I always enjoy it when music critics sit down together—either literally or metaphorically—and engage in a lively discourse about an aspect of the medium. And what subject have music journalist Simon Reynolds and Carl of the Impostume decided to exchange sporting back-and-forth Blogspot posts about all this week? Why, nothing less than the topic of the almighty riff. Between the two of them, they’ve already covered iconic licks by Iron Butterfly, Budgie, Ted Nugent, Nazareth, and Mountain, and I for one am following intently to see what slices of riff-based majesty they will whip out next.
The riff: is there any sweeter two-word phrase in the rock vocabulary? I say nay (okay, “Freddie Mercury” and “more cowbell” are contenders, but neither of them fill the soundtrack albums of summer blockbusters about Iron Man). As posited by Carl on the Impostume, “A good riff should, I think, make you squint. Or wince. Either way it’s eye-narrowing.” I briefly touched on the power and allure of an excellent riff before when discussing Green Day’s “When I Come Around” here in Sound Affects, where I held a similar viewpoint to his. Basically, what makes a riff great is how it instinctively grabs you, to the point where words fail to adequately convey the enrapturing experience. Sure, I can go on at length discussing a riff’s melodic components or how it locks into the groove in an effort to illuminate why I feel it works, but at the end of the day what I really judge the effectiveness of a riff against is by how much I want to hear it again. And again and again. Great riffs are ultimately only held to the pivotal “does it rock?” standard, which makes attempts to further complicate that criterion pretty pointless. Because of this, I have to disagree with Carl’s assertion that the best riffs are generally the slower ones. Quality riffs come in all shapes and forms, so the blitzkrieg attack of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” can pack as much of a punch as the self-assured stomp of AC/DC’s “Back in Black”, and both are as valid as the punk simplicity of the Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat”.
After reading the blog posts, I was naturally instilled with the urge to formulate my own list of top riffs. For sanity’s sake, I’ll keep it short here. In selecting riffs to highlight, I chose to stay away from the painfully obvious (everything from “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, not to mention the riffographies of undisputed masters Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath) because ideally you and the customer service people at the local guitar stop who patiently wait for you to finish playing those riffs on the in-store gear already know them by heart. You should be familiar with most of my selections, though. These aren’t necessarily my favorite riffs of all time; nonetheless, I will argue wholeheartedly for their greatness at any opportunity.
It doesn’t get the attention the justifiably-legendary “You Really Got Me” does, but “All Day and All of the Night” is the home to my favorite Kinks riff. It’s got three chords as opposed to the two the main section of “You Really Got Me” relies on, and that’s enough to make me favor it more. No matter what song he was riffing to, in the 1960s the Kinks’ Dave Davies had what might very well have been the greatest rock guitar tone ever envisioned.
The main riff to the Foo Fighters’ 1995 single “I’ll Stick Around” makes me surge with energy every time I hear it. Sometimes I have to reach for the nearest stringed instrument so I can bash it out myself. Naturally, the influence of Nirvana permeated the first Foo Fighters album. In formulating this song’s riff, drummer-turned-guitarist Dave Grohl drew from the violent lurching quality of his former group’s masterpiece “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, a key factor many Nirvana-bes neglected when attempting to create their own would-be alt-rock anthems. Knowing how to properly lock in with the rhythm section (which on Foo Fighters was 100% Dave Grohl) sure didn’t hurt the riff’s execution either.
Speaking of grunge, Soundgarden was arguably the most accomplished of the genre’s riff-merchants. “Outshined” replicates the dirgey blues-inspired grooves Black Sabbath built its reputation on, but what really makes the song stand out is its use of odd meter time signatures. The second bar of the main riff is in 3/4 time instead of 4/4, and that missing beat creates an unresolved tension that heightens the song’s mood of punishing depression.
When it comes to metal, having a guitarist who’s a human riff factory is almost mandatory. The late Dimebag Darrell of Pantera was definitely one of the most talented and prolific the genre had to offer. Say what you will about Pantera’s macho posturing as well as its dubious early days as a glam metal band, but I dare anyone to not be driven into a riff-induced frenzy by the Texas quartet’s declarative anthem “Cowboys from Hell”. The number of killer riffs (not to mention the variations that crop up) contained in this song is almost embarrassing.
Hell, while I’m at it, I might as well throw in Pantera’s “I’m Broken”. This riff is so badass it makes me want to instinctively throw down with the first person I run into. When a riff is so awesome it makes you want to beat up someone, that’s when you know it’s one for the ages.
Finally, I want to highlight a cult favorite. Daniel Ash’s early ‘80s Tones on Tail project produced plenty of fantastic riffs, but none top the one from “Go!” It’s perfectly poised yet infectiously danceable. You’ve probably heard it in a car commercial lately, but it really needs to be experienced while dancing on a dimly-lit dancefloor during a nightclub’s goth night event.
So what are the riffs you praise?
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.