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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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Do They Have Sharks in the River Liffey? Because U2 Just Jumped One

September 16, 2014

I tend to give U2 the benefit of the doubt because, let’s face it, a band that popular could have been a hell of a lot worse. U2 have been the biggest rock band on earth for about 30 years now (only Metallica have even vaguely given them a run for their money), and generally they’ve done artistically dynamic things and consistently used their fame and money to benefit the planet. So, hooray for U2. I mean for god’s sake, they could have been Bon Jovi (not that Bon Jovi suck, but their range is limited and their grasp is shallow; I mean, a band largely based on continuously re-writing Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song” can’t be taken that seriously, can they?).

(Oh, and U2 were really nice to me on December 6, 1980, but that’s another story, WHICH I TOLD RIGHT HERE).

As the industry refined, redefined, re-set, and generally defenestrated in the last 30 years, there have been radically few “new” long-haul classic rock bands: apart from U2 and Metallica, there’s Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, and, uh, I’m a little stuck here. R.E.M. probably over-aspired (much like the Kinks did in the ‘70s/’80s – i.e., they were a very strong cult act whose transition into the large-scale mainstream consciousness never felt completely right); Guns’n’Roses, who had the artistic goods more than they’re given credit for, went up in a pyre of self-indulgence; potential Classic Rock heroes like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Rage Against the Machine either didn’t sustain fan interest in newer material or didn’t conserve breath for a long run; and Radiohead disappeared so far up their own asses that they can wave hello by sticking their fingers out their mouths. I’ll also throw Porcupine Tree in there, because if there ever was a band that should be regarded as the other credible classic rock band to emerge in the last few decades, it’s them. Oh, accuracy compels me to note Germany’s Die Toten Hosen, who are the very definition of a classic rock act who combine quality and longevity, but no one outside of freaking Germany, where they are as big as U2 or the Stones, has heard of them.

(Die Toten Hosen, the biggest classic rock band you’ve never heard of; posted here because who really needs to see another U2 video? Also, can I mention that I figured out, WITHOUT emailing John Loscalzo, how to insert a link into an article [that thing about my encounter with U2 in 1980]? This achievement makes me happier than Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka on a date in Vienna in 1912, during the really healthy early days of their relationship.)

All things considered, U2 were a pretty rare combination of “gigantic” and “good.”

Until now. A lot of people are jumping on U2 right now, and here’s why I’m joining in:

This is Alma Mahler, whose beauty inspired many of the great artists of her time, like Franz Werfel, Gustav Mahler, Oskar Kokoschka, and Walter Gropius.

Let’s start with the ludicrous method of distribution, i.e. the new U2 album just appearing in people’s iTunes accounts. This is a very slippery fucking slope; a U2 record is pretty fucking benign, but what if it wasn’t? What if something that espoused some political or social doctrine just fucking APPEARED on our computer? What if Apple decides to endorse some candidate, or the Chinese compel Apple to take some stance, and propaganda just starts dropping into our computers unannounced? See, it really doesn’t make a difference if it’s U2’s new album or a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, someone coming into my fucking computer and giving me a pile of anything I didn’t ask for is a no-no, and sets a very bad fucking precedent.

Equally as offensive to an old punk didact like me is the use of iconic punk rock images in U2’s new video. 36 years after U2 debuted, they have bizarrely decided to prove how “punk rock” they are by using some (very) basic and over-used images of the Clash, the Ramones, Patti, etcetera in their release campaign. Let’s put this in some context:

U2 were never a punk band, nor did they try to be, nor did they need to be. However, both in terms of stance and sound, they were greatly influenced by a few fundamental punk rock bands, notably the Skids and Stiff Little Fingers. The wonderful Skids were probably U2’s biggest overt influence: they perfected a form of charging, Celtic-scented rock with over-reaching vocals and tumbling, echoing, ticking and spitting guitar; in fact, the Skids’ influence on U2 was so strong that they took pains not to acknowledge it until 2002 when they suddenly covered, with Green Day’s help, the Skids’ anthem “The Saints Are Coming” (though it was the Skids’ “Into The Valley” which was, in many ways, the Rosetta Stone for the early U2 sound). Secondly, U2 liberally borrowed Stiff Little Finger’s point of view (and not a little of their slightly-proggy punk rock sound) and even some of their song titles. U2 were also clearly influenced by very credible punk-era acts like The Only Ones, the Stranglers, PIL, and the Ruts.

Which is all to say that only in a moment of great and unwarranted insecurity – or the misguided desire by a new manager to enact a “re-boot” by somehow linking the band with “punk rock, maaaan” – would U2 need to PROVE to anyone how “punk rock” they are. It’s just fucking unnecessary, and offensive, too, because the bands’ referenced in the new video are so clichéd as to make you think U2 know absolutely nothing about punk rock, which just isn’t true. Seriously, the bands in the clip are the same bands fucking One Direction or Taylor Swift would put in a video if they wanted people to think they were punk rock. By trying to appear credible, they’ve made themselves seem like fucking idiots, and that’s just totally pointless, because they are not idiots.

Which is all to say that U2, a band who have always more or less done the right thing on stage and off, have finally jumped the shark, in fairly resounding and unforgivable fashion. Friends, they are done. Irish Fucking Toast. Is there such a thing as Irish Toast? I mean, is it a thing, like Texas Toast, or Irish Soda Bread? I mean maybe it is or more likely it isn’t, but you get the idea. It took a while, but U2 have finally released their Steel Wheels; i.e., the album that marks the point beyond which one can firmly say no one gives a damn about your new material.

So long, U2. It’s been good to know you. Now go fuck yourselves for coming into my computer uninvited.

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