.

The Great Realignment by Nitay Arbel

[Another guest post at Sarah Hoyt’s place]

According To Hoyt

*Nitay had sent me this post before I did yesterday’s, and he thought it had been rendered obsolete by yesterday’s post.  I think rather, it is a good complementary post, showing I’m not air-dreaming. The symptoms are there.*

The Great Realignment  by Nitay Arbel

“Masgramondou” shared a most interesting article: about Theresa May in the UK, about whom he is about to post on his blog


In its very opening sentence, the article strikes a chord that resonates much more broadly than the UK:

Forget left and right — the new divide in politics is between nationalists and globalists. Donald Trump’s[..] nationalist rhetoric on everything from trade to global security enabled him to flip traditionally Democratic, blue-collar states and so to defeat that personification of the post-war global order, Hillary Clinton.

The presidential election in France is being fought on these lines, too. Marine Le…

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Of heaps of stones, facts, or words — a guest post by Nitay Arbel

My guest post at the writer’s blog Mad Genius Club.

The Scientist must put things in order. Science is built of facts, as a house is built of  stones [and a book of words]. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house [or a stream of words a book].
(Henri Poincaré.)



Of heaps of stones, facts, or words — Nitay Arbel

Thus spake our Beautiful but Evil Space Mistress’s sensei in “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long”:

What are the facts? Again and again and again — what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” — what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!

Amen. It is impossible to do science (or engineering) without facts, just as it is impossible to write a book without words. But are facts all that is needed? Or for that matter, are words all that is needed to write a book?

Robert Heinlein always liked Renaissance (wo)men, and had he ever met the French polymath Henri Poincaré…

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