June 8, 2011 8:30 PM

What is it with riffs, anyway?

I used to write songs totally around guitar riffs. These days I'm more inclined to think about the chord sequence and try to come up with a riff later, but there's something undeniably great about a hooky riff -- be it guitar or something else. Most of the time, if you've got a riff you can turn it into song. So what makes a great riff? And what are your favorites?
posted by unSane (27 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

(mostly inspired by having to learn the great-but-deadly-simple guitar riff for this)
posted by unSane at 8:31 PM on June 8, 2011

And three more prime examples.
posted by unSane at 8:34 PM on June 8, 2011

I think the best riffs play with time around the beat. An interplay between the rhythm and melody is crucial. The best riffs use lateness or earliness to create surprise, anticipation and groove. I think octaves are also pretty great to create rhythmic tonal pulses

Some ones I like,

Black Mountain (lateness, includes at least 4 great riffs)
The Doors (lateness, good bends)
Wolf Parade (octaves, plus that part in verse two where the synth goes "WEEEEEEEE")
posted by dobie at 11:36 PM on June 8, 2011

Good call unS - here's a few straight off the bat for starters:
UFO - Doctor Doctor (from about 0.50) - one of the few metal bands I have a soft spot for btw

Continuing the medical heme, Dr Feelgood - Down To The Doctors - hats of to Gypie for that one, killer. I absolutely adored the Feelgoods - almost my perfect band - with or without Wilco. This is right out of the top drawer from about 2.56 - really tight, hot funk/R&B that makes me go weak at the knees - but unfortunately I only have a snatch of it from a 1981 appearance on The South Bank Show. I wish someone would release the three tracks from the Feelgoods on here - they're all shit hot with the band on fire. The part of the show featuring the band is really interesting, with Mr Brilleaux being disarmingly modest and honest about his approach to music. A top geezer, sadly missed.

Alice Cooper - No More Mr Nice Guy (one of my all-time favourite riffs, never fails to make me shiver when it starts up)

Queen - Stone Cold Crazy. When they wanted to, they could blow anyone off the stage. 'nuff said.

The Who - Young Man Blues - Gibson SG Special with smokin' P90s monumentally kicking ass. This was the track above all others that made me want to be in a band - I wanted to make that glorious, wild, shiver-inducing, punch-you-in-the-gut, rampaging FUCKING NOISE!!!. YEEEAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!!! Genuinely inspirational.

I could get picky about what we precisely mean by a riff - does it include jazz for instance, or basically any repetitive figure? - but let's not go there.
posted by MajorDundee at 2:27 AM on June 9, 2011

I have basically never, ever worked from a riff first, and those riffs that even show up in my recordings do so mostly by accident. I feel like this is sort of a peculiar blind spot for me; I certainly get joy out of listening to good riffs in other people's works, and I like counterpoint a lot so you'd think I'd try to cross the streams there and make the guitar do more of the melodic work in arrangements, but it's just never been second nature.
posted by cortex at 10:04 AM on June 9, 2011

Riffs do most of the work for you as a songwriter, in a way.

As MajorDundee points out: What be a riff? Well, it could be a single instrument or interplay between a couple, I think. Most tend to feature early in the song.

Let me see what I can dig up:

Yes - Owner of a Lonely Heart (Trevor Rabin is a genius)

Siouxie and the Banshees - Happy House

Beck - Loser

Steve Miller Band - Abracadabra

Heh, there are far too many to list and add links to.

The first 6 notes of Jethro Tull - Aqualung, when we played live as a cover band, created instant chaos.


As cortex said, I can't recall ever starting with a riff...it might be a good writing exercise to do so, though.

The closest I came was probably this.

posted by Zenabi at 1:20 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Trevor Rabin is a genius
You're only saying that Zen 'cos Mr Rabin is from your neck of the woods....:-)

A riff is basically any kind of repetitive figure. Doesn't have to be on a guitar. A vocal chorus in a song is a riff. It doesn't take much consideration to realise that it's actually pretty meaningless as a concept because most popular music is characteristically repetitive in nature.

I've toyed with the idea of releasing some stuff that breaks from this obsession with formula and repitition - putting stuff out that's about 1 minute long and doesn't repeat. If people like it they can just play it again. There's an incredible conservatism about pop music - ironic and quite amusing given it's rebellious self-image - that's based on the Tin Pan Alley definition of a pop song as 3 minutes of strict tempo with a clear chorus and a repetitive structure based on standard combinations of set parts: verse, bridge, chorus and maybe a solo. How utterly fucking boring.

The problem with writing from a riff (if we're talking about guitar riffs) is that if it's musically strong it can be very difficult to put anything with it - a vocal for instance - that adds anything of value without fucking it up. I'd guess that's why the most memorable riffs are the ones where all you're really hearing is the riff - there's no other stuff going on apart from bass, drums and maybe a bit of colour from other instruments - certainly nothing that'll get in the way.
posted by MajorDundee at 2:34 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I considered that as a challenge idea for June, Major -- write a piece of music with no repeats.

Eric Satie seldom/never used repeats.

However I didn't do it because I think formula and repetition, or more precisely repetition and variation, are pretty much intrinsic to music.
posted by unSane at 5:01 PM on June 9, 2011

(I mean, where do you draw the line? Only one A per song? Only one snare hit?)
posted by unSane at 5:02 PM on June 9, 2011

Stabbing in the dark here, but I'm guessing that what we now know as a guitar riff probably started with slaves playing gourd banjos and evolved into blues etc. For sure hooks, riffs and phrases have always existed in music, but I think that's the first time that whole songs were written around a simple riff. (At least in modern times that we can all relate to.)

While the fellows we now know as the Blues Greats from the 20's on were relatively unknown having never hit the mainstream, I'd guess that riff rock really got established by all of the 50's bands and artists like Chuck Berry and Johnny B. Goode.

Then in the 60's Jimi quit the "chitlin circuit" and riffed the fuck out of everything!

Skipping Zeppelin, Sabbath, the Who etc. Everyone knows all that.

I think my favorite riff/hook/phrase of all time is the big hook in Helter Skelter. I don't know if it predates most other important riffs or anything, but it's heavy and timeless.

/conjecture, guessing and silly opinion.
posted by snsranch at 5:09 PM on June 9, 2011

Major D and unSane, you guys are really on to something and I think that would be a great challenge. Maybe something like this?

A song in any style that has an intro, two or more distinct non-repeating "chapters" and an outro.

Anyway, changing up the typical structure is an interesting idea.
posted by snsranch at 5:39 PM on June 9, 2011

I considered that as a challenge idea for June, Major -- write a piece of music with no repeats.

I have a long-simmering notion for an editing project, that maybe at some point I'll get around to, that comes down to basically cutting out the repeats from a bunch of pieces of pop music, at a bunch of larger structural levels. Take a pop song, and if there's a repeat eight bar sequence in the verse, only keep one of them. If there's multiple verses with the same structure, only keep one of them.

Maybe just leave it at bar-level granularity, since, as unSane notes, nixing repeated backbeat snare hits sounds like going into madness territory. But identify major chordal and melodic repetitions and eliminate them, and produce essentially a Reader's Digest version of the song. Structural compression, essentially; what started as something built out of large-scale repetition becomes something reduced to a collection of one-off building blocks.
posted by cortex at 5:57 PM on June 9, 2011

It's reasonably common in classical music and also some musical theater -- called 'through writing' I think. I actually find the repeats in Mozart really irritating (I find a lot of Mozart irritating to be honest). In pop they don't bug me so much because the verses have different words and hopefully the chorus is good enough that you want to hear it again.

I'm driven completely nuts by the Ableton Live method of composition which seems to be to assemble a bunch of loops and then sequence them in various combinations.

In the cover band I'm in at the moment we have a couple of groove songs including Crowbar's 'Oh, what a feeling", which is a D7 riff repeated seven trillion times but for some reason it doesn't get boring at all.
posted by unSane at 5:59 PM on June 9, 2011

I don't think a riff is any repetitive figure. I think it's an instantly recognizable figure that defines the song. You hear it and you don't need anything else to name that tune.

Jazz is a funny case because often the riff is the head and then everyone plays around with it. I've always thought that jazz would have had a much greater impact on the mainstream if they'd just played the head more -- there are so many great riffs and melodies there but you generally only hear them a couple of times at the beginning and a couple of times at the end and in between it's generally much less memorable (although thrilling improvisation).

Obviously this is the exact distinction between jazz and pop so I'm not saying Miles should have just played the fucking tune, just that I sometimes feel sad that the melodic genius in so many jazz tunes never really seeps into the mainstream.
posted by unSane at 6:50 PM on June 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

TODAY, my favorite riff is the bass in NoMeansNo's "Rags and Bones."

White Stripes, "Seven Nation Army" (bass & guitar)

AC Newman, "The Town Halo" (cello!)

That great organ riff in The Caesars' "Jerk it Out"

As a non-musician, I never really paid much attention to riffs; beyond my ability. My songs are generally written around the chord progression. Lately I've been thinking more about the power of the riff, but it's kind of a labourious process for me.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 8:30 PM on June 9, 2011

Yeah that Caesars riff is something else. I've got a huge soft spot for organ riffs. This is the great grandaddy I guess.
posted by unSane at 8:41 PM on June 9, 2011

Another classic organ riff:

? and the Mysterians - "96 tears"

And guitar:

Focus - Hocus Pocus
posted by Zenabi at 7:32 AM on June 10, 2011

That's weird unSane, I feel like Erik Satie is one of the riff-y-est classical piano composers out there, but I've only really examined his gymnopedie suite.

Would you say variations could be considered riffs? When I write a tune now (in 2011), I basically try to never play the same thing twice by doing variations on it as the song evolves. The variations usually get more complex as the song gets busier but they definitely reference the same melody, which is also often referenced by different instruments.
posted by dobie at 10:55 AM on June 10, 2011

I considered that as a challenge idea for June, Major -- write a piece of music with no repeats.
When I wrote that response I actually deleted a bit where I said almost exactly that! My variant was that we just set a tempo - say 120bpm - and everyone is invited to submit a section of a song that doesn't repeat - a chorus or a M8 or whatever - and then we look at sticking bits together to see what emerges. So it's a two part challenge I guess (a) submit a section and then (b) stick uploaded bits together to taste to create a conventional "song" which repeats etc. Might be fun. Might be utter shite. Dunno
posted by MajorDundee at 12:58 PM on June 10, 2011

I am really enjoying this thread. I am a particular bit fan of 70's era metal riffs.

Satori Pt 1 for your riffing pleasure. The song starts at :20.

Also this is righteous.
posted by dagosto at 6:51 PM on June 15, 2011

I'm not saying Miles should have just played the fucking tune

If there's a band that just plays the fucking tune, it's Down. I've always admired their commitment to big and dumb.
posted by vanar sena at 5:41 AM on June 18, 2011

The riffs that UFO songs are based on - especially Michael Schenker's riffs from the 70s - are superb. I can still play them thirty years after I learned them - Only You Can Rock Me (I don't think there's anything more likely to make me all air-punchy), Rock Bottom, Too Hot To Handle and many many more. Or Armed and Ready from Schenker's first post-UFO album.

And AC/DC? Back in Black, Highway to Hell, You Shook Me All Night Long, Riff Raff (takes a while to get there, but worth it I think), Whole Lotta Rosie.

(I was fifteen. It seemed like a good idea when I was fifteen.)

And 21st Century Schizoid Man, of course.
posted by Grangousier at 11:02 AM on June 23, 2011

Let's not forget Since You Been Gone...
posted by unSane at 12:18 PM on June 23, 2011

Ooh, much better quality version here.
posted by unSane at 12:21 PM on June 23, 2011

Possible July challenge idea -- RIFFOLOGY?
posted by unSane at 12:23 PM on June 23, 2011

I have a long-simmering notion for an editing project, that maybe at some point I'll get around to, that comes down to basically cutting out the repeats from a bunch of pieces of pop music, at a bunch of larger structural levels.

This is what Schoenberg did, to a large extent, and it's what makes his music difficult, far more so than harmonic considerations. I have a fantasy project of taking certain Schoenberg pieces and restoring them to the dimensions they would have had in an earlier period, using repeats, sequences, doublings, and so on. Repetition can be mindless, but mindful use of it is indispensible, to me.
posted by Wolfdog at 12:22 PM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

So a bit of mental calculation here -- let's take a 3' pop song with the following structure

intro 4 bar
verse 8 bar
pre chorus 4 bar
chorus 8 bar
verse 8 bar
pre chorus 4 bar
chorus 8 bar
bridge 8 bar
pre chorus 4 bar
chorus 8 bar
chorus 8 bar
outro 4 bar

that's about 25 bars per minute (~100bpm)

Now cut out the repeats

intro 4 bar
verse 8 bar
chorus 8 bar
outro 4 bar

24 bars, or a hair under a minute.

It is another interesting challenge idea -- record a popular song without repeats.

So now without
posted by unSane at 4:28 AM on June 26, 2011

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