From the moment Chuck Berry's “Maybelline” roared out of tinny radios in the mid-'50s, the best rock 'n' roll has been built on riffs, those catchy combinations of notes that announce a song's presence with authority.
In the early rock 'n' roll era, when songs were constructed around blues and rockabilly-based guitar chords, six-string heroes such as Berry, Scotty Moore (who played with Elvis Presley in the '50s), Cliff Gallup (who rumbled in Gene Vincent's Blue Caps) and Telecaster god Paul Burlison of The Rock 'N Roll Trio were the riff kings, screeching on the guitar's top strings, playing two- and three-string leads that left an indelible fingerprint on the particular tune they ripped on.
But it took a disciple of those players, an English kid named Keith Richards, to turn riffs into hooks, to base a song around a singular low string rumble of notes, and Richards and his band The Rolling Stones, who play at the Glendale Arena on Sunday, ushered in the golden age of the riff in the mid-'60s, when it was not about guitar solos or showing off.
A great riff is about songwriting, not guitar pyrotechnics (sorry, Yngwie).
Nearly all subgenres of rock 'n' roll, from heavy metal to punk, have had their share of smokin' riffs, that instantly catchy rumble of guitar or keyboard that leads a listeners to proclaim “I can name that tune in three notes,” and of course there are the riff gods of rock 'n' roll's rich history, like Richards, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi and the great Angus Young of AC/DC.
In honor of Keith Richards (or “Keef Riffhard,” as he is often referred to) playing the Valley this week, we at Get Out have assembled our list of the Top 20 rock riffs of all time.
We know we may have missed a few, and there will be disagreements (as there were in the cozy confines of Get Out's offices), so let the debate begin.
1. “Satisfaction,” by The Rolling Stones (1965): A great riff should be simple, and nothing is as simple as this reverbed three-note (B-C#-D for those playing along at home) barrage that put The Stones on the map as they tried to distinguish themselves from The Beatles in the mid-'60s. This riff is still instantly recognizable 40 years later, and it is historically the most important riff, not to mention the catchiest, riff of all time.
2. “Smoke on the Water,” by Deep Purple (1972): Ritchie Blackmore is one of the greatest guitarists of the hard-rock era, but he will be forever associated with a riff that a novice guitarist often learns in the first lesson. A variation on “Satisfaction,” this riff is simple, heavy and catchy, and even people who can't name another Deep Purple song can name this one, and that's what makes a riff great.
3. “Johnny B. Goode,” by Chuck Berry (1958): Michael J. Fox aped on it in “Back to the Future.” It is the sound of '50s rock 'n' roll, and it is Chuck Berry's best-known riff, a ripping two-string barrage that kicks off what is Chuck Berry's best-known tune from a plethora of great songs and riffs. Berry's influence is immeasurable, and many great guitarists credit the St. Louis six-string slinger as their inspiration to pick up a guitar.
4. “Day Tripper,” by The Beatles (1966): The Beatles only recorded for eight years, went through several stages (from moptops to psychedelia to bearded hippies) and came up with several great riffs (“Come Together,” “Birthday,” “Rain”), but the catchy riff that runs throughout “Day Tripper” remains their finest, a groovy hook that signaled a shift in the band's musical direction.
5.“Walk This Way,” by Aerosmith (1975): This classic Joe Perry riff has lived several lives. Initially issued on Aerosmith's 1975 “Toys in the Attic” album, it finally charted as a Top 10 single for the band in 1977, then charted again when rappers Run-D.M.C. covered it in 1986 and it hit No. 4 on the charts. Aerosmith is built on great riffs, and this is one of the greatest riffs of all time.
6.“Back in Black,” by AC/DC (1980): Angus Young's riffs have made Australians AC/DC one of the greatest rock bands ever, and this tune, the title track to the band's classic 1980 album, has three separate riffs that could each make this list. RAWK!
7. “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” by Jimi Hendrix (1968): The greatest rock guitarist of all time (even fellow greats acknowledge that Hendrix was from another planet when it came to the six-string) delivered this wah-wah pedal masterpiece on his classic “Electric Ladyland” LP in 1968. The original is 15 minutes long, but “Slight Return,” clocking in at just over three minutes, accentuates the monster riffage.
8. “Sunshine of Your Love,” by Cream (1968): This Eric Clapton guitar/bass tandem riff is another Beginning Guitar staple, proving that a guitarist as great as Clapton can come up with a riff that an 8-year-old can learn, as well as something catchy enough to be a No. 5 single in 1968.
9. “Heartbreaker,” by Led Zeppelin (1969): Take your pick of Jimmy Page riffs — “Whole Lotta Love,” “Kashmir,” “Black Dog” — everything he set his fingers to could make an all-time greatest riff list, but “Heartbreaker,” the lumbering, impossibly heavy blues-based blast from “Led Zeppelin II” is the guitar god's most distinctive.
10. “Jumpin' Jack Flash,” by The Rolling Stones (1968): This slam-bang riff carries the verses, then Keith Richards practically invents power chords during the breaks. Like “Satisfaction,” this tune is based upon the catchiness of the hook — and who can resist actor Michael Keaton's mouthed version in the underrated 1982 comedy “Night Shift”? Any riff you can play with your mouth is a great riff.
11. “Layla,” by Derek and The Dominoes (1970): Eric Clapton wrote this — one of the greatest love songs of all time — about Patti Harrison, Beatle George's wife, on whom he had a debilitating crush (he later married her). The song is in two parts, the first being a monstrous riff/power-chord combo followed by a gorgeous piano piece upon which Clapton and fellow guitar great Duane Allman duel on slide guitars.
12. “Iron Man,” by Black Sabbath (1971): Guitarist Tony Iommi is a veritable riff machine, as nearly all of Black Sabbath's tunes are anchored by evil-sounding blues land mines, and “Iron Man,” with its choppy, ascending line, is the band's most memorable riff in a career full of them, making Black Sabbath the single most influential heavy metal act ever.
13. “Superstition,” by Stevie Wonder (1973): The only riff on the list not played on guitar or bass (Wonder played it on a clavinet), this funk classic is such a great riff that it was resurrected on guitar by the great Stevie Ray Vaughan in his own sonic blues rave-up of the tune. This song — easily one of Wonder's best in a career full of brilliant music — hit No. 1 in 1973.
14. “Sweet Child o' Mine,” by Guns N' Roses (1987): In an era where most hard rockers were trying desperately to copy Eddie Van Halen's tapping technique, Guns N' Roses guitar pistolero Slash brought the influence of Page and Clapton back to hard rock. “Sweet Child o' Mine” was essentially a pop song, but it was built around one of the most distinguished opening riffs of all time, a high-pitched octave hook that sings.
15. “Crazy Train,” by Ozzy Osbourne (1980): Splitting from Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne hired California kid Randy Rhoades to handle guitar duties, and Rhoades' insanely gifted work saved Ozzy from being a heavy metal also-ran and elevated Rhoades himself to all-time guitar guru status. Rhoades died in a plane crash after Ozzy's second record, and Ozzy, with a series of hired guns who couldn't come close to Rhoades' creativity, would never be as good. “Crazy Train” is a riff for the ages.
16. “Enter Sandman,” by Metallica (1991): Thrash-metal heroes Metallica have tons of great riffs, but “Enter Sandman,” the band's best known song, is eerily catchy, a minor-key, chromatic hook that is played quietly in parts of the song and with raging intensity in others. As sinister a riff as has ever been written.
17. “Super Freak,” by Rick James (1981): A great hook transcends genre (hey, even Puff Daddy, or P. Diddy, or Diddy, or whatever the hell he's calling himself these days, appropriated Led Zeppelin's “Kashmir” for one of his tunes), and there is no better proof than this funk/punk masterpiece by Rick James. Not only did this impossibly catchy riff carry James into the Top 20 in 1981, rapper MC Hammer took the riff to the Top 10 nine years later with “U Can't Touch This.” Just try to get this riff out of your head.
18. “Life in the Fast Lane,” by The Eagles (1978): Nothing was a bigger surprise in the late '70s than when the mellow, mustachioed, feather-hair wearing country rockers The Eagles dropped this monster rock riff onto the “Hotel California” album. A tune about '70s debauchery, drug use and out-of-control lifestyles deserves a riff this hard, and The Eagles delivered.
19. “You Really Got Me,” by The Kinks (1964): This proto-punk garage riff was the biggest blast of sonic guitar work during the British Invasion of the mid-'60s, a distorted, staccato burst of two note fury that distinguished The Kinks from fellow British Invasion rivals The Beatles and The Stones. Check out Van Halen's thrilling version on their 1977 debut album, during which guitar god Eddie Van Halen throws down power chords loud enough to wake the dead.
20. “Inna Gadda Da Vida,” by Iron Butterfly (1968): Despite the pretentious baby-talk babble of the title (which is supposed to be “In the Garden of Eden” when you're not on 'shrooms), this impossibly long, directionless 17-minute psychedelic exploration to the center of your mind mostly . . . uh, how to put it kindly . . . sucks. But the intro guitar hook is a classic of the era, a descending chromatic monster that, when not broken up by cheesy keyboards and a mind-numbingly boring 10-minute drum solo, makes for a pretty darn good riff.