Samantha Fish: My Life in Five Riffs

American singer-songwriter and guitarist Samantha Fish, portrait, Germany, 2011
(Image credit: Richard Ecclestone/Redferns)

Blues and Americana chameleon Samantha Fish picked drums as her first instrument but found her true passion when she switched to electric guitar. Digging backward from the classic rock she heard at home led her to discover the Delta blues and the Mississippi hill country scene. Along the way, she developed a knack for blurring genre lines when she isn’t knocking them down. Here are the five riffs that changed her life.

1. Mississippi Fred McDowell: “Shake ’Em On Down”

“I had just started playing guitar, and I was at the crossroads where I was finding everything that I loved about guitar had come from the blues in one way or another. I think the North Mississippi style bridged the gap for me between rock and roll and this rough, raucous, raw sound. It’s colored everything I’ve done from here. Trying to get my thumb and my fingers going at the same time — it’s kind of like hybrid picking. That’s where I get that, trying to keep that bass going at the same time as the melody.”

2. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: “American Girl”

“I listened to the radio a lot, and one of my favorite bands was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and that was probably because my parents listened to them a lot, too. But "American Girl" was always my anthem. I went crazy trying to figure out the guitar solo. Mike Campbell is one of the most tasteful guitar players and has written some of the most iconic lines. And this song is full of really cool riffs.”

3. Freddie King: “Same Old Blues”

“What I loved about Freddie King when I started getting into blues music was that there is this conversation going on between his vocals and his guitar playing. He’s saying an expression, the guitar is singing it right back, and there’s this really cool exchange that happens. It changed my view of playing. It should all be connected. And that was one of the first songs where I learned to do that.”

4. Black Sabbath: “War Pigs”

“I was a punk-ass little kid, and I loved Black Sabbath, so I would not be right without including this song. Black Sabbath are a blues band in my mind. That’s what they started as. But this is another song I sat down and worked out from top to bottom. "War Pigs" was awesome for me. I loved all kinds of stuff like that – Alice Cooper, AC/DC, the Rolling Stones – and it all brought me to blues music.”

5. R.L. Burnside: “Goin’ Down South”

“This riff goes back to the North Mississippi thing again, R.L. Burnside being one of my favorites. "Goin’ Down South" employs all the things I like about fingerpicking. It’s just a riff all the way through. That groove thing was really important to me and my musical upbringing, keeping that groove going through the whole song. At my solo shows, having the ability to be able to keep the song going without the whole band is something that kind of music really instilled in me.”

Keep up to date with Samantha Fish here.

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.