|Photo by Peter K.|
“Oh yeah, each one about six months, then a new one. Deductible. Tools, you know!”
Years ago I used to see him with a cherry red Gibson, but for decades he’s often been seen with a "wine red" one.
I assumed it was one of many—tools, you know, deductible.
But if you look at http://www.chuckberry.com/forum, you’ll find wonderful details about that particular guitar—a beat up, scratched up, battle hardened, Gibson ES 355 with missing knobs, a missing tremolo bar, and duct tape (or something like it) stuck carelessly along the base. And the details come from "a reliable source"—his son and backup guitarist, Charles Berry, II (a/k/a CBII, a/k/a “Son of Rock and Roll.”)
You can and should go to the original sources on the forum—but I can't help sharing some of it here. From what I gather, this particular old guitar is one helluva specimen. Says CBII: “It has a tone like very few Gibsons I have ever heard. They (Gibson) really built that Guitar to perfection! Other than an electrical conduit brace being added, the only things that have been done to it are string changes, setups, and me polishing it on December 13, 2008 before a show here in St. Louis.”
I can testify personally to this much—when Chuck Berry plays it, it has a sound of its own, like railroad airhorns, beautiful to hear.
In another post CBII describes the guitar in more detail: “It's a 1978 ES-355. My father bought it new here in St. Louis. It's a true work horse of a guitar. What's really special about it is the tone. For it to be from the 70's, it's one of the best sounding 355's made (excluding of course the one's made in the 50's - mid 60's). Yeah, it's been beat up but it has a really rich sound quality to it. The newer ES-345's have a REALLY, REALLY good tone to them as well." He says a little later that it was a factory second, with blemishes of some kind, stamped "second" somewhere.
But first in our hearts.
My favorite story on the website is about a time when CBII tried to do his dad a favor, and fix up the old guitar just prior to a show at Blueberry Hill. He put on new knobs and a new tremelo bar.
“They were off the guitar before we went on stage,” says Charles.
(You may have seen Berry react to someone's effort to adjust the sound on his amplifier in “Hail! Hail!” The man knows his mind.)
Read all about it here. And here. And here.
Guitars can be beautiful things.
I got my own guitar in about 1975—so evidently I've had it even longer than Berry's had his wine red one. Mine is not a Gibson—but I bought it because it looks like a Chuck Berry guitar-- except prettier, maybe, with a light natural finish-- spruce up front, and maple in the rear. It's pretty gorgeous, to tell you the truth.
But it's also one of the weirder guitars on the planet—an Ovation semi-hollow body called something like a “Thunderhead.” I have only seen two others outside the internet. One was held by David Cassidy of the Partridge Family in a publicity shot. The other was played on stage by a guitarist for Zydeco star Queen Ida Gillroy at the Sacramento Blues Festival sometime around 1975 or 1976. The Partridge Family guitar made me feel pretty ridiculous, but the Zydeco blues guitar made me happy. I loved Queen Ida, I liked her guitarist, and he was a real musician playing my slightly unreal guitar.
When I picked up the guitar a few days later, it was better than it ever had been—the action low, the hardware tight, the neck straight! The jack slipped in with a hearty clunk and stayed put. The strings glistened millimeters above big fat frets.
Ah, ‘twas a joy.
And I love that Chuck Berry seems to love his guitars, too, and that he's kept the one so long. In an old interview in Guitar Player Magazine he fondly remembers one of his first electrics. In his book he talks about his first four string. Somewhere else he talks about fat frets. In his “poem” he talks about playing his favorite old guitar to the sound of rainfall. (“Sometimes it will be classics, and sometimes lullabies. But mostly rock and roll, which I’ll surely improvise.”) In a song he sings a lot these days-- "Love in 3/4 Time"-- he mentions his liking “my best red guitar.” And as you'll see above, his son can go on and on about the details of various Gibsons.
If you play guitar, or want to, you probably understand.
(Hey, check out the rest of the blog by hitting the title, or you can read my book about a life infected by Chuck Berry starting HERE. It's free!)