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How to Play Johnny B. Goode on Guitar

Today I want to share with you how to play “Johnny B. Goode” on guitar.

This song is iconic and has a number of quintessential Chuck Berry guitar moves in it. We'll unpack rhythm & blues rhythm patterns, early blues rock licks, his signature double-stops, and even how to get a Chuck Berry-style guitar tone.

In this guitar lesson, I am going to highlight specific areas of his playing with the goal of players being able to take some of his guitar style and infuse it into their own music.

So with that said let’s get started!

Who wrote Johnny B. Goode?

"Johnny B. Goode" was written and first recorded by legendary guitarist and singer Chuck Berry. The song was released in 1958 first as a single and it reached #2 on the Billboard charts.

This song is considered one of the most recognizable songs in the history of popular music, and it was even ranked #33 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Johnny B. Goode Chords

There are only 3 chords you need to play Johnny B. Goode, Bb, Eb, and F. The song is in the key of Bb and uses the I, IV, and V chords of that key. 

Bb = I chord

Eb = IV chord

F = V chord

These chords get their Roman numeral from the scale of the key of the song. So since the song is in the key of Bb the chords all relate to a Bb major scale.

A Bb major scale consists of these notes: 

Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, A

1     2  3    4   5   6  7

This scale can be played in the 5th position like this:

The same strings and frets can be played like this:

6th string: 6, 8

5th string: 5, 6, 8

4th string: 5, 7, 8

3rd string: 5, 7, 8

2nd string: 6, 8

1st string: 5, 6, 8

Here are the shapes I would play to represent these chords:

Bb I would play as a bar chord in the 6th position with a root on the 6th string like this:

Eb has a root on the 5th string and can be played like this:

And finally, F is played the same way as Eb just moved up two frets like this:

Is Johnny B. Goode a 12-bar blues?

Once these chord shapes feel comfortable you’ll next want to put them into the chord progression for the song. The chord progression for Johnny B. Goode follows a typical 12-bar blues pattern. The chord progression goes like this:

Bb (4 bars)

Eb (2 bars)

Bb (2 bars)

F (2 bars)

Bb (2 bars)

Notice the last 4 bars go F for 2 bars and then Bb for 2 bars. This progression is called the turnaround progression. If we thought of this progression in terms of Roman numerals it would go from the V chord back home to the I chord. Note how there is no Eb, or IV chord in the last 4 bars. 

The Rhythm

Berry’s rhythm part is based on the above 3 chords, however, instead of playing the bar chord, he actually only used 2 strings at a time and played a part like this:

This is a blues rhythm pattern that he adapted for rock n roll. To play this part I use my index and ring finger in my fretting hand to play the 6th and 5th strings. From there I reach up with my pinkie finger to grab the 10th fret on the 5th string. 

This pattern can feel a bit stretchy for a lot of players. If that is the case for you try moving the pattern higher up the neck first and try it where the frets are closer together. Then over time move it down towards the 6th fret 1 fret at a time as you work on your finger stretches. 

Remember to relax your hand, check your posture, and also never force a chord. Just play it and then release it.

This pattern then can be moved to each chord in the blues. 

So Eb would be played by shifting the pattern to the 5th string like this:

And finally, F would be played by shifting the pattern up 2 frets from Eb like this:

One of the incredibly unique things about this song is the fact that the drummer and bass player swung the rhythm while Chuck Berry played straight eighth notes in his rhythm part.

In "Johnny B. Goode," the drummer plays a pattern where the snare drum accents the backbeats (beats 2 and 4 of the measure) with a slight push or anticipation. The bass player supports this by emphasizing the same backbeats with a syncopated and bouncy walking bass line. 

Meanwhile, Chuck Berry's guitar part remains consistent with straight 8th notes. He plays a driving rhythm that emphasizes the downbeats, creating a steady and propulsive foundation for the song. 

This created a really interesting interplay between the rhythm section and Chuck Berry's guitar part. Essentially they created a swing feel within a straight 8th note framework. In blues guitar so often we play the rhythm part that Berry played but with a swing feel. To me, this really shows the transition from the blues into rock n roll. 

The combination of Chuck Berry's straight 8th note guitar part and the swing feel in the rhythm section creates a dynamic and infectious groove in "Johnny B. Goode." 

Johnny B. Goode Made Simple

If the above version is too hard try this...

You see I’ve noticed over the years many students run into this ONE issue when learning blues rhythm patterns.

Take for example the common blues rhythm pattern above like this...

e|----------------------------------------|
B|----------------------------------------|
G|---------------------------------------|
D|---------------------------------------|
A|-----8---8---10--8—---------------|
E|-----6---6---6---6-------------------|

The issue students have is that their pinkie finger won’t stretch far enough to reach it…

Have you struggled with this?

Well, GOOD NEWS!

Today I want to share with you a quick tip that makes playing this pattern SO much EASIER.

How do I get Johnny B. Goode guitar tone?

To get a similar tone to Berry here are a few key elements I would consider: 

  1. Your Guitar Choice: Berry was often seen playing Gibson hollow-body guitars, such as the Gibson ES-350T or the Gibson ES-345. These guitars have a warm, full-bodied tone that contributes to his signature sound. While any electric guitar can work, using a semi-hollow or hollow-body guitar can help you get closer to his tone.
  2. Humbucker Pickups: Berry's guitars were often loaded with humbucker pickups. These have a warmer tone. If your guitar has single-coil pickups, consider rolling off the tone knob slightly to achieve a warmer tone.
  3. Amplifier: Berry used a variety of amplifiers throughout his career, but he is closely associated with classic Fender combo amplifiers. These amplifiers have a distinct warm and gritty tone that contributes to his sound. If you don't have access to a vintage Fender amp, you can try using a modern tube amp that offers a similar tone or use amp modeling software.
  4. Distortion or Clean?: Berry often used no pedals, his sound came from the guitar and the amp set to just the edge of breakup. His guitar tone was relatively clean.

Remember that capturing someone's exact tone is challenging, as it is influenced by various factors, including the player's touch, the specific gear used, and the recording techniques. However, by considering these elements and experimenting with your own gear and playing style, you can get closer to achieving that sweet Chuck Berry guitar tone!

Conclusion:

Learning to play "Johnny B. Goode" on the guitar is not only a ton of fun but it’s also a great opportunity to explore the iconic guitar style of Chuck Berry. Throughout this blog post, we have explored the essential elements of capturing his guitar tone and dissected the interplay between the rhythm section and his straight 8th-note guitar part.

We’ve covered unique insights into Berry's playing style, including his dynamic and rhythmic nuances, his use of string bends and double stops, and his fast, staccato picking. By incorporating these tips into your own guitar style, you can not only master "Johnny B. Goode" but also combine your own playing style with the essence of Chuck Berry's.

Remember, to take it slow and when you are ready try to put it together with the recording. Happy playing and for another great Chuck Berry-style guitar lesson check out “No Particular Place To Go” next!

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