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Why the riff is the cornerstone of rock (Read 1,079 times)
TenThousandMotels
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Why the riff is the cornerstone of rock
Apr 26th, 2008 at 1:27am
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From The Times
April 25, 2008
http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/article3...
Why the riff is the cornerstone of rock

It may be no more than a repeated series of notes, but the guitar riff is the cornerstone of rock - and Will Hodgkinson would sell his soul for one


Vote for your favourite riff of all time
http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/article3...

John Wheatcroft, guitar teacher and riffmaster extraordinaire, is showing me the incredibly simple moves needed to knock out Smoke on the Water by the metal legends Deep Purple. “It sounds cool, doesn’t it? It has so much personality and yet anyone can play it. That is what a riff is all about.”

A riff is a repeated melody line or motif that forms the basis of a piece of music. You’ll find it in every style from jazz and blues to classical, but it’s rock music that really loves the riff. You could say that it is rock’s primordial essence. Rock thrives on simplicity, feeling, attitude and guitars – everything the riff is made for.

We’re in a tiny, featureless basement room in an industrial unit in West London, rocking out on a couple of cheap acoustic guitars. But, having mastered the iconic melody of Deep Purple’s rock monster, I can’t help but feel that we must be on a vast stage somewhere, with a wall of amplifiers behind us. There is a lot of dry ice around, too. And we are wearing spandex.

On Saturday May 3 Wheatcroft will be holding a Monster Riffs tutorial as part of the London Guitar Festival, organised by the International Guitar Foundation. He’ll be teaching rock neophytes how to get to grips with the iconic motifs of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Angus Young of AC/DC and other heroes of teenage boys the world over. What kind of people does he expect will be attending?

“It will be predominantly male,” he confirms. “Maybe that’s because of a lack of female role models, as women certainly aren’t innately worse on the guitar. And there tends to be two types of student. The first wants to learn enough to be in a band and get up and play in a pub on a Saturday night, and the second approaches learning guitar as though it were a semi-professional sport. For a lot of teenage boys the guitar has a gladiatorial, competitive aspect. They want to be the fastest and the best. They want to be Slash.”

This could be the reason why so many of us, when stimulated by the sound of a great riff such as AC/ DC’s Highway to Hell or Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild, start grunting like a hog as we wave our fingers in the air and pull the kind of strained expression generally associated with constipation. Guitars represent Rock Valhalla in ways that other instruments just don’t – who, for example, plays air piano to Elton John records?

The riff encapsulates that feeling: exhilarating, vainglorious and slightly ridiculous. Think of Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel gurning away as he plays a guitar with a violin bow, or the cartoon delinquents Beavis and Butthead making a display of their verdigris teeth to the strains of Ace of Spades by Motörhead, and it’s quite hard to take the whole idea of being a riff hero seriously.

I started playing the guitar a couple of years ago and have been at it religiously ever since, but this world of crunching riffs and super-fast scales is new to me. Picking up the instrument for the first time in my mid30s coincided with a steady diet of folk, blues and the jingle-jangle sound of 1960s bands such as the Byrds and Love. These tend to be played on an acoustic guitar and rely on the fingerpicking technique, which doesn’t really sound so good through an enormous amplifier and a wall of distortion. That’s why the riff is so important in rock music: it can fill stadiums.

The rock riff is a product of a misuse of the electric guitar. The instrument was invented as a way of making the acoustic guitar sound louder so that jazz and country players were not drowned out by their fellow band members. But when a generation of Southern blues guitarists such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf moved to Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s to perform in nightclubs they frequently used small amplifiers turned up too loud, producing distortion as a result.

The only way to stop the guitar from making white noise was to play it simply, usually harmonising only two notes at a time, and the riff was born. When future rock heroes such as Keith Richards and Eric Clapton heard these fuzzed-out one-finger tunes blasting out of imported Chicago blues records with so much primitive verve and swagger, they took that ball and ran with it. Bedroom guitarists have been bashing away at Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones and Sunshine of Your Loveby Cream ever since.

What makes a good riff? “It has to be rhythmically interesting and melodically inventive, but it’s got to be simple, too,” Wheatcroft says. “None of the classics are difficult to play, but try coming up with one that lasts – it’s not so easy. A riff can represent a rudimentary grasp of language, and often the technically brilliant guitarists are the worst at coming up with them because they add too much. I have a lot of friends who are massively intelligent and not particularly well educated. Their musical equivalent is a great riff by AC/DC.”

A riff has also got to withstand being repeated ad infinitum. “If you are not careful a riff can sound very tedious,” says Wheatcroft. “They’ve got to have an air of familiarity to them, but not sound like you know exactly what they’re going to do. Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin isn’t much more than a single riff repeated about 50 times, but it still sounds great.”

Perhaps the single most important aspect that separates the riff gods from mere noodlers is the ability to isolate a tune on the guitar, repeat it until it is embedded in your memory, and then have the courage to present it to your band.

Apparently , Slash of Guns’n’ Roses almost didn’t use the iconic riff in Sweet Child O’ Mine because it was so easy to play, while Ritchie Blackmore was embarrassed to present Smoke on the Water to his fellow members of Deep Purple because it was such a Neanderthal tune for a guitarist of his calibre to come up with.

“Guitar players are generally improvisers. They rarely play written music,” Wheatcroft says. “I must have thrown away 10,000 Smoke on the Waters in my life because I’ll come up with something while improvising in a scale and a minute later I’ll forget what it was. But if I repeated it and there was a drummer behind it and I gave it a name, then it would become something tangible and real.”

It would be fairly tragic if I walked away from a masterclass with a top riffologist without my own one to show for it, so we give it a go. Wheatcroft recommends improvising in pentatonic, a simple blues scale that, because it has no sharps or flats, will almost always sound acceptable whatever notes you pick from it.

Having shown me the scale, he requests I try something out. So with furrowed brow and plectrum clenched tightly in sweaty fingers I knock out a collection of notes that sound a bit like something Muddy Waters might have come up with, only not as good. But in my mind it’s amazing. Soon I’m doing the white man’s overbite, chugging my head backwards and forwards as my fingers repeat the pattern I’ve devised again and again.

A good guitar teacher is nothing if not a patient man. “That’s not bad,” Wheatcroft says, “but you need to make sure you stay in rhythm. It doesn’t matter that you’re hitting a few bum notes there, but go out of time and the whole thing falls apart.”

“But I was playing in rhythm, wasn’t I?” I say. I had taken the head-bopping to be a good sign.

“Not quite,” Wheatcroft says. “Let’s try again.”

This time it works. Once Wheatcroft joins in with what we guitarists call a “tasty lick” (essentially a bit of improving; a melodic embellishment) over the top of my riff, we are grooving. Then he suggests repeating the riff in a higher octave to add character and definition – this is what Day Tripper by the Beatles does, and most of Chuck Berry’s recorded output depends on the octave shift.

Now it’s beginning to sound like rock’n’roll. At one point I even manage to swing the neck of my guitar into a nearby drum, inadvertently making it topple to the ground. It’s not quite the same as Pete Townshend smashing his guitar into an amplifier, but it’s a start.

“A good riff is like a good joke,” says Wheatcroft over the slightly desperate sound of a brilliant guitarist trying to play along with an essentially terrible one. “It encapsulates a musical idea in a very short space of time and it makes you think: ‘I wish I thought of that’.”

By the end of the class we do have a riff that I won’t be too ashamed to unveil next time I get together with my fellow thirtysomething amateur guitar bores. It’s easy to play; it has a recognisable sound; and it even has a name – Wednesday Morning 11 o’clock (I later change this to Dragon’s Tooth Smashes Through Thunder). It also sounds a bit like a million other songs.

Apparently this doesn’t matter too much. “Jimi Hendrix stole licks from blues guitarists such as Albert King all the time,” Wheatcroft says. “But as long as your riff isn’t exactly the same as one that already exists, you’re OK. If you stole the first two lines of Daffodils by William Wordsworth you’d be in trouble. But if you took the words and the imagery and shifted them around a bit you’ve got your own poem. Music works in the same way.”

It’s easy, then. Learn the rudiments of the guitar, pilfer a few lines from Hendrix or Keith Richards, add or remove a note or two, give your creation a name, and you might just have a monster riff that will see you through your retirement. People have had lucrative careers on less. Just ask Status Quo.

The Monster Riffs Guitar Lesson is on Saturday, May 3, at 11am as part of the London Guitar Festival, May 2-5, at the Southbank Centre, London SE1
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homesickjameswilliamson
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Re: Why the riff is the cornerstone of rock
Reply #1 - Apr 26th, 2008 at 7:55am
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the poll on timesonline is

i bet that you look good - arctic monkeys
sweet child o mine - GNR
i love rock n roll - joan jett
seven nation army - white stripes
smells like teen spirit - nirvana
come on everybody - eddie cochran
there she goes - the la's
satisfaction - stones
whole lotta love - led zep
smoke on the water - deep purple

are they serious, how about T.V. Eye or Search and Destroy by the stooges, or panic in detroit or suffragette city by david bowie or Miss judy's farm or stay with me by The Faces or heartbreaker by free or honey bee (lets fly to mars) by grinderman or smokestack lightnin by howlin wolf, or crawling king snake by junior kimbrough or midnight/voodoo chile or purple haze by hendrix, or johnny b goode by chuck berry or moby dick by zeppelin or money honey by little richard or needle and the spoon by skynyrd or sister anne/kick out the jams by MC5 or electrophonic tonic by sonic's rendezvous band or think zinc by trex

its the worst list they cudve put together - tho i will be voting satisfaction! lol
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Voodoo Chile in Wonderland
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Re: Why the riff is the cornerstone of rock
Reply #2 - Apr 26th, 2008 at 8:15am
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...and Satisfaction is second place
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TenThousandMotels
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Re: Why the riff is the cornerstone of rock
Reply #3 - Apr 26th, 2008 at 10:37am
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As of right now....

Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple   26%
Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones   18%
Come On Everybody by Eddie Cochran   12%
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Sioux
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Re: Why the riff is the cornerstone of rock
Reply #4 - Apr 26th, 2008 at 12:10pm
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I voted Satisfaction, of course. This is a really lame, limited poll. How 'bout the best 100 riffs???
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"When you change with every new day, still I'm going to miss you, Brian"
 
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