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Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode": The 12th Greatest Guitar Solo of All Time

(Image credit: Francois Durand/Getty Images)

Chuck Berry helped shape rock and roll by mixing elements of blues and country, adding some boogie woogie piano, and kicking it all together with his own slashing shuffle rhythms.

Berry also was instrumental in making the electric guitar rock and roll’s primary instrument. In fact, for many years rock guitar was practically defined by Berry’s distinct, T-Bone Walker-inspired doublestops and frequent, dramatic use of slides, slurs and bends.

A renaissance man rocker, Berry was not only a brilliant guitarist and performer, but was unparalleled as a songwriter as well. And his most enduring song, appropriately, celebrated himself; “Johnny B. Goode” was a thinly disguised account of Berry’s rise to international stardom.

“The song had its birth when a [1955] tour first brought me to New Orleans, a place I’d longed to visit ever since hearing Muddy Waters’ lyrics, ‘Going down to Louisiana way behind the sun,’ ” writes Berry in his autobiography. “That inspiration, combined with little bits of dad’s stories and the thrill of seeing my black name posted all over town in one of the cities they brought the slaves through, turned into ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ ”

After naming the song’s protagonist Johnny after his keyboardist Johnnie Johnson, Berry wrote the lyrics in two weeks of “periodic application.” The repeated chorus calls of “Go Johnny Go” are a tribute to Berry’s mother’s constant encouragement, while other imagery was also inspired by his family. “I’d been told my great grandfather lived ‘way back up among the evergreens’ in a log cabin,’ ” Berry writes.

“I revived that era with a story about a ‘colored boy name Johnny B. Goode’…but I thought that would seem biased to white fans...and changed it to ‘country boy.’ ” The single was recorded at Chess Studios in Chicago, on December 29 or 30, 1957, with Berry backed by a lean, swinging blues trio of Willie Dixon (bass), Lafayette Leake (piano) and Fed Below (drums). The same session also yielded “Reelin’ and Rockin’ ” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

While those tunes also became standards, their impact pales in comparison to that of “Johnny B. Goode.” As Billy Altman notes in his liner notes to The Chuck Berry Box (MCA), the song has become so ingrained in American culture that it’s hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist. And, thanks to the late astronomer Carl Sagan, the whole universe may know the tune by now; it was hauled off on the Voyager 1 space probe, hurtling past Jupiter and Saturn and toward Neptune, some four-billion miles away.

Next: 11) "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)"

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Guitar World Staff
Guitar World Staff

Since 1980, Guitar World has been the ultimate resource for guitarists. Whether you want to learn the techniques employed by your guitar heroes, read about their latest projects or simply need to know which guitar is the right one to buy, Guitar World is the place to look.