Since 1954, some of the best guitarists in the history of rock and roll have practiced their art on a Fender Stratocaster—from Buddy Holly and Buddy Guy to Yngwie Malmsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Strat has served as the sonic centerpiece for songs as diverse as Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” Earl Hooker’s “Two Bugs and a Roach,” Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover.”
We’ve cherry-picked a handful of notable riffs that display the model’s incredible versatility. Each entry here emphasizes the Strat sound in a unique way, as the riffs themselves play to the strengths of the player. Moreover, each riff qualifies as a cornerstone in the canon of great Stratocaster riffs without pigeonholing the instrument’s multicolored tonalities.
Read our analyses, and give a listen to these riffs in the videos. Then add them to your own vocabulary.
“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”
In the mid Seventies, around the time Jeff Beck recorded Wired and its masterful predecessor, Blow by Blow, no one quite understood where the guitarist was going musically. His fans knew he was onto something, but the best label anyone could come up with for Beck’s uncanny ax alchemy was “jazz fusion.” Of course, it’s much more than that. From his earliest days in the Yardbirds, Beck—or rather his playing style—has always been tough to pin down. Indeed, no fusion instrumental could ever bring a tear to your eye the way his cover of Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” can. And few, if any, guitarists can play with such manic funk one moment and such poignance the next. Learn it and love it.
“Woman from Tokyo”
In the early to mid Seventies, Ritchie Blackmore’s archetypical Deep Purple were one of the hottest hard-rock bands in the world. In 1972, they rode the Machine Head/“Smoke on the Water” juggernaut for all it was worth, and then released Made in Japan, their epic live album featuring classic Blackmore extrapolations like “Space Truckin’” and “Lazy.” Following up that act was not an easy task, as indicated by the mediocre Who Do We Think We Are disc, released in late 1972 immediately after that fertile period. One of the few exceptions on the album, “Woman from Tokyo”—the album’s high point and one of Blackmore’s best riffs—rips its hook, by the guitarist’s own admission, from “Cat’s Squirrel,” from Cream’s 1966 Fresh Cream debut.
One of the sappiest tunes in Clapton’s late-period catalog, “Wonderful Tonight” is also one of his most memorable and most popular songs. Clapton’s haunting string-bending motif, especially in the first four measures, is gorgeous, and perfectly complements the simplicity of the song’s sentiment. The song was written when Clapton’s wife was have trouble deciding which dress to wear to a party. Rather than rush her, Clapton bit his tongue and said exactly the right thing. The rest is history.
“Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)”
The most interesting story about this tune concerns the 23 kids who sang its choruses. Producer Bob Ezrin—the same guy who helmed the kid-enhanced session for Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” anthem—came up with the idea to bring the children in and have them belt out the anti-school chorus. Some hubbub went down, however, when authorities found out the kids weren’t paid—so the studio gave the group some time in exchange for their voices, which were overdubbed 12 times to make it sound like a much larger cluster of kids. David Gilmour’s rhythm guitar track took its cue from Ezrin’s uncharacteristic disco beat, which the producer conceived after hearing rhythm guitar genius Nile Rodgers in New York City.
“Mary Had a Little Lamb”
Written by Buddy Guy for his 1968 album A Man and the Blues, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was popularized by Stevie Ray Vaughan 25 years later on his Texas Flood disc. Despite the song’s nursery-rhyme title, the number has a wicked intro hook played on the guitar’s bass strings, with chord stabs inserted to effect a call-and-response arrangement. Guy’s rapid picking and vicious soloing have since become his trademark, and he now stands as one of the last original purveyors of the great Chicago school of electric blues.
In late 1969, Hendrix was in a dark mood. He had recently been arrested for drug possession in Toronto, and to make matters worse he was pressed by manager Michael Jeffery to disband the new Band of Gypsys for financial reasons. Jeffery and Hendrix co-owned Electric Lady Studios, which needed revenue, and Jeffery wanted it to remain solvent. The solution: a “reunion tour” with the Experience. One night, before a Madison Square Garden gig with Band of Gypsys, the two argued loudly about the studio. The resulting tension adversely impacted Hendrix’s performance that night, and he left the stage after only two numbers. In the fallout, Jeffery fired Buddy Miles, the composer of “Changes,” ending a budding musical relationship and putting an end to Band of Gypsys.
“Far Beyond the Sun”
In contrast to Clapton’s simplicity and Buddy Guy’s ferocity, there’s Yngwie Malmsteen’s virtuosity, best exemplified on his neoclassical blueprint “Far Beyond the Sun.” Extracting the speed of Eddie Van Halen and combining it with the technique and composition of Randy Rhoads, Yngwie sent aspiring shredders running back to their textbooks to relearn harmonic minor scales, freshen up on the Phrygian modes, and find out just who the hell Paganini was. Rising Force, the album containing this revolutionary tune, earned Malmsteen a Grammy nomination and essentially changed the face of guitar heroics for a few years during the second half of the Eighties.
“I’ll Be There for You”
Bon Jovi’s music was nothing if not predictable. They stumbled onto a successful formula and stuck to it no matter what. “I’ll Be There for You,” with its escalating choruses and big pop-metal hooks, typified the quintet’s signature sound. Guitarist Richie Sambora and Jon Bon Jovi were also geniuses in that they knew how to build an intimate bridge between the band and its fans. By voicing such universal slogans as “Keep the Faith,” “Lay Your Hands on Me” and “I’ll Be There for You,” they guaranteed not only crowd participation but also success. On “I’ll Be There for You” Sambora’s sitar intro and tasty fills add nicely to the buildup.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
“Since I can’t read music and everything, I find out that I do the best when I just listen for where I’m try to go with it and where it can go, and not try to rush it, not try to make up things as I’m going necessarily,” Stevie Ray Vaughan said when discussing “Texas Flood.” “Then I’m a lot better off. If I start trying to pay attention to where I am on the neck and ‘this is the proper way to do this or that,’ then I end up thinking that thing through. Instead of playing from my heart, I play from my mind, and that’s where I find that I get in trouble. If I just go from my heart and let it come out, then I’m okay.”