Back To The Future’s high-school dance scene is one of the great set-pieces in the movie, and has been a source of hot debate for guitarists ever since Michael J Fox, as McFly, picked up a Gibson ES-345 and let rip during the Johnny B. Goode solo, bridging the generational gap between rock ’n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry and Eddie Van Halen, who in 1985, at the time of the film’s release, was the hottest player around.
The scene has been the subject of much debate, not least because the ES-345 was an anachronism, but also because we never knew exactly what we were hearing – certainly not when sitting in movie theatres as Robert Zemeckis’ film played. Reportedly, Fox wanted to use a Strat in the first place.
Well, kudos to those who guessed all along that it was Strat copy from Valley Arts Guitars – because that was indeed the guitar on the track.
May revealed all when sitting in conversation with Mason Marangella of Vertex Effects for a career-spanning interview that took in his work with Lionel Richie, playing on Blondie’s Call Me, and of course his studio work for Back To The Future.
The Valley Arts S-style, was May’s go-to for many a session, and it got the nod over his ES-335 and Les Paul because it could do it all.
“The direction I was given was, ‘Okay, we want to go in this performance from Chuck Berry ‘50s-style to the current [style],’ which was Van Halen and that sort of thing. ‘We want to encompass the history of the guitar from there to there,’” he says. “We just played a few takes and I just did whatever I did and it seemed to work. I chose this because I was doing hammer-ons, and I needed the Floyd… And it worked out good. It covered all the bases for me.”
May’s solo took Chuck Berry into proto-shred territory and blew McFly’s audience and bandmates’ minds (they just weren’t ready for it), and he was game enough to give it a quick blast on video here, even if one of the reasons he loves being a session player is because he never has to play anything again once he has left the studio.
- Up close with the ultimate Dumble Overdrive Special Jason Isbell calls “possibly the greatest amplifier ever made"
As May explains, his rosewood S-style was his Strat for that whole period in the ‘80s, during which he performed on some of Lionel Richie’s biggest hits, including Hello and All Night Long. May wasn’t alone. Valley Arts Guitars was the choice of the ‘80s session player; Steve Lukather, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Tommy Tedesco, and David Williams all played them.
May’s was built by Mike McGuire and he gave him very little instruction. “This was number 25. I just said, ‘Mike, go!’” he recalls. “He picked a very hard maple neck, nice ebony fingerboard, and this rosewood [body] which makes it heavy but it’s manageable. And it’s just turned out to be a great guitar.
“I have a theory about guitars. You can get all the best ingredients you can think of and put them together, but if they don’t really work together it doesn’t work. And you can get some inexpensive guitars that just sync together, the neck, the body and the woods, the whole thing. I might be all wrong about that but it seems like that’s how they interact.”
One particularly interesting feature on May’s Valley Arts S-style is the onboard mid-boost, which allows him to have a beefier tone when using the single-coils.
May didn’t just play the solo on Johnny B. Goode. He played what the band played, rendering Earth Angel faithfully as mid '50s doo-wop, and even tried his hand as a foley artist as he created the electric guitar noises for the scene in which McFly visits his then-future father, George, and introduces himself as Darth Vader with an urgent message from the planet Vulcan.
You can check out the full interview above and subscribe to the Vertex Effects YouTube channel here.