Ten Monster Riffs
It started with the blues and then the Brits took over. Ten of the most influential riffs ever written.
Songs based on riffs are are a modern invention. They can sometimes be flimsy excuses to plant a killer hook into your brain. The song might not be terribly important — but the riff must be immortal. Here are ten examples, in no particular order, of pretty good songs with riffs that will echo in halls of Valhalla, or at least jukeboxes and iPods, till the sun burns out.
Smokestack Lightning Howlin’ Wolf
It starts with the blues. It predates the British invasion. In fact, it may have inspired it and it further underlines the weird cultural stew that is America. For a lot of teenage boys, living away from the center of this city the last few decades, there are probably three guitar players at the top of their favorites list: Jimmy Page, Eric Capton and Jeff Beck. Ironically, those three guitar gods (and many others) all wanted to grow up to be Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist and a longtime Milwaukee resident. Sumlin’s riff on Smokestack Lightning, trancy and insinuating, was studied widely in England. In fact, when you listen to Wolf’s London Sessions, the big guy is heard coaching a few of them.Though riffs are a blues thing, they needed to make the trip across the ocean to buy some bell-bottoms and Marshall amps so they could come back home to conquer the airwaves.
Oh Pretty Woman Roy Orbison
There are a few great homegrown riffs and, if there is a godhead from which all others flow, this one is it. As nasty and insinuating as it gets, it makes sense that it was cut in Nashville, home of some nasty and insinuating guitar players. There were three on this session — four if you count Roy’s 12-string. Billy Sanford played the opening riff. I’m not sure what the others did, but they were Jerry Kennedy, a great producer, and legendary session man Wayne Moss. I once shook hands with Buddy Harmon who was one of the two drummers. He was president of the Nashville Musicians Union and looked much nicer than my mental image of the guy who played that smashing backbeat. When you add up all the musicians, including the legendary Floyd Cramer on piano, you get a Phil Spector style mini-orchestra. Amazing how they make it sound like one giant instrument!
Day Tripper The Beatles
It’s no coincidence this song appeared less than two years after Pretty Woman. It’s DNA tags it as a direct descendant. And it’s not just the lick; the insistent quarter notes on the snare are right out the Orbison handbook. The Beatles always stole smart, able to pay tribute while picking your pockets. They could laugh at and respect their sources at the same time. (Lady Madonna, for example.) The riff is immediately memorable; I bet it’s in your head as you read this. They use it on three different chords and it fakes you out at first, making you think the song is a blues of some sort. Then they get to the chorus, where the chords could only be called Beatlesque. The peak of the song is a long crescendo at the end of the instrumental. It builds enough pressure to blow up your turntable, then somehow releases gently into the last verse and the repeats. Hear it once, you’ll never forget it.
I Feel Fine The Beatles
John Lennon played a ¾ size Rickenbacker guitar. That won’t mean much to the 99 percent of fans who aren’t gear-queers, but if you try to play this clever lick, you realize you need any advantage you can get. It’s a stretch. There is plenty of evidence on Youtube of our man pulling it off and singing at the same time. The long sets in Hamburg paid off. Lennon was probably the least-skilled musician in the band, but he would be the best in many. Ringo, always underrated, lays down a beautiful latin groove. The Beatles were superb players and even though they used studio musicians to expand their productions, they were good enough to nail it by themselves. (I have to assume they’re lip-synching here because George is singing into a punching bag and Ringo is on an exercise bike.)
You Really Got Me The Kinks
Say hello to Heavy Metal. It may have been born at this session. The very first Kinks hit is based on the simplest riff ever. It is played with fierce intensity by Dave Davies, although there is an ongoing discussion about whether or not it was actually Jimmy Page. Luckily, most of the world doesn’t obsess about stuff like this. After this song, the ‘50s were over (along with cornball dancing like the choreographed cuteness seen at the end of this video), the ‘60s were something else completely and the seeds for all kinds of ‘70s excesses were planted. That’s how instantly modern it was.
I Can’t Explain The Who
A variation on The Kinks barn burner. It is played with beautiful crispness by Pete Townshend and sung by one of rock’s great voices, Roger Daltry. This video is two minutes and six seconds, but might be the best documentary of mod culture I’ve seen. The Who, undeniably talented, also made it possible for those with less-than-rockstar looks to be part of the scene. All you needed was a hook that went deeper than Queequeg’s harpoon and people would forget you were a gawky and somewhat beaky lad.
Sunshine Of Your Love Cream
A rewrite of the last two, really, but important for a couple reasons. One, Eric Clapton plays this way up the neck as a full barre chord. You needed a long-neck Gibson SG to even attempt to grab a handful of strings that high. Way beyond mere power chords, it was a spectacular case of the heavens splitting open and thunderbolts being hurled by a guy the early fans called “god.” The other significant feature is the weird, Anthony Newley tribute from Jack Bruce. Introducing operatic pretension that felt fresh for a second, his singing would empower (along with Mr Wrong-Octave, Robert Plant) all the bad metal singers you ever wished you could turn down.
Rattlesnake Shake Fleetwood Mac
Yes, there was a Fleetwood Mac before Rumours made them trillionaires. At one time they featured a guy named Peter Green, a slinky guitarist who created this long winding riff. (He also wrote Black Magic Woman.) This riff was the opposite of to-the-point, but it worked. It’s rarely noted that about this time, prog-rock was developing and a lot of what had been danceable and groove-oriented was becoming impossible for your average fan to figure out rhythmically. It ushered in the age of stoners who had given up on slick moves and now wobbled in precarious ecstasy at the front of the stage. This song, though, is a gem.
Satisfaction The Rolling Stones
Keith Richards found this on his cassette recorder one morning. He wasn’t sure he wrote it, since he didn’t remember getting up in the middle of the night and recording it. I’m going to guess there were a lot of things Keith did in the wee wee hours he couldn’t recall the next day. I’m glad he captured this. The riff is simple and the words come in a long stream of venom from everyone’s favorite serpent/front man. My band and thousands of others had no choice but to learn this thing. It sold also millions of fuzz tone pedals and you might say it gave birth to American garage rock, a precursor to punk. Trace it all the way back to Mick Jagger, with his limited tenor, trying to sound like an American bluesman. Most of those influenced by him over here could have gone out their front doors and caught the real thing.
Jumpin Jack Flash The Rolling Stones
Keith’s cassette recorder was one of the very first and must have had a riff magnet in it. Aside from capturing nocturnal ramblings, he found one very unique use for it. At the height of their most fertile period, Richards became obsessed with the way acoustic guitars would overpower the input section in his recorder and drive the meters through the roof. We are very lucky he had an early model — later on they added built in compressors to avoid this sonic calamity. Jumping Jack Flash was not only written on this machine, the guitars, as he revealed in his entertaining autobiography, were all acoustics, played through this device. The lick itself is devilishly hypnotic and Jumpin’ Jack Flash, named for one of their gardeners, was a smash. Another song featuring this odd technique is Street Fightin’ Man. So who needs electric guitars?
This list is highly personal, and, of course, ten is a very arbitrary number. It could and should be longer, my apologies if your favorite isn’t on here. It is decidedly English and that makes sense, since at the time these riffs were being created, that country’s bands led the world in their production.