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Five Riffs That Changed The World

Riffs are often written off as lightweight, but Guitar Planet is here to fly the flag for the simple sequences of notes that have changed the face of modern music.

Tuesday, 19. August 2014  -  by  David Hayter

Riffs are essential. Even the most single-minded shredder would not dare deny this fact, and yet, the riff is rarely celebrated for its artistic merits. The cultural significance of these short but swift sequences are there for all to see, but when it comes to talking about music history; songwriting, production and even hallucinogenic drugs are ascribed more influence than the fundamental building block of guitar music: the riff.

Guitar Planet seeks to redress this imbalance. The riff might be fun, it might be frilly, it might even be pop, but it is not lightweight. Instead, those unforgettable earworm hooks emanating from the guitar are infinitely flexible game changers that have been at the forefront of music’s evolution.

To demonstrate this historical heft, Guitar Planet has singled out five riffs that changed the world.

1948: The Riff That Launched A Million Songs - “Boogie Chillen”

Today the term rudimentary is applied to music or production that has been pared down to evoke a more primitive aesthetic. When Johnny Lee Hooker wrote “Boogie Chillen” he wasn’t trying to emulate anything, he was scratching around with the rawest, most primordial, elements of modern guitar music.

Hooker’s music unfolds in a stream of consciousness and, when he penned this beauty in 1948, he consciously pinched ideas from his father as well as lines from his own previous work. Hooker wasn’t focused on lyricism or conveying a message, he was locked into the beat; a simple, at time monotonous, rhythmic figure backed up by a solitary stomping foot.

Riffs had played a part in big band music before, but were traditionally buried beneath horns and strings; “Boogie Chillen” was the moment when the guitar, not only proved it could get hips to swing, but could do it while conveying a depth of soul and poverty. In these barely formed fragments lay the seeds of a rock’n’roll revolution.

1958: Rock ‘n’ Roll Has Arrived - “Johnny B. Goode”

The hawk eared listeners among us will no doubt pick up the echo of “Boogie Chillen” in Chuck Berry’s raucous evolution in rock, “Johnny B. Goode”. Led by a riff that combines Hollywood razzamatazz with fire-in-the-belly legitimacy, “Johnny B. Goode” manages to encompass all the major developments of the last decade (from Little Richard to Buddy Holly) in one, definitively rock, statement. The new sound the world had been waiting for had arrived – without the intervention of one Marty McFly.

However, the story runs a little deeper, because Chuck Berry’s stunning line in the sand moment was not wholly original. “Good artists copy, great artists steal” so said Pablo Piacasso and Chuck Berry obviously agreed. The glorious opening riff of “Johnny B. Goode” was not merely inspired by, but downright pilfered from, Louis Jordan’s really rather excellent “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman”.

This knowledge, far from diminishing Berry’s legacy, only adds to it. “Johnny B. Goode” was a culmination and mutation. It is only fitting that he would borrow from all that had come before to create something unmistakably new: an energy, an attitude, a new vision of popular music.

1969: The Universe Exploding In A Single Riff - “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”

From “Day Tripper” right the way through to “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Birthday”, The Beatles’ best riffs always felt like they were played in reverse – as if time was folding in on itself. The Beatles’ guitar work strode the chasm between psychedelic innovation and pure pop nous, with the occasional dalliance with raw blues (“Yer Blues”) and proto-metal (“Helter Skelter”).

It is fitting then, after their great down the rabbit hole tracks eschewed the guitar riff (“Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “A Day In The Life”), that The Fab Four’s final flourish of brilliance would elevate the guitar to the same brain-melting, planet-mashing, heights.

“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is indeed mercilessly heavy. It never relents. Lennon and Harrison had already toyed with heavy metal, but this steely, jazzy, gem would be their Magnus Opus on guitar. The track divides Beatles’ fans to this day, pairing a floating in space (trapped by desire) aesthetic with one of the purest and most brutally unforgiving riffs in history.

Perhaps the greatest tribute that can be paid to Lennon’s guitar work is that The Beatles sat back and said: forget the harmony, forget the hook, let the guitar stand front and centre stage.

1977: Riffs That Conquered The World - “Whole Lotta Rosie”

Certain riffs in isolation would top the charts and change the face of pop culture, but they were ultimately fleeting. More often than not a globe-straddling juggernaut was built on vocal hooks or the beastly sum of a band’s parts - rather than a collection of catchy riffs. Enter: Angus Young.

It would be churlish to lay the record-breaking success (that’s not hyperbole, they hold a host of sales records) of AC/DC entirely on the strings of Angus Young’s guitar. The band are phenomenal all-rounders blessed with two stunning front men and a ferocious rhythm section, but when it comes to singling out the one factor that raises AC/DC from good to great and from big to bigger than creation, it’s hard to look beyond Young.

His riffs are hummed, bellowed and bounced along to in every corner of the globe. The response to his playing can be so fervent that it becomes impossible hear Brian Johnson’s voice (and he is no shrinking violet) over the sound of 50,000 people screaming along to one riff after another. 1978’s “Whole Lotta Rosie” wasn’t Young’s first great riff, but it was the moment when all the pieces slid into place and AC/DC took their first giant stride towards world domination.

1982: Pop Music Mutates, The Riff Reasserts Its Dominance – “Beat It”

Michael Jackson admitted that he would never have naturally written a rock song; it wasn’t his scene, it wasn’t his sound and it didn’t reflect the world in which he grew up. However, Quincy Jones, his producer and long time collaborator, was convinced that Michael could deliver the kind of hit that would unify the rapidly diverging worlds of rock and pop.

The Knack’s “My Sharona” provided Jones’ inspiration, while Jackson set about writing the kind of rock song that would make his younger self-run to the record store to buy a copy. If Jackson and Jones’ goal was to stop rock and pop from drifting apart into two tribal camps, they failed, but in so doing they did forever secure the riff’s (and the solo’s) place in the pop pantheon.

Having written a sublime song about bravado and the better part of valour, Jackson recruited an all-star team of guitarists to make his rock ‘n’ roll anthem authentic. Eddie Valen Halen, Steve Lukather and Paul Jackson Jr. did the rest, forging a track that stands to this day as the perfect marriage of modern pop and the ever-fracturing nuances of rock.

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