One of the highlights of my career in Hollywood was being a guitar coach to various movie and TV stars, one of which was Michael J. Fox for the first and second Back to the Future movies. Because the first movie’s 30th anniversary was last year I was asked to do several interviews. One was for a book: “We Don’t Need Roads” The Making of the Back To The Future Trilogy, by Caseen Gains. If you’re interested in these movies it’s a great book, I enjoyed it and even though I was part of the crew I learned a lot.
(Left) A pic of Michael and I jamming at a party at my house from those days. Michael parked his Ferrari on my lawn. That was so cool.
Another interview I did was with Emily Rome from HitFix.com. She was writing an article, which you can read here, about Back to the Future’s iconic Johnny B Goode scene. After the interview we had some email correspondence and I thought it might make for some interesting guitar trivia to post for you. Below is her question and my response.
…Thanks again for talking with me for my article about the Johnny B. Goode scene in Back to the Future. We’re hoping to publish that story later this week.
One thing I wanted to clarify with you — this is about the B vs. B flat thing. Though you taught Michael J. Fox to play the song in B, the recording with Tim May is in B flat, right?
If the recording is in B flat, can you help me understand one thing? Forgive my ignorance about music here, but how did it work out that audiences (or audiences familiar with guitar-playing, at least) can’t tell Michael’s playing the song in a different key than what they’re hearing? I know you and Michael worked hard to make it look like he’s really playing the song on screen. Does the fingering of B and B flat just look that similar?
Emily Rome, Associate Editor, HitFix.com
Tim May played Johnny B.Goode in Bb because Bones Howe (the music supervisor) wanted to be as accurate as possible and Bb was the key Chuck Berry often played the song in.
The fingering for the keys of Bb and B are very close, only one fret apart. There are big, visible position markers on the neck of the guitar Michael used, a Gibson ES-345. Position markers are the mother of pearl inlays that you can see on the fingerboard.
(Btw, here’s some trivia. That ES-345, that Michael plays in the film had not been invented when the movie takes place in 1955. Bob Zemeckis (the director) just thought the ES guitar would look more realistic because in most pictures or videos of Chuck, he’s playing an ES-345 or ES-335.)
Back to the position markers. When playing in Bb, a guitarist’s fingers fall in between the position markers. Since the position markers are so visible, it makes Bb pretty obvious. No 80’s guitarist would ever play Johnny B Goode in Bb so Michael and I thought Bb would look fake. Even in the 60s Jimi Hendrix played it in B. As a 80s guitarist, I played Johnny B Goode hundreds of times, but never in Bb. So, we moved Michael’s hands up 1 fret, now it looks like he’s playing in B.
Keys such as Bb are favored by horn players. In and before the 50s, horn players were the band leaders, Benny Goodman, Glen Miller etc. Band leaders usually choose the key. Chuck probably chose Bb because he started playing back in the horn player’s era. By the 80s, guitar players had become the band leaders and we guitarists don’t like flat keys. The main reason is that, if the guitar’s open strings ring out while playing in Bb, it will usually sound bad. We guitarists like open strings, if they ring out in B, no problem. Virtually, there is not a single, Van Halen, AC/DC, Boston, Foreigner, Bad Company, Rush, etc. 80’s rock song where the guitarist played in a Bb fingering.
What even makes this more confusing is that many 80s guitarists tuned down a fret. If a guitar is tuned down this way, and the a guitarist uses a B fingering, the result will be Bb. His hands will still be on the position markers, he will be thinking B, but the end result is Bb. Sorry, this is very confusing. But add in different tunings to the picture and it shows that it’s hard anyway, for guitarists to tell keys from another guitarist’s hand position.
Now to answer your question, the only people who would notice that Michael’s hands are in B and the song was recorded in Bb, would be a guitarist with perfect pitch. But I’m not sure, even guitarists with perfect pitch would notice, because the keys of B and Bb are so close. I read at a website that 1 in every 10,000 people have perfect pitch. I have met very few guitarists over the years with perfect pitch, and I’ve known thousands of guitarists because I taught at Musicians Institute in Hollywood for 15 years.
So, there you go.