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Greatest Guitar Riffs Ever

[I asked my friend the musician Jonathan Mudd to weigh in on the recent list, produced by students at London music schools, of the Top 25 guitar riffs of all time (see list at end of the kit). Jonathan found the list fundamentally contemptible ("This is so bad-so brainless and entirely ungrounded in basic riffology research-that it is not worth commenting on"). He produced his own list. He also explained, at my request, the technical definition of a "riff." You are, needless to say, invited to weigh in with your own favorite riffs, or, for that matter, favorite songs, composers, etc.]

By Jonathan Mudd

Unlike a guitar solo (which quite often is a series of three- or four-note "licks" strung together into a longer whole) or guitar "fills" (licks played in between vocal lines to complement the singing), a "riff" is a brief, repetitive musical figure designed to be the "hook"--or most memorable instrumental component--of a song. Often employed at the very beginning of the song, before each verse, and generally at the end--with playful variation--great riffs are simple and short (the best are fewer than ten notes--and thus memorable).

While one can "riff" (verb) on piano or horn or even bass, riffs (noun) are generally associated with the guitar, and have been since early bluesmen made them featured elements of their tunes back in the 1930s. Indeed, the great guitar riffs of rock can be traced directly back to the blues--whether it's Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Bukka White or Muddy Waters.

While this ridiculous "London Music Schools" list (what, "London" and "school" are supposed to make it legitimate?) does include some great riffs (no one would argue with "Smoke on the Water"--a true, wonderfully stupid riff"--or "Walk This Way" or even "Sweet Child o' Mine," and it can safely be said that the riff Chuck Berry plays in "Johnny B. Goode" ushered in the electric guitar as the primary melodic instrument in rock), there are just as many entries that are a) not really riffs ("Born To Be Wild," "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "My Generation"), or b) not good ("Walk" is moronic), or c) neither ("Eye of the Tiger"--are they kidding?). And the oversights are inexcusable.

Good thing I am here to save the day for true Riff worshippers. No list of great riffs would be complete without these:

"Day Tripper": The Beatles
"Layla": Derek & the Dominos
"Sunshine of Your Love": Cream
"Oh, Well": Fleetwood Mac
"Funk #49": The James Gang
"Gimme Three Steps": Lynyrd Skynyrd
"Aqualung": Jethro Tull
"Heartbreaker": Led Zeppelin
"Jumpin' Jack Flash": The Rolling Stones
"The Train Kept A-Rollin'": The Yardbirds
"Mannish Boy": Muddy Waters
"Sunday, Bloody Sunday": U2
"Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love": Van Halen

[Here's the London students's list:

1. Smoke On The Water - Deep Purple (1973)

2. Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana (1991)

3. Walk This Way - Aerosmith (1975)

4. Purple Haze - Jimi Hendrix (1967)

5. Sweet Child O Mine - Guns N Roses (1987)

6. Paradise City - Guns N Roses (1987)

7. Ace Of Spades - Motorhead (1980)

8. Enter Sandman - Metallica (1991)

9. Under The Bridge - Red Hot Chilli Peppers (1992)

10. Welcome To The Jungle - Guns N Roses (1987)

11. Run To The Hills - Iron Maiden (1982)

12. Walk - Pantera (1992)

13. Johnny Be Goode - Chuck Berry (1958)

14. Back In Black - AC/DC (1980)

15. Immigrant Song - Led Zeppelin (1970)

16. Wake Up - Rage Against The Machine (1992)

17. Highway to Hell - AC/DC (1979)

18. My Generation - The Who (1965)

19. 7 Nation Army - The White Stripes (2003)

20. Born To Be Wild - Steppenwolf (1968)

21. Give It Away - Red Hot Chilli Peppers (1991)

22. Paranoid - Black Sabbath (1970)

23. Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) - Jimi Hendrix (1967)

24. Eye Of The Tiger - Survivor (1982)

25. Money For Nothing - Dire Straits (1984) ]

--
Checked in with the Achenbro. He votes for "Satisfaction," "Sunshine of Your Love," "Purple Haze," "Fire" (also by Hendrix on same album), "Whole Lotta Love," and "Dazed and Confused." Favorite guitar solo: "Eruption" by Van Halen.

--

Wednesday morning update:

Mysteriously, we seldom talk about hockey here. Possibly because I don't know much about hockey and still haven't quite figured out the icing rule. The fighting is ridiculous. But the Caps are in the playoffs and with my new hi-def TV I can actually see the puck (though I still can't see it go into the goal -- the way I know someone has scored is that there's a mad celebration and the announcer is screaming). In any case, here's a fine column by Mike Wise about last night's game in Philly:

' Midway through the third period of this demoralizing 6-3 loss at Wachovia Center, 20,000 people in fluorescent orange howled for their World Extreme Cagefighters, and a crowd in the upper bowl chanted vulgarities at Ovechkin that went beyond the bounds of loutish fan behavior. As the frothing masses left the arena, they felt good about the bull being struck and killed -- checking the multi-generational Russian wizards Ovechkin and Sergei Fedorov into humility as much as the boards...

'For most of the evening, there was this unmistakable air of testosterone coming from the Flyers' direction that just reeked of physicality, a way of exerting their mauling style on the Capitals that just sent their denizens into some medieval state of euphoria.

'"We want to make it physical between the whistles," Flyers Coach John Stevens said. "I think it's important for no other reason then it's the best tool we have to defend, to be honest with you. I think it's very important that we move our feet and finish our checks and get people pushed off the puck."

'Translation: "We will keep punking the Caps until the NHL commissioner tells us not to."

'Did we mention they show fights on the video scoreboard every period here, more than most arenas show dunks in the NBA?

'Something about this R-rated environment is just not conducive to Ted Leonsis' Family Pack Night or Ovie on Ice. The contrasts are so stark and revealing.

'The Caps' postseason slogan: "Rock The Red." The Flyers? "Vengeance Now," which comes across as less of a slogan and more of a sequel to Charles Bronson's "Death Wish."

'The Capitals didn't come out as Eastern Conference foes; they entered the playing surface like Russell Crowe entered the Coliseum in "Gladiator." Flyer fans didn't want to beat Washington as much as see Ovechkin bludgeoned, his teammates emasculated.

'It's almost impossible to fathom, but the Capitals took the ice in front of a building as loud as Verizon Center last Friday. The fans wore orange instead of the Capitals' red, and many of the women and children looked as if they could work security for Megadeth.

'On I-95 entering town there is a billboard of Riley Cote, a stumpy rogue who engaged in 24 fights this season, twice as many as Capitals tough guy Donald Brashear. Cote's wild-man eyes and his quick fists are the only features shown of the Flyers' player.

'Five minutes into the game, they showed a video of Philly's top brawls this past season, many involving Cote grabbing hold of an opponents' shirt for leverage before pummeling him to the ice, which is just a swell environment for children -- children of Patrick Roy.

'They flat-out market and sell violence here, sanctioned, unbridled assaults disguised as sport...'


By Joel Achenbach  |  April 15, 2008; 3:48 PM ET
 
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