Knoxville-based musician Tim Lee, of the late, great Windbreakers, more recently of the Tim Lee 3 and Bark (reviewed here, incidentally) wrote this morning at his Facebook page about the enormous influence Chuck Berry had upon him and several generations’ worth of rockers. He says it better than any of us Blurt-ers could possibly say it. Follow Tim on Facebook here.
BY TIM LEE
When I was a kid, I was eat up with guitar (as we say in the South). I watched the bands on Midnight Special and ABC’s In Concert, and I thought there was nothing cooler than a low-slung Gibson or Fender. Still do.
We had an old Kay hollow-body stashed away in a closet that my brother never got around to learning, so I pulled it out one day. My dad was gracious enough to drive me and the guitar over to Skeets McWilliams’ music store in west Jackson, where they put strings on it and replaced the missing bridge.
That thing had scary high action, but it was a guitar. I joined the guitar club at my junior high school (yeah, pretty cool, huh?), where English teacher/musician J.R. Robertson gave us printouts of the chords and words to current songs like “Angie” by the Stones. He brought in different guitars and let us play them, and he lit a fire under some of us that never went out.
J.R. is still one of my parents’ good friends. They don’t hold it against him.
A year or so later, we were living in Brookhaven, Miss. David Bowling was a skinny red-haired neighborhood guy who was a couple years older than me and knew some guitar. He figured out that, if he could show me some bar chords and a few familiar rock and roll riffs, he’d have someone to play rhythm guitar while he worked on his improvising solos skills.
I’d spend hours at his house playing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Stormy Monday” (9th chords and all). It was a great education for playing rock n’ roll rhythm guitar.
But David’s favorite was playing “Johnny B. Goode.” He taught me how to play the “runka, runka” rhythm stuff, and I eventually mastered it, no matter how much my pinky protested.
Eventually, he showed me how to play the double-stop intro riff. Torturing my fingers on that damn-near-impossible-to-play Kay through my little solid state Silvertone amp, I thought I’d found Nirvana (obviously the state of being, not the band).
That was it for me. I’d already taken the bait, but the hook was set at that point in time.
From that moment forward, it was hard to drag me away from the guitar. I got a book called “How to Play Lead Guitar” from the Brookhaven library, where I learned a couple scales and a few more “Chuck Berry licks,” as the book referred to them.
Yeah, that’s how important Chuck Berry is to rock n’ roll guitar. That book contained no “George Harrison licks,” no “Bo Diddley licks,” no “B.B. King licks,” and no “Keith Richards licks.” There were just “guitar licks” and “Chuck Berry licks.”
There might have been a few co-authors of the form, but Berry wrote the figurative book on the matter.
The first time I hung out with Bobby Sutliff, he showed me a bunch of less-familiar CB riffs. That had a strong effect on my approach to lead guitar. (Not to stray too far off course, but Bobby really has an encyclopedic knowledge of that stuff. I’ve seen seasoned pros pull him aside so he can show them that killer ascending bit in the “Let it Rock” solo.)
I often joke that my approach to soloing is just Jeff Beck’s solo on “Heart Full of Soul” combined with a handful of Chuck Berry licks, that anything else is just over-achieving. But I’m only half-kidding.
So here’s to Chuck Berry, who was set to release his first record in years at the age of 90. This has been all about his influence on rock n’ roll guitar, but there’s a whole ‘nuther tome that could be written on his contributions to the poetry of the medium.
There won’t be another one like him.