My Favourite Riffs

A riff is defined thus:

a short repeated phrase in popular music and jazz, typically used as an introduction or refrain in a song.
“a brilliant guitar riff”

And naturally they are a very common beast, especially in rock music, though some have the benefit of being utterly memorable and sticking inside your head like superglue.  Not everyone will agree with this selection, but it’s mine and the website is mine too, so what the hell!

10. AC/DC – Back in Black

Never an AC/DC or metal fan, but the scorching riff this song has become utterly ubiquitous.  It’s even played as the anthem of the Chelmsford ice hockey team, being instantly recognisable and certainly memorable.

9. White Stripes – Seven Nation Army

Another song with a remarkably simple riff that works so well it’s been co-opted by everyone and his dog.  It’s the very simplicity that makes it unforgettable.

8. Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit

Probably couldn’t select ten great riffs without including this, though Nirvana are not exactly my regular choice.  However, the personal connection goes with my trip to Seattle to see how the proud city fathers commemorate the home of Grunge Rock.

7.  Walk In The Night – Junior Walker & the All-Stars

A piano riff this time, overlaid with lush strings, backing vocals and Junior’s timeless sax.  Gorgeous.

6. Badly Drawn Boy – Everybody’s Stalking

Great pun and a great song with a simple riff on which I was hooked from the moment I first heard the song.

5. Smiths – How Soon Is Now

My lad would agree with this choice.  Johnny Marr’s riff on this track was at the time like nothing else recorded, and still sounds pretty unique to this day.

4. Iggy Pop & The Stooges – The Passenger

My son would choose Lust For Life, but this is one of those truly simple three-chord riffs that combine with Iggy’s vocals to make for a song beloved by advertisers (particularly of cars, in spite of the dark lyrics)

3. Cream – Sunshine Of Your Love

A real scorcher, demonstrative of the benefits of a minor key scale and downbeat riffing.  Instantly recognisable and arguably Clapton’s theme tune after Layla -though it was actually Jack Bruce that wrote the song. This makes up for excluding Layla!

2. Led Zeppelin – In The Light

Led Zep, inevitably, though this choice might raise a few eyebrows.  Once you get past the elongated opening of the song (of which there are two alternative versions), you reach an outrageous eye-opening Jimmy Page riff.  Page is, or certainly was the master of the riff in my view.  He mastered the art of building pregnant pauses into his riffs (not especially this one)

  1. The Beatles – I Want You/She’s So Heavy

Strictly speaking the riff is associated with the “She’s So Heavy” component, though only Lennon and McCartney would have the inspiration and guts to splice together two completely different songs in one heady track during their Abbey Road sessions.  The riff itself comprises a twangy guitar rhythmical backdrop to a glorious bass phrase that rises then falls in the classical and delicious addictive three note cadenza.  In the coda of the song it goes on seemingly forever against a bizarre and rising wall of noise, then stops suddenly and without warning as if George Martin was deliberately trying to catch you out.  Divine!

Honourable mentions to:

  • Layla by Derek & the Dominos (aka Eric Clapton)
  • Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones
  • Many more by Led Zeppelin, who to my mind are the acknowledged masters of this art

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