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The Ten Greatest Guitar Riffs of All Time, Revealed!

December 11, 2014

There is a delicious squabble going on in the webbernet:  Kinks’ guitarist Dave Davies is appropriately livid that his brother Ray has recently taken credit for the earth-changing guitar sound Dave devised for “Your Really Got Me.” Now, Dave doesn’t contend that Ray more-or-less wrote the riff; he just is alarmed that Ray is taking credit for the sound, which was as significant an element of this stunning scene-change as the riff itself.

Dave Davies

Any follower of the Kinks (especially one cognizant of the mercurial and frequently downright-unpleasant behavior of Ray Davies) is barely surprised by this most recent kerfuffle.  Without a doubt, Dave’s story is the one to be believed.  In July 1964, when Dave stuttered and distorted the bar-chord that Bo Diddley had fiddled with a decade or so earlier, he literally invented an entirely new avenue for rock music; it is one of the fundamental moments in the history of the guitar.

In any event, the whole thing got me to thinking about riffs. I have been a serious fucking acolyte and proselytizer for the Church of the Riff pretty much since the day I first heard “You Really Got Me.”  Riffs are the crosses the rock’n’roll Christ was nailed to, the stone upon which the rock’n’roll church was built.  Riffs are the raised print on the calling card of rock. Me likee riffs long time.

Jesus (artist’s interpretation). Somehow, he has worked his way into this discussion.

And no, I don’t consider “Louie Louie” the Baby Jesus of all riffs; in its’ first incarnations, the “Louie Louie” riff is a fiddle-thin piano plink transcribed to guitar; admirable in composition, but pale in execution, especially when held up to the Kinks sonic farts to come.  For all intents and purposes, the riff era begins in June of 1964, when Dave slugs out those hefty F-G’s.

And by “riffs,” I am talking about something fairly specific:  a sequence of bar chords played on the guitar in a repetitive fashion, with a significant element of the song introduced or sung over the chord sequence.  For instance, “Can’t Explain” by the Who is (what I call) a riff; the (nearly as arresting) “Mississippi Queen” by Mountain is not (great part, but too much single-note diddling and not enough bar chords). Likewise, the extraordinary, branding arpeggios that inaugurate “Don’t Fear The Reaper” isn’t (for the purposes of this discussion) a riff, but the slug-like bolts of armor that open BÖC’s “Godzilla” most certainly is.  And anything keyboard-driven is not up for consideration, which eliminates worthy riffs like “Tin Soldier” by the Small Faces or “Open Your Eyes” by the Nazz.

Got it?

So I thought I would take the time to list my favorite riffs.  Yeah.  These are more or less in order.  Yeah.

Jailbreak Thin Lizzy

There is so much to say about Thin Lizzy — they almost literally invented the modern day rock ballad, their influence on U2 (and all modern posture rock) is incalculable, along with Springsteen they showed their was a middle ground between proletariat crowd-rabble rousing and sensitive and credible songwriting, and Phil Lynott is one of the great rock stars of all time – but I often just prefer to think of them as the writers of the greatest riff in rock history.   It’s “Can’t Explain” re-written by Free, it’s “Gloria” running for a subway, it’s a big chunk of rubbery tuna gulping for breath between slabs of mayonnaise, it is almost dream-like in it’s weird mixture of gigantic and intimate, it is the riff’s riff.

I Need You The Kinks

After the success of You Really Got Me, the Kinks tried a lot of variations on the slurring bar-chord thing, each a little better than the one before.  This is the apotheosis; it’s as if the Kinks saw into the future they had created, and just let the beast loose, predicting the feedback howl of The Creation or Hendrix, the punk aggression of the Stooges or Pistols, and the junkyard repetition of Suicide or krautrock.

Cities on Flame With Rock’n’Roll  Blue Öyster Cült

Yes, I know it’s a re-write of Sabbath’s “The Wizard,” but it’s a superior re-write, dammit, reducing the somewhat frantic jumble of the Sabbath original into a menacing slur that sounds like an eight-story Golem trashing the car-part yards that one used to find near Shea Stadium.  True, it almost disqualifies itself due to its’ single note-to-bar chord ratio, but those first three chords just announce the Fall of Man as well as anything ever recorded, so this has to get on the list. 

Grim Reaper Detective

Let’s say someone gave Led Zeppelin an IV-drip full of pure Costa Rican coffee beans, then told them to spit out a riff based on the “Odessa stairs” sequence in the movie Battleship Potemkin, with the further instruction to make it sound like “You Really Got Me” played sideways by someone describing the Running of the Bulls, and you have this strange, aggressive, gorgeous riff.  I also believe this is the only riff here that’s from an out-of-print and non-streamed record, and that’s a goddamn shame.  I will further note that if you grew up on Long Island in the 1970s, you knew this as the song in the Speaks commercial. 

I Want You The Troggs

Clearly, just a re-write of the “Wild Thing” riff that had made the Troggs famous, but because they’re, well, the Troggs, they couldn’t help but make it dumber, fiercer, and more threatening (and did I mention dumber?); this is the sound of a bully stealing the meds from a school for children with downs’ syndrome and then burning the place down, and then going to fuck his girlfriend, who looks a lot like Juliette Lewis after she drank a lot of cough syrup. 

AC/DC, who are not on this list, for reasons explained immediately to the left of this picture.

Now is probably a good time to answer a question you are most surely asking:  Why is there no Sabbath or AC/DC on the list?  AC/DC aren’t here for the same reason you don’t put John Entwistle on a best bassists’ list or Pet Sounds on a best albums list: their presence is so obvious that to include them would just humble, obfuscate, clog, and complicate the completion of the entire project.  For instance, you could inarguably include at least three AC/DC riffs in the top ten – “Highway to Hell,” “Sin City,” and “TNT” — and could make a good case for including four, five, six, or seven; so if one is going to functionally complete a list like this, you have to do it without AC/DC.  Let’s just call them Lords of the Riff, and be done with it.  As for Black Sabbath, I’ll be frank:  What Sabbath did (and to a degree, invented, though the Move, also from Birmingham, seems to have dabbled with it first) was pretty freaking amazing, but their brethren and offspring actually improved on it; the stoner and doom metal movement that emerged in the late ‘80s and beyond took the Coyote Crawl of Sabbath’s slabber and turned it into Cerebus Slobbering through the sludge of Hades; basically, you can pick up any CD by Fu Manchu, Weedeater, Wo Fat, Electric Wizard, Orange Goblin, and many, many more, and you’ll see that they’ve basically bettered Sabbath at their own game.

Now, back to the list.

Roadrunner Jonathan Richman

A lot of great riffs are re-interpretations of earlier classic riffs; “Roadrunner” was a taming of the Velvets’ world-ending and feral “Sister Ray,” but they replaced the drug beast howl of “Sister Ray” with a clarity and krautrock motorik discipline, and even an overlay of Fabs/Big Star sensitivity.   It’s one of the great stompy-fisty riffs of all time, “Autobahn” transcribed by the Dave Clark 5. 

Farmer John The Premieres

It’s curious that this riff appears nowhere in Don and Dewey’s original version of “Farmer John” (a wonderful, but riff-less, dose of amphetamine r’n’b via the Everlys); I would love to know how the Premieres came up with this, and why they attached it to this song (anyone who wants to contribute some thoughts/theories, please do so).  It’s a slightly more elaborate, more syncopated, and less drunken variation of “Louie Louie,” and Neil Young did a kickass version, too, in which he underlined the proto-Sabbath slur of the riff by filling it with volume and morphine. 

Godzilla by Blue Oyster Cult

BÖC have the honor of being the only band represented on this list twice.  A profoundly influential riff – along with a pile of Sabbath riffs, this piece alone virtually sired Stoner metal — BÖC have strapped a standard Sabbath slur to the back of a twelve-ton slug and created a perfect personification, via guitar, of the Lizard God honored in the lyrics.

Sweet Jane The Velvet Underground

Stately, patient, majestic, instantly embracing, not so much a swagger as a confident, straight-backed march to the table that’s been waiting for you at the hippest club in the city.   Would love to know where this came from; an earlier memorable VU riff, “There She Goes Again,” was appropriated lock, stock, and barrel from Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike,” but I can find no source for this. 

Making Time The Creation

An angry, arty, chunky interpretation of what the Who, the Small Faces, and the Move were doing, only the Creation do it perfectly.  There’s something decidedly odd about the chord selection, making me think that perhaps it was composed backwards.  It’s a shame Hendrix never covered this; there’s a deeply beautiful drunk on a tightrope snarl here that he would have nailed.

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FIVE GREAT SONGS (Just Because!)

August 13, 2014

Because it’s Wednesday, and because it would simply be tasteless to engage in a detailed discussion of the Rule of Threes, I am presenting the FIRST edition of Tim Sommer’s Five Great Songs Just Because list.  Which is exactly what it sounds like. Now, the theme today is, uh, guitars, with a sub-theme of SONGS THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN GIANT HITS THAT YOU PROBABLY HAVEN’T HEARD BEFORE (there are two of these here).   Let’s begin, shall we?

“BLUE BOY” by Orange Juice

Orange Juice were Scottish (which is obvious from the first few bars here), the flag-bearers for the extraordinary Postcard label, and the prime exponent of a kind of vaguely tennis-racket-strummy thinking man’s guitar pop that quite significantly influenced the work of Aztec Camera, the exquisite Go Betweens, (very notably) the Smiths, and probably at a later date Arcade Fire.  In fact, it surprises me a bit that more people haven’t picked up on the Orange Juice influence in Arcade Fire, since Arcade Fire kind of sound like Orange Juice + Pere Ubu multiplied by the Feelies (have I ever mentioned that I think most bands can be effectively reduced to an equation?  But that’s another story).  I wonder if Layne agrees with me about the depth of Orange Juice’s influence.  I must ask him.  Anyway, this is from 1980 and has the most wonderful and difficult blend of grace and clumsiness, vulnerability and cave-stomp, and I LOVE how the opening vamp-up chord subtly moves up a half-step.

The Rule of Threes in regard to Celebrity Deaths, that is.  Of course you already knew that.  You’re a smart reader and it did cross your mind that, oh, Mary Tyler Moore just might be looking over her shoulder.

“JUST ANOTHER DREAM” by The Professionals

Shortly, perhaps, I will write about the enormous tragedy of the Sex Pistols; by that, I mean that thanks to the presence of three world-class songwriters and distinct musical talents (Steve Jones, Glen Matlock, and John Lydon), each evolving fast circa 1977 and growing in a direction that could have been harmonious to the whole, the Pistols need NOT have been a one-album band; with three people like THAT in a group, each capable of leading yet each clearly able to collaborate, they could have been The WhoBut that AWFUL, AWFUL MAN, Malcolm McLaren, had a different plan; in one of the most TRULY MORONIC band management moves of all-time, he replaced one of the band’s primary writers (and best musician) with a guy who couldn’t play or write, JUST BECAUSE HE LOOKED BETTER AND WAS EASIER TO MANIPLUATE.  Imagine if Chris Stamp had replaced Pete Townshend after “My Generation” with some dumb, good looking mod who couldn’t play, but “looked” right; that’s what McLaren did when he engineered the ouster of Matlock in February 1977, and the Pistols were dead in the water from that moment on.  Evidence of the universal brilliance and talent of Jones, Matlock, and Lydon would come very shortly, via the Rich Kids, Public Image Limited, and the Professionals; imagine if all that talent could have gone into one band.  Often overlooked when telling the post-Pistols story is this track, the first single released by Jones and drummer Paul Cook as the Professionals (it also features a different line-up than the later Professionals recordings).  Although the Professionals went on to do some very damn good work, it never got better than this, perhaps the only Professionals song that can stand up to the best of the Pistols.

Is Nancy Reagan still alive?

“HEADS ARE GONNA ROLL” by The Stunning

I was an A&R person for a little while, during which time, to be honestly immodest, I had enough success to indicate that I vaguely knew what I was doing.  Sometimes, both in and out of that context, I would hear a song and go ‘WOW.  THAT IS A HIT RECORD.”  For reasons that may be simple to explain or might be very complex indeed, perhaps that song doesn’t become a hit record (and in the cases noted here and immediately below, I did not sign nor was involved in the release of the record in question).  The Stunning were Irish, and when I first heard this song about 20 years ago I thought it was a certain hit, and when I hear it now, I feel the same.  Hell, it still could be, if someone wants to cover it.  I don’t fully recall WHY I didn’t make an attempt to sign the Stunning, and I know few details of their career, so any effort to stretch this into an amusing or tragic anecdote is not realizable.  So just enjoy.  Oh, please note the gorgeous, melancholy, and ridiculously hummable single-trumpet melody line; British bands seem to do these kind of parts very well, and I have a theory why: I suspect it has something to do with classic English TV Themes – seriously, follow me on this – which have long contained just these kinds of melancholy but melodically compelling solo melody lines, usually played on horn or harmonica (as heard in the theme tunes to Coronation Street or Last of the Summer Wine, to name just two).

I’m going to put some “outside” money on Al Molinaro.

“REMOTE CONTROL” by The Age of Electric

As noted above, every now and again a song that you’ve never heard before stuns you, inciting a desire to hear that damn thing over and over again, and share it with as many people as possible, friends and strangers alike. I was strolling through a field of happy Molson-guzzling foreigners under a blue Canadian sky sometime in the 1990s, at some incomprehensibly large rock festival, when somewhere way off in the distance I heard this song; I think it was actually being played live. I turned to my companion and said, “THAT is a HIT record.”  My friend explained to me that the tune was “Remote Control” by Age of Electric.  SOMEONE COVER THIS FUCKING SONG, OKAY?  By the way, Age of Electric was led by the amazing Todd Kearns, who has played bass with Slash for quite a few years now; I will also go on the record and state that I have met very, very few people who deserved to be a rock star as much as dear Todd.  Seriously.  When you Google “rock star,” a picture of Todd Kearns should come up.  In the annals of all-time great up-beat furiously fulsome heavy guitar pop songs, “Remote Control” should be RIGHT UP THERE at the top, alongside the best work by Undertones, Buzzcocks, and Cheap Trick.

Now, I just peeked at a site that sets odds on such things, and the name at the TOP of the list was Wilko Johnson.  Seriously.  And that just pisses me off.


There’s a lot one can say about Blue Öyster Cult, the band who sought to bridge the gap between the Doors and the MC5 with a little bit of Floyd and a lot of biker acid mixed in.  They kind of succeeded at that mission, too.  In general, they are a vastly underrated band, from the twisting Motor City-esque boogie of “Hot Rails to Hell” and “ME 262” to the proto-Stoner rock mega-sludge of “Cities on Flame With Rock’n’Roll” and “Godzilla” to the Classic Rock treasure of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Burnin’ for You.”  Goddamn good band, and, in fact, if you don’t have Secret Treaties or On Your Feet Or On Your Knees, you probably need to remedy that problem somewhat immediately. Anyway, when the genius of BÖC is discussed, this song is often not included in the conversation, which is terribly unfortunate; that’s possibly because “Going Through the Motions” (from 1977’s erratic but still essential Spectres album) sounds like one of those instances when a band records a song that sounds very little like them just to get a hit; but rarely does such a mercenary endeavor lead to such happy results. There were other times, before and after this track, when BÖC aspired to pure contemporary pop, and with many varying and sometimes comic results:  but on this occasion they knocked it OUT OF THE PARK, very likely due to the presence of co-writer Ian Hunter. An insanely atypical BÖC song, but a toothy and sugary and utterly memorable delight, and I love how at the 2:00 mark they throw in three BIG FAT GUITAR CHORDS just to say “Fuck you, we are Blue Öyster Cult, in case you might have forgotten, which, uh, you probably did.” 

I’m just going to put a fin on Garrison Keeler and be done with it.

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