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There’s no telling where a great, memorable riff will come from. Some result from effort, and some from inspiration, while others seem to come out of thin air.
Here are 10 classic guitar riffs with quotes from the writers themselves about how the riffs came into being.
“You Really Got Me,” The Kinks
“There was this record my brother Ray and I liked by Jimmy Giuffre, called ‘The Train and the River,’ which went ba-ba ba-ba,” Dave Davies told The Guardian. “Ray was messing around on the piano in the front room at home, inspired by this song, and came up with the two-note riff, which I played on guitar. When ‘You Really Got Me’ came out, it was so different. I remember hearing it on the radio for the first time … I thought it was someone else. I said: ‘Is that us? That's us!’”
“(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction,” The Rolling Stones
As Keith Richards, the riff’s writer, explained to NPR, “I go to bed as usual with my guitar, and I wake up the next morning, and I see that the tape is run to the very end. And I think, ‘Well, I didn’t do anything. Maybe I hit a button when I was asleep.’ So I put it back to the beginning, and pushed play, and there, in some sort of ghostly version, is [the opening lines to ‘Satisfaction’]. After that, there’s 40 minutes of me snoring.”
“Sunshine of Your Love,” Cream
Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce had reportedly just come back from seeing Jimi Hendrix perform in London, when they set about crafting this riff-driven classic. “The way the song happened was the riff came first,” Bruce told Ultimate Guitar. “I just played the riff on the double bass. And then I knew that that had to become a song, but it took a while. Eric came up with the turnaround part. So that kind of got grafted on. We were just singing the riff, you know, a variation of the riff.”
“Birthday,” The Beatles
The Beatles scheduled an early recording session so that they could take a break around 9 p.m. to watch the Fifties rock and roll flick The Girl Can’t Help It, featuring Little Richard, which was making its TV debut in the U.K. As Paul McCartney explains in his autobiography, Many Years from Now, “We thought, 'Why not make something up?' So we got a riff going and arranged it around this riff. We said, ‘We'll go to there for a few bars, then we'll do this for a few bars.’ ” Lennon recalls that McCartney, perhaps feeling nostalgic due to the film they were about to watch, wanted to write a Fifties-style rock and roll song. “I think Paul wanted to write a song like Happy Birthday Baby, the old Fifties hit. But it was sort of made up in the studio,” Lennon told interview David Sheff in 1980, adding, “It was a piece of garbage.”
“Whole Lotta Love,” Led Zeppelin
“I wanted a riff that really moved, that people would really get, and would bring a smile to their faces,” Jimmy Page told BBC News. “But when I played it with the band, it really went into overdrive. There was this intent to have this riff and the movement of it, so it was menacing as well as quite sort of caressing.”
“Smoke on the Water,” Deep Purple
“I was trying to get an edge to what we were doing in Deep Purple, which is why I wanted something so powerful,” guitarist Ritchie Blackmore told Guitar International. “But the thing is, I've seen people play it, and they always seem to strum it. I actually pick the notes with two fingers at the same time, the thumb and the first finger. Just the two notes. It’s a fingerstyle riff.”
“Layla,” Derek and the Dominos
“We spent a lot of time working together on the guitars and Duane [Allman] was very instrumental in the development of the song,” Eric Clapton told Uncut. “He came up with this riff that was pretty much a direct lift from an Albert King song, ‘As The Years Go Passing By,’ from the Stax album Born Under a Bad Sign. It’s a slow blues and there's a line that goes, ‘There is nothing I can do, if you leave me here to cry,’ and we used that.”
“Sweet Child O' Mine,” Guns N’ Roses
“I was just playing my guitar, and Izzy [Stradlin] had his guitar,” Slash recalled for Guitar Center. “It was the middle of the afternoon. Where the riff came from, I really don’t remember. I was playing this pattern—it was one of those things I was in the process of discovering as I came up with each note, and sort of turned it into something that kept rotating. Along the way, Izzy started playing the chords that went behind it. The song more or less wrote itself.”
“Pretty Vacant,” The Sex Pistols
Bassist Glen Matlock, who wrote the bulk of the tune, says the he stole the riff from Abba’s hit “S.O.S.” “That riff came to me in Moonies, an upstairs bar in Charing Cross Road, across the street from the Cambridge Theatre,” he recalled in his autobiography, I Was A Teenage Sex Pistol. “I was in there one lunchtime drinking my way through that week's dole money when ABBA’s ‘SOS’ came on the jukebox. I heard the riff on it, one simple repeated octave pattern. All I did was take that pattern and alter it slightly, putting in the fifth, to be technical. Got it, I thought. What could be simpler?” He later explained to The Guardian newspaper, “Being at art school and being hip to the Dadaists and Marcel Duchamp, you'd nick something and make it your own. If I hadn't come clean no one would have ever spotted it.” That much is true.
“Beat It,” Michael Jackson
Once you know that Michael Jackson was told to write “a black ‘My Sharona,’ ” you start to understand the guitar-forward riff that drives “Beat It.” “With two months to get Thriller done, we dug in and really hit it,’ producer Quincy Jones told the Los Angeles Times. “Michael, Rod [Temperton, songwriter], the great engineer Bruce Swedien and I had all spent so much time together by now that we had a shorthand, so moving quickly wasn’t a problem. I told Michael that we needed a black rock ’n’ roll tune—a black ‘My Sharona’—and a begging tune for the album. He came back with ‘Beat It’ and Rod came back with ‘The Lady in My Life.’ ”