Riffing: Music Artists Who Who Utilize the Technique

As a wannabe guitar player, I’m drawn more to smooth sets of chords forming an irresistible melodic progression. A catchy and inventive guitar riff is a thing of beauty for the soul.

Riffs seem most closely associated with rock’n’roll, which I agree, but they can be found across musical genres. Riffs catch the ear, and repetition creates familiarity and repeated interest in listening. A riff is a series of notes or chords forming the melody of a song.

When I think of songs, these come to mind: “Whole Lotta Love”, “Satisfaction”, “China Grove”, “Reelin’ in the Years” or “Come Together”, “You Really Got Me”, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, “Smoke on the Water”, Rebel Rebel” and so on. You get the idea.

Rock and roll was criticized for being simplistic, absent the sophistication of classical and jazz genres, and lacking complex and original structure and composition. Some rock and roll songs fit that simplistic label, but that does not mean unoriginal or unsuccessful. Rock and roll has always been about pushing boundaries, mixing genres and breaking the mold.

I think of The Rolling Stones as the premier riff band. “Satisfaction” quickly comes to mind, followed by “Brown Sugar”, “Bitch”, “Paint it Black”, “Street Fighting Man”, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Honky Tonk Women”, “Start Me Up”, “Sway”, “Happy”, “The Last Time”, “Monkey Man”, “Going Down”, “Hot Stuff”, “Hand of Fate” and many others. All of these songs are built around the guitar, usually credited to Keith Richard, the master of creative guitar tunings and bar chords.

Here is a video that samples most of those songs mentioned above:

The Doobie Brothers are known for their early use of guitar riffs and top 40 songs. “Listen to the Music”, “China Grove”, “Eyes of Silver”, “Rockin’ Down the Highway”, “Music Man”, “What a Fool Believes”, “Dependin’ On You”, “Dangerous”, “Ukiah” and many others. Tom Johnston wrote most of the chunk-a-chunk guitar riffs, but Patrick Simmons contributed his share of finger-sliding riffs. Even Michael McDonald would write piano-based riff songs when he joined the band.

Here is a video that gives a little more focus on song breakdown and technique used in those early Doobie Brothers albums.

The Kinks were one of the most creative users of guitars in the mid 1960s before they veered into a thinking man’s lyric band by the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the late 1970s, they were sharpening their guitars for more of a return to riff-based songs, but not forgetting Ray Davies’ love for his English roots.

“You Really Got Me”, “All Day and All of the Night”, “Lola”, “A Well Respected Man”, “Catch Me Now I’m Falling”, “Sunny Afternoon”, “Set Me Free”, “Till the End of the Day”, “Powerman”, “I Need You”, “Waterloo Sunset”, “A Gallon of Gas”, “Moving Pictures”, “Destroyer”, “State of Confusion”, “Do It Again”, “Tired of Waiting”, and many others.

Here is a video of chords from many of those songs:

The Who gave the rock world attitude and energy, chiefly through Pete Townshend’s angry and introspective songs. “I Can See for Miles”, “The Punk and The Godfather”, “Slip Kid”, “Squeeze Box”, “Who Are You”, “I can’t Explain”, “Pure and Easy”, “I’m Free”, “Long Live Rock”, “Baba O’ Riley”, “Behind Blue Eyes”, “Substitute”, “My Generation”, “ Pinball Wizard”, “Young Man Blues”, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, “ Bargain”, “ Going Mobile”, “The Real Me”, “Eminence Front” and others.

Townshend’s writing changed over the years, and being able to construct his songs in his own studio gave him freedom to experiment and overdub musical layers. Knowing he would have to play these songs in concert, they would have to be producible by the band. I believe that influenced his writing, being very economical on guitar and relying on riffs and lead lines interwoven in the songs.

Here is another video, this one of Who riffs:

Credence Clearwater Revival produced many popular songs, mainly build around John Fogerty’s churning guitar chords and rough vocals. “Proud Mary”, “Lookin’ Out My Backdoor”, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”, “l Heard it Through the Grapevine”, “Up Around the Bend”, “Down on the Corner”, “Susie Q”, “Run Through the Jungle”, “Fortunate Son”, “Green River”, “Bad Moon Rising” and more.

Here is a video has has even more CCR riffs:

David Bowie, throughout his career wrote many catchy, riff-based songs. He had the assistance of Earl Slick, Mick Monson and other talented musicians to embellish his songs. “Rebel, Rebel”, Jean Genie”, “Stay”, “Golden Years”, “Changes”, “Fame”, “Suffragette City”, “China Girl”, “Ziggy Stardust”, “Diamond Dogs”, “Let’s Dance”, “Fashion”, “The Secret Life of Arabia”, and certainly others.

Jimmy Page wrote (and borrowed) Led Zeppelin an incredible number of riffs. The band also covered (legitimately) other blues-based songs where Page sweetened the riffs. It is challenging to just pick a few. “Heartbreaker”, Achilles Last Stand”, “Whole Lotta Love”, “Rock and Roll”, “Stairway to Heaven”, “Dazed and Confused”, “Kashmir”, “When the Levee Breaks”, “Moby Dick”, “Good Times, Bad Times”, “The Ocean”, “Ten Years Gone”, “Black Dog”, “Ramble On”, and many others.

Here are a few more Page riffs:

The early Black Sabbath albums have some monster guitar riffs from Tony Iommi. “Iron Man”, “Electric Funeral”, “Snowblind”, “Black Sabbath”, “Sweet Leaf”, “Children of the Grave”, “War Pigs”, “The Wizard”, “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”, “Paranoid”, “N.I.B.”, and “Meglomania”. Black Sabbath is not for everyone, but neither is black coffee in bed.

Below are a few Black Sabbath riffs:

Joe Walsh has quite a legacy with James Gang, Barnstorm, Eagles and solo. The early 1970s were his most creative guitar days. “Funk #49”, “The Bomber”, “Funk #48”, “Walk Away”, “Tend My Garden”, “Take a Look Around”, “Meadows”, “Rocky Mountain Way”, “Here We Go”, “Mother Says”, “Turn to Stone”, “Country Fare”, “Help Me Make it Through the Night”, “Life’s Been Good”, “Life in the Fast Lane”.

Not the best video, but you’ll get the idea about Joe:

And last, but not least, a boy band from Liverpool. “Rain”, “Ticket to Ride”, “Hey Bulldog”, “Birthday”, “Don’t Let Me Down”, “I Feel Fine”, “Here Comes the Sun”, “And Your Bird Can Sing”, “Martha My Dear”, “Norwegian Wood”, “Helter Skelter”, “Paperback Writer”, “Day Tripper”, “I Want You”, “Come Together”, “Drive My Car”, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “Two of Us”, “I’ve Got a Feeling”, “Blackbird”, “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Revolution”, “The End”, and pretty much their catalog.

Of course, we must hear some of these riffs:

So, what other artists deserve to be mentioned? U2? R.E.M.? The Police? AC/DC? Bad Company? Allman Brothers? America? Neil You g? The Clash? Jethro Tull?


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