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:

carl-sagan-wrote-this-letter-to-chuck-berry-on-the-musicians-60th-birthday-to-tell-him-just-how-imp

Enjoy the Great Gig, Chuck.

 

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