Steve Vai, Michael Wilton and Others Reveal Their Very First Guitar Riffs

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Chances are, you know the first word you spoke, most likely because your mother and father told you.

But if you’re a guitarist—and if you’re reading this, you probably are—you can almost certainly recall on your own the first riff you learned. As guitarists, we can pinpoint the moment that our primordial fretboard fumbling materialized into a real, live riff.

And the great thing about that first riff is this: although it’s most likely simple, it can still be impressive. How many of us have, upon hacking our way through the intro to “Smoke on the Water,” informed the nearest person within earshot that we’ve just played the finest rendition of the riff this side of Ritchie Blackmore?

We’ve all been there. So has every famous guitarist. With that in mind, we sent some of rock’s guitarists back to the bedroom to recall their first stab at rocking out.

Michael Wilton, Queensrÿche
“Good Times, Bad Times”—Led Zeppelin

“In my ripe teen years, when I began to discover guitar, Jimmy Page was the cool guitar player everybody loved. I bought the Led Zeppelin album and wore it out, playing it over and over and learning guitar licks. I would stick my head right in the middle of my father’s hi-fi speaker, close my eyes and try to visualize where the notes danced on the fingerboard. Then I would take my discoveries and compare them with other guitarists I knew, and we’d debate whose were correct. Eventually I was known as the guy who knew how to play ‘Good Times, Bad Times’!”

Frank Hannon, Tesla
“25 or 6 to 4”—Chicago

“I can barely remember the first riff I learned on the guitar. The year was 1976 and I was 10 years old. Ah, it had to be Chicago’s ’25 or 6 to 4,’ because it involved playing only one string!

“My cousin Mike had learned the bass riff of that song and he showed it to me on his beat-up old acoustic. We shared an old Chicago record, and we loved this song because it was a heavy descending riff with a great vibe—and it was fairly easy to play for a couple of beginning guitarists. I still love this riff today.

“The next riff we learned was from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Down on the Corner,’ which involved two strings and so was a whole different story. We performed that at my first concert, the sixth-grade talent contest.”

Mick Thomson, Slipknot
“Dee”—Randy Rhoads/Ozzy Osbourne

“‘Iron Man,’ when I was 10 years old. But Randy Rhoads’ ‘Dee’ was the first thing I played all the way through. I honestly don’t know why I was so drawn to it at the time. I had just learned how to read tablature—enough to get by, anyway—and I had a guitar magazine with the tab for ‘Dee,’ so I decided to learn it.

“I worked on it six hours a day, phrase by phrase, playing small sections over and over again until I got them right. And then I’d put the sections together, gradually building it.

“I remember being really hard on myself when I made mistakes—punching walls, throwing my guitars—especially if I’d get almost to the end and then screw it up. I was just obsessed with getting it right, and when I finally did it, I showed my mom. It was major achievement for me.”

Steve Vai

“Aqualung”—Jethro Tull
“My friend played me ‘Aqualung’ [sings riff]. I played that riff over and over until I was blue in the face. It was easy to play, and it was Jethro Tull—and we idolized Tull.

“So that was my introduction to playing a real song on the guitar. It was like a cathartic thing: you start, keep focused on it, put more and more emotional investment into it, and you get so much enjoyment out of it each time.

“And when you play a song that was written and performed by a band that you think is great, it gives you this sense of ‘coolness’—like, ‘Hey, I can do this!’ ”

Tracii Guns, League of Gentlemen
“Whole Lotta Love”—Led Zeppelin

“‘Whole Lotta Love,’ definitely. I was 6 years old when I learned how to play it. My mom showed it to me. I hadn’t even learned how to play guitar yet! I wanted to play it so bad that I had it down in five minutes. And I still love playing it. I felt like an adult for the first time in my life—that’s the power of a great riff for ya! That song changed my life forever.”

Munky, Korn
“Too Fast for Love”—Mötley Crüe

“The first riff I learned was ‘Too Fast for Love,’ by Mötley Crüe. I used to play along to the old Eighties records and try to figure out the rhythm stuff. I actually wanted to be a lead player in the beginning—and I was starting to get good at it—but when I started getting older I realized there was a solo in the middle of every song. It got so old, so typical. So I strayed from that and concentrated more on my rhythm playing.”