Study Guide

Johnny B. Goode Technique

  • Music

    Berry brought together country music, blues, and the newly electric sound of the times in a mish-mash sound that is now synonymous with "rock and roll." As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame put it, "it was his particular genius to graft country and western guitar licks onto a rhythm and blues chassis" (source).

    Let's take the song apart and see if we can hear just what they meant.

    First, the rhythm and blues chassis. A chassis, by the way, is a word for the underlying mechanical structure of something (in this case, a song). R&B chassis shaped the song: The drums beat out a familiar 4/4 beat on bass and snare with the occasional cymbal. The driving bass line is pulled straight from the blues, running up and down a blues scale throughout the song with little variation. A guitar and piano are thrown on top—relatively typical for R&B of the era, but you might add horns or a saxophone over the guitar.

    The guitar—Chuck's specialty—is where the real bending and melding happens. People have described Chuck's guitar riffs as imitating the piano and the horn section. You can almost hear a boogie-woogie piano part in the opening guitar measures. But that fast-paced strumming and twangy electric solo that is now immediately recognizable as rock and roll was a new sound at the time. Country-western guitar players did it, but it hadn't been paired with the blues structure that formed the basis for "Johnny B. Goode."

    The result is something that seems simple to us now. At the time, though, nobody even knew what to call it. Nonetheless, it was easy to listen to, easy to sing along to, and simple enough to imitate, even according to Berry himself. He said, "Making it simple is another important factor that resulted in a lot of the other artists understanding and being able to play my music—if you can call it my music. But there is nothing new under the sun." (Source)

  • Calling Card

    Chuck Berry and fellow rocker Jerry Lee Lewis once got into a fight over who was the true king of rock and roll. Each one was, of course, advocating for himself. Chuck "whupped butt," in Lewis' words. (Source)

    In need of some affirmation, Jerry Lee Lewis brought the dispute to his mother. She let him in on the secret: Chuck, not Jerry, took the cake. Johnny B. Goode is the archetype, and Chuck is the real thing. "He's the king of rock n' roll," said Jerry Lee. "My mama told me that." That's a pretty serious calling card.

  • Songwriting

    Johnny B. Goode is a song about a country boy's fantasy of becoming a famous guitar-player, fitting considering Berry's general focus on fame, fantasy, and teenage life in his lyrics. But what is most significant about Berry's songwriting in "Johnny B. Goode" is not so much the subject matter as Berry's use of description and narrative storytelling. Instead of a series of disconnected verses about one topic, Johnny B. Goode is a story. It has an introduction, a climax, and a conclusion.

    The introduction gives us a setting and a character: a log cabin "made of earth and wood" and a boy who plays the guitar "just like ringing a bell." In just six lines, Berry provides us with a clear image: the back woods, a boy with talent, and nothing but a cabin to explore it in. 

    In the second verse, as in any good story, Berry presents a problem: The boy has no place to play. He sits under a tree by the railroad and strums to the rhythm of the passing trains. He's so good that he is noticed by train engineers and passers-by. The story begins to sound familiar—he's one of those old bluesmen, out in the backwoods just playing to whoever will listen, hoping to make a break somehow.

    The third verse is the most important part of the story, presenting the climax by predicting the future. Berry introduces the character of Johnny B. Goode's mom to take us through the steps. "Someday," she tells Johnny, "you will be a man." We are presented with two images: the future life of the famous guitar-player Johnny wants to be, and the current life of a young boy listening to his mom tell him that he is going to be great when he grows up. This dual narrative is the story's climax, because it indicates the moment when Johnny realizes that he needs to "go, Johnny, go" until he makes it to that dreamed-of fame. If all goes well, the future holds his name in lights and people screaming "Johnny B. Goode!" 

    The denouement (that's the conclusion or tying up of a story or drama)? That unforgettable refrain of "go, Johnny, go" reminding the boy of what he needs to do to get there.

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