Sunday, February 10, 2013

Beauty: The Battered Guitar of Chuck Berry

Photo by Peter K.
There’s a great scene in the Chuck Berry movie “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll” where he’s walking through an airport talking about how he travelled back in the day—i.e., toothbrush, guitar, and a roundtrip ticket. And when he’s asked if he checks the guitar he says something like:

“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, 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.

Even if you’re not Chuck Berry guitars wear out, and after 34 years I’d worn certain frets on my Ovation down to the rosewood. And the action got bad, especially up high.  So a few months ago I took it to a Seattle luthier with the very contradictory but poetic name of Cat Fox.  (Find her here.)  Her initial plan was to file down the frets, but when she got started working on the guitar she realized there was no hope for the little filaments that remained.  She called me to say that we needed to replace them all.

I was happy.

I had an immediate vision: Chuck Berry’s beautiful yellow guitar encased in glass near the front door of Blueberry Hill.  The guitar that played Maybellene.  The guitar that rocked the Apollo and the Brooklyn Paramount.  I remembered staring at the fretboard and those beautiful frets, thinking what had come off them and how those sounds had affected my life.

“I want those big fat frets,” I told her.

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.

(She even took out the Ikea battery that my youngest child had inserted into the guitar at some point long ago, and which had been clunking loudly and helplessly for several years!)

I’m not much of a guitarist. I have a certain feel for music, but not much technique or talent. But I love my guitar and play it all the time.  (Or one of them anyway.  There are others.)

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!)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great Post Peter!