Chuck Berry Picking

Chuck Berry Picking
by David Isaacs

The whole world knows Chuck Berry. The duck walk, the pencil moustache, the 335, and of course the guitar riffs that changed popular music. Berry didn’t invent the style – his playing is deeply rooted in the blues – but he supercharged it by cranking up the tempos, putting the guitar front and center, and writing songs about characters and situations everyone could relate to. Early rock and roll had plenty of great guitar. There was Scotty Moore’s work with Elvis, Link Wray’s proto-punk, and even “Rock Around The Clock” features a guitar solo that’s practically shred for 1955. But early rock & roll also grew out of the jump blues style of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which still put most of the emphasis on the piano and horns. (Check out the work of Louis Jordan, whose “Caldonia” is now most associated with B.B. King). But Chuck Berry opened practically every song with a killer guitar riff that announced a new sound and a new attitude.

Berry’s most famous song is, of course, “Johnny B. Goode,” and its iconic intro has all the hallmarks of his style: double-stop licks, unison bends, and major-minor modal shifts. But this weekend let’s take a look at some of the other aspects of the style as they appear in three other classic songs.

Example 1 is the most familiar, a classic Berry intro very similar to “Johnny B. Goode.” Chuck actually used his intros somewhat interchangeably, being a blues-based improvisor, so many songs would kick off with some kind of variation on the same basic theme. This example is based on one performance of “Carol,” but it’s unlikely he played it the same way twice.

Exercise 1

We’re in the key of C, working entirely off the E and A shape forms in 8th position. The first four notes are unmistakable: a 3-note major pentatonic setup for a series of index finger double-stops. Slide the middle finger into the 9th fret to play the first note, but land squarely on the first and second strings to play the double-stops. Notice the difference from “Johnny B. Goode” in that the double-stops aren’t grouped in the familiar 3+3+2 pattern but are attacked evenly through the first half of the measure. The same basic lick repeats three times, with the double-stops extended all the way through bar 4. Bar 5 is where things get interesting! Land on the 10th fret of the G and B strings with ring and pinky, strike the two strings together, and bend and release twice before coming back to the index for the 8th fret double-stop. The bend is actually somewhere between a quarter and half-step, and not exactly precise. The attitude matters more than the specific pitch, and we already know that this was just one of many ways he may have played this intro. Note how the last 8th fret double-stop in bar 5 uses the notes of C minor rather than C major, an example of “mode mixture” and very common in the jazz-influenced jump blues style.

Example 2 takes us in a different direction. Inspired by the intro to the New Orleans-flavored “You Never Can Tell,” this one starts with a descending lick in parallel 6ths. The sound should be familiar. You’ve heard it on countless blues songs, except that rhythmically it’s closer to calypso than a Chicago shuffle.

Exercise 2

We’re in the key of C once again. Play the 6ths with the ring and pinky, descending chromatically from the 12th to the 10th frets before landing on an 8th position C triad. (You might recognize this as the three highest notes of an E shape barre chord). The G7 that follows is a C shape form, a voicing you’ve heard many times in blues music as well as the work of Creedence Clearwater Revival; listen to the repeated E7 rhythm part in “Born On The Bayou.” But what follows is surprising in a Chuck Berry song: a brightly major walkup in 2nd position to set up a 3rd fret C barre chord (an A shape form this time). Play the walkup with index and ring or pinky, and also use ring or pinky as a partial barre to play the C6 “pop” on the 5th fret. This lick is repeated through the song, but not consistently. Chuck played it as he felt it and so we will too! End the lick with a middle finger slide into the 9th fret of the G string and then land on the 8th fret of the high E, forming another 6th interval that also comes straight out of the E shape barre chord.

Example 3, inspired by “No Particular Place To Go,” brings us back to blues territory with its shuffle rhythm and double-stop licks. What the heck is that first chord?

Exercise 3

The opening chord is a D augmented 7th, which might be familiar to you from T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” (known to rockers mostly from the Allman Brothers Band’s killer version on “Live At The Fillmore”). But Berry voices it differently, as a variation on the E shape barre. Start off with an E shape barre on the 10th fret, forming a D chord. Place your pinky on the 13th fret of the B string, forming a D7, and then slide the ring finger up one fret to the 13th fret of the A string. This note is the #5, the tone that defines an augmented chord. Augmented chords aren’t all that common and usually show up in one of two ways: as a connecting or embellishing chord (as in Eddie Money’s “Baby Hold On” or John Lennon’s “Starting Over”), or as a variation on the 5 chord in a blues setting (like “Stormy Monday”). This one is clearly the latter, and it’s an arresting, aggressive opening. Strum it with a steady back-and forth, taking care to bring out the downbeats: (one) TWO-and-a THREE-and-a FOUR-and-a ONE.

The song proceeds with a call-and-response between the voice and guitar, an essential blues device. Muddy Waters once said that if the guitar and voice weren’t having a conversation, you weren’t playing the blues. The two licks that follow are variations on the familiar Berry double-stops: first, a two-finger slide into frets 6 and 7, partially outlining a G7 chord. Play the triplets as you did the opening chord, more of a strum than a pick. Most people tend to play this lick with repeated downstrokes, but that doesn’t swing the way Berry does. Coming down, land on an index finger partial barre on fret 5 and slide down to the 3rd fret before landing on the G note at the 5th fret of the D string. Here we have another example of mode mixture: the 3rd fret double-stop uses the notes of G minor, although the chord is G7 (which would use a B natural instead of the 3rd fret Bb on the G string). This type of major-minor mode mixture is common in the blues, which often has minor pentatonic licks (using a minor third) played over dominant chords (using a major third). In some settings this would clash, but that tension is part of the sound that makes blues music compelling.

The second lick is very similar, but starts with the familiar one finger double-stop on the 3rd fret before resolving just as the first one did (though with a slightly different rhythm). Again, this minor pentatonic lick is used over the G7 chord, but it’s also used later in the song over C7. This is interesting because the same notes actually form a C9 chord when played over a C bass – more mode mixture and another lingering influence of the jazzy jump blues sound.

If you’d like to explore Chuck Berry’s style and influence further, check out John Auker’s excellent JamPlay lesson on the Berry sound and how it shaped the playing of a young Liverpool lad named George Harrison, who would go on to shake the world in the 1960’s with the Beatles:

Chuck Berry Influences

Taught by John Auker

John Auker takes a look at the style of George Harrison in the early years of the Beatles' career. From his gear to his influences, John dives into what made George one of a kind.
Show Interactive Tabs

These licks aren’t difficult to get under the fingers, but the feel is a little more subtle! Take some time to listen closely, and watch the video of Berry playing. His showmanship is undeniable and entertaining, but it’s his attitude, tone, and feel that made him the icon he is today. Get your two-tone shoes on, sharpen up your duck walk, and have fun!

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Thanks for reading.

I hope I've been able to make an impact on your playing.

Thanks again for joining us for another edition of Weekend Warrior with our guest author David Isaacs!

Chris Liepe
JamPlay Content Director

Chris Liepe

Chris Liepe is the content director at JamPlay. He was one of the first JamPlay instructors. His talents were quickly noticed, both on and off camera. Chris and the folks at JamPlay soon realized that he would be a perfect fit for the team. He hopped on board as a full time staff member in 2009 and has since been leading the charge towards realizing JamPlay's mission: providing affordable music education worldwide.

David Isaacs is a JamPlay instructor and frequest guest author for the Weekend Warrior series.

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