Just in case we’re at cross purposes, here’s a riff …
A riff is an instrumental phrase, often on a lead guitar, that starts a song and then repeats over and over. It defines the song to such an extent that often there’s very little else to the song in terms of melody. You got a good riff, you got a good song.
The late 60s and the early 70s were the heydays of the riff. That’s when blues-influenced rock bands were at their most dominant. You could say it started with The Rolling Stones and Satisfaction. Keith Richards drenched the riff in fuzz, perhaps the first time a guitar effect was used on a rock song:
Fender has created a great list of instantly recognisable rock riffs along with all sorts of interesting tidbits. If you just want the list, here it is:
- Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones (1965)
- Sunshine of Your Love by Cream (1967)
- Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix (1967)
- Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin (1969)
- Iron Man by Black Sabbath (1970)
- Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple (1972)
- Walk This Way by Aerosmith (1975)
- Crazy Train by Ozzy Osbourne (1980)
- Back in Black by AC/DC (1980)
- Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana (1991)
So, what relevance does this have for anyone writing music in the 2020s? Perhaps not so much, because rock is no longer as much of a major cultural influence, certainly with young people. However, Music Radar’s 1918 poll to find the greatest guitar riffs of the 21st Century did come up with plenty of good stuff and 24,000 people took the trouble to vote. Let’s just look at the top three:
At number 3, its the Red Hot Chili Peppers with Can’t Stop:
The riff, based on an Em D Bm C chord progression, dominates the song, as any good riff should do.
At number 2, The White Stripes with Seven Nation Army:
Another one in E minor, descending to C and B.
And at number 1, Muse with Plug In Baby:
So another minor key riff, this time based on a Bm G D F# progression.
So, the guitar riff is alive and well in the world of guitar rock but I reckon there’s much greater potential for the songwriter and composer. What we’re really talking about is what School of Composition describes as ‘a short and catchy melodic idea that recurs so often that it gives character and structure to a song.’ I reckon that could apply just as well to a riff on synth, bass, horns or any other instrument that is happy in the foreground.
There’s no reason why the riff shouldn’t stay relevant.