With the passing of Chuck Berry over the weekend, the world lost one of the last remaining forefathers of rock and roll. Most of the others have been gone for decades. While we still had Chuck, however, it was nice to maintain that touchstone to the early days of one of music’s most influential, creative, and vibrant forms.
Chuck Berry’s contributions to music and to American culture should be inspiring to all of us.
I write about disruption and innovation a lot, because I think those aspects are crucial to a well-functioning economy, not to mention a monument to freedom and the indomitable human spirit. Chuck Berry was one of the great disruptors of rock music. Where his contemporaries have been criticized for merely copying black music and popularizing it under a sheen of whiteness, Berry pushed those same forms forward with instrumental prowess and showmanship that were the envy of his contemporaries.
I have always believed that there are three great milestones in the history of electric guitar playing. CHuck Berry is the first, Jimi Hendrix is the second, and Eddie Van Halen is the third. Each of these players revolutionized the instrument, expanding its vocabulary and forcing audiences to reconsider what was possible with only six strings. Once each of these men had been heard, there was no going back; The instrument was changed forever.
In Berry’s case, he was really the first person to develop a distinctly electric style of playing. While Les Paul had developed the electric guitar decade before Berry gained fame with it, most people continued to play as if it were just another acoustic. The primary benefit of amplification was the ability to be heard over a big band. But Berry realized that there are things you can do on an electric guitar that are hardly possible on an acoustic. He took advantage of the instrument’s slimmer neck and thinner strings to play faster, bend the strings further, and develop a style of riff-based playing previously unheard.
Just as Jerry Lee Lewis developed a distinctly rock and roll form of piano playing by building on ragtime and boogie woogie, Chuck Berry established the guitar as a rock instrument. Where Johnny Cash chugged like a locomotive and Scotty Moore backed Elvis with a kind of country-blues influenced picking, Chuck taught us how to shred, duckwalking his way across the stage as if the magic he was performing with his fingers wasn’t enough.
Time marches on, and so does music. To modern listeners, Chuck Berry’s riffing may sound quaint and cliché, but that’s only because his music has proven so influential that there is no rock guitarist on the planet who does not owe a debt to him in one way or another, whether they realize it or not.
Chuck Berry’s contributions to music and to American culture should be inspiring to all of us. I know that I am not alone in saying that though he will be missed, his legacy will never be forgotten.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed Matt Kibbe as the author.
Logan Albright is a researcher for Conservative Review and Director of Research for Free the People. You can follow him on Twitter @loganalbright73.