Nels Cline Names Five Life-Changing Riffs

Nels Cline of Wilco performs during the 2017 Newport Folk Festival at Fort Adams State Park on July 29, 2017 in Newport, Rhode Island.
(Image credit: Taylor Hill/WireImage)

Nels Cline follows two distinct tracks in his guitar playing, alternating the avant-jazz arc he explores solo along with the psychedelic-punk-freakout textures he brings to Wilco.

Here are the five riffs that changed his life, and inspired his own fearless fretting...

1. “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the Byrds

“I had to listen carefully to see what was going on here,” says Cline. “I learned later in life that I have this great love – as does much of western culture – with the major ninth.

“I think that sound, which has to do with the idiomatic aspects of open strings on a guitar, is what created the term ‘jingle jangle’– not just the timbre of a 12-string, but the sound of ringing, open strings

"That sound is irresistible.”

2. “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” by the Yardbirds

“This is one of the most marvelous and exciting and colorful recorded performances of a song.

“If you think about audio engineering at that time – which was a 4-track deck, I’m sure – I don’t even know how they did it.

“There are so many crazy things going on with the guitar. It’s sort of like satellite Sputnik psychedelia. 

"It still gives me a rush.”

3. “Manic Depression” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience

“This is the song that convinced me I was going to play guitar. 

"When you hear the intro riff, and all the other stuff he does in the solo, he goes completely mad.

“I was sold. There was no way I was not going to do music for life after that. It was like being jolted with electricity – like flying – and it still feels like that every time I hear it.”

4. “Marquee Moon” by Television

“‘Marquee Moon’ is a veritable feast of memorable and influential guitar riffs.

“Tom Verlaine’s long guitar solo ends in one of the most memorable examples of a mixolydian scale in its most rudimentary form, and it sounds like absolute poetry.

“Then, there’s this beautiful, John Cipollina-influenced thing he plays with his finger, but I do it with the bar.

“That’s where I get my penchant for the ‘wiggle’ – which I use all over songs like Wilco’s ‘Impossible Germany.’”

5. “West Germany” by Minutemen

“The Minutemen had an incredibly diverse, poetic vision. I played on a double bill at McCabe’s Guitar Shop with them in the ’80s with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra.

“I found D. Boon’s note choices and phrasing to be almost spooky. His presence, charisma, power, and commitment was galvanizing.”

Jim Beaugez

Jim Beaugez has written about music for Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Guitar World, Guitar Player and many other publications. He created My Life in Five Riffs, a multimedia documentary series for Guitar Player that traces contemporary artists back to their sources of inspiration, and previously spent a decade in the musical instruments industry.