‘Guitar riff’. Such a stale phrase, conjuring images of Tommy Saxondale, Marshall stacks and ‘Smoke On The Water’. But that’s only because discussion of the subject has traditionally been the preserve of classic rock bores. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The aim of this feature is to reclaim riffs from the guitar geeks, and in so doing to celebrate their infinite variety, from the bell-like clarion-call that ushers in The Temptations’ ‘My Girl’ to the staccato savagery of At The Drive-In’s ‘One-Armed Scissor’.
Sonically, the notion of the guitar riff encompasses multitudes – but its function has always been the same. A riff plunges you into a song. Its purpose it to accelerate your pulse, to alter your body chemistry. Deployed with aggression, a riff offers distilled exhilaration. Excitement amplified.
A riff can be a siren or warning shot, signalling danger up ahead – as with the cascade of overdriven notes that heralds Guns N’Roses’ ‘Welcome To The Jungle’.
Equally, it can signal that something strange and thrillingly new is afoot. In this category we can include such ‘anti-riffs’ as Echo & The Bunnymen’s guitar-as-sitar conjuring trick, ‘The Cutter’, and My Bloody Valentine’s ‘When You Sleep’, an effects-pedal epic that saw 18 recording engineers tinker with it before Kevin Shields was satisfied.
An electrifying riff can be just as much the result of studio ingenuity as instrumental proficiency – that’s why our shortlist includes Johnny Marr’s wildly oscillating intro to ‘How Soon Is Now?’ as well as the usual guitar store suspects: ‘All Right Now’, ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ etc.
Likewise, spirit counts for more than musicality in our reckoning. Hence the inclusion of Arctic Monkeys’ child’s-play ‘Brianstorm’, and The Clash’s ‘London Calling’, a riff that essentially comprises a single chord, yet still manages to sound like onrushing apocalypse.
Tell us your own favourites by leaving a comment below – but please do browse through our shortlist first. That way, you can hear each riff (there’s over 100 in total) and rate each one out of ten.
Also, a quick note by way of definition. ‘Guitar riff’ is a slippery term, so for the sake of this feature our rule is this: if you can strum it (ie play it with a loose wrist) it’s not a riff, it’s a chord progression. Therefore ‘Cigarettes & Alcohol’ is a riff. ‘Wonderwall’ isn’t.