Musical Materials: Chuck Berry’s guitar, “Maybellene”

(This post was originally written for my grad school class on Material Culture and the Modern Museum at Johns Hopkins University!)

Music history often throws the spotlight onto great maestros like Mozart and Beethoven, trailblazers such as Joplin or Elvis, or canonical lists of the greatest albums and songs ever put to record. But music is not only defined by people or performances, but also by objects. Instruments can define the sound of a genre. Album art and concert posters set the standard for pop music iconography.

Gibson ES-350T hollow body guitar "Maybellene" with case
Chuck Berry’s Gibson ES-350T, “Maybellene.” From the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (2011.137.2).

Sometimes, musicians often become associated with certain instruments that not only define their sound but also their image. You have David Gilmour and his Fender Stratocaster. Slash’s Les Paul. But few are as foundational in defining rock and roll as “Maybellene,” Chuck Berry’s beloved guitar. The Smithsonian acquired one of Berry’s guitars in 2011 for the National Museum of African American Culture and History, alongside the classic Cadillac convertible he drove on-stage at the Fox Theater in 1986 for Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll! A fitting curatorial decision that embodies the enormous influence that Berry and his music had on popular music. More poignantly so after he passed away in March this year.

This “Maybellene” is a semi-acoustic Gibson ES-350T, made around the late 1950s by the Gibson Guitar Corporation in their original factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. This massively-proportioned hollow-body guitar looks more like the big archtops used in jazz orchestras rather than the sleek, thin solid-bodied guitars now common today. Big band guitarists needed the volume boost that electrification provided (magnets pick up string vibration and make it louder through electromagnetism), especially when they want to be heard over blaring horns and thumping drums.

Already, the electric guitar provides one critical ingredient for rock and roll: earsplitting, parent-annoying volume. But it also gave musicians a greater range of tones and moods for their music, all from one instrument. Berry uses this to great effect on “Johnny B. Goode,” when he goes from low, chugging riffs to searing solos, all in one song. But the same instrument can also deliver mellow serenades, as on “Havana Moon.” With “Maybellene in hand, Chuck Berry became “among the chief sonic architects of rock and roll music,” in the words of Smithsonian NMAAHC historian, Kevin Strait.

Wherefore art thou, Maybellene? Sometimes musicians name their instruments, like Eric Clapton and “Blackie,” or Keith Richards and his “Micawber.” For Chuck, “Maybellene” was not only his first guitar, but also his first hit single, which he recorded with Leonard Chess in Chicago, the record impresario who propelled Chuck’s hero Muddy Waters onto the limelight. Chuck must’ve named his guitar after his first hit single to attribute his first and future successes to his instrument.

So far “Maybellene” has been an integral part of his sound and his songwriting, but also for his public persona. Whether as a prop in publicity photos, or as an indispensable tool of his live concerts, “Maybellene” could look good for the cameras too. Compared to early electric guitars, “Maybellene” was also much thinner and lighter. Imagine Berry trying to shimmy or duckwalk with a bulky Gibson L-7, popularized by jazz guitar virtuoso Wes Montgomery.

When you see this on display at the NMAAHC’s “Musical Crossroads” exhibition, you may find yourself spellbound by all the histories and tales woven into that guitar. Symptoms can range from tearfully humming your personal favorite Chuck Berry tune, to browsing your local music store (or a digital retailer) to find your own “Maybellene” to sing and strum with. Chuck’s influence on popular music goes far beyond his own songwriting, but also with his instruments, which gave his tunes their voice, his career a boost, and made fifty-million fingers learn how to play guitar.

Do any of your favorite artists have a signature instrument that’s an integral part of their look or sound? Do you remember a particular concert poster, album cover, or other memorabilia that emblemizes your favorite music? Suggestions and feedback are greatly appreciated for future articles in this vein.

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