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10 Greatest Riff-Based Beatles Song

Russell Hall
|
10.17.2008


Discussions about the Beatles' songwriting invariably centers on Lennon and McCartney’s combined gift for memorable melodies and inspired craftsmanship. Often lost in the analysis, however, is the fact that the Fab Four also came up with some of rock's greatest guitar riffs. Below are 10 songs that testify to the band's ability to craft a song around an elegantly structured six-string line.

 

"I Feel Fine" (1964 single)

Not only was "I Feel Fine" one of the Beatles' earliest riff-oriented songs, it also marked the first instance in which guitar feedback appeared on a recording. The song's distinctive riff — played by George Harrison — was based on a 1961 Bobby Parker song titled "Watch Your Step," which the Beatles had previously covered in their live shows during 1961 and 1962. Lennon's superb rhythm playing was done on a Gibson J-160E semi-acoustic.

"Ticket To Ride" (from the 1965 album, Help!)

This 1965 hit was written primarily by Lennon, although McCartney came up with the lopsided drum pattern. McCartney also played lead guitar on the track, while Harrison handled the defining riff on a 12-string electric. The riff gave the song a poppy, incandescent glow, but rhythmically the song was heavier than anything the band had recorded to that point.

"Day Tripper" (1965 single)

Lennon came up with the brilliant riff for this 1965 hit. The riff's stop-and-start pattern echoed that of the Temptations' "My Girl," although of course "Day Tripper" sported a much heavier rock vibe. The song also contains one of the few technical errors on any Beatles recording — specifically, a dropout following the bridge, wherein the tambourine and rhythm guitar disappear momentarily. (The error was later corrected on the 2001 compilation, 1.)

"Paperback Writer" (1966 single)

Paul McCartney penned this 1966 track, a fact that probably accounts for the boosted bass line that prevails throughout. Harrison's rhythmically playful riff accentuates the light-hearted flavor of the song, which features Lennon and McCartney singing the children's tune "Frere Jacques" as the background vocal. Interestingly, "Paperback Writer" was the first U.K. Beatles single that was not a love song. (In the U.S., that distinction went to "Nowhere Man.")

"Taxman" (from the 1966 album, Revolver)

George Harrison was inspired to write this 1966 song after learning that most of his earnings would be going to the British government. The song — one of Harrison's first — featured a stuttering tangle of rhythm guitar and bass riffs that the Jam would later often adapt for their material. McCartney handled the heavily distorted lead guitar break, which (no surprise here) contained allusions to Indian music.

"Norwegian Wood" (from the 1965 album, Rubber Soul)

Written primarily by Lennon, this 1965 song was, of course, one of the first-ever Western pop songs to feature a sitar. Lennon's strummed acoustic guitar dominates, but Harrison's descending riff pattern — played on the Indian instrument — is what sticks in the head most. The song bears the earmarks of a raga tune, although the influence of Dylan looms large as well.

"Birthday" (from the 1968 album, The Beatles)

Written mostly by McCartney, this 1968 rave-up marked a return to the traditional rock form that inspired the Beatles in their early years. The defining riff was essentially a blues progression, played on lead guitar (by Lennon) and doubled on a 6-string bass (by Harrison). Patti Boyd and Yoko Ono softly intoned the word "Birthday" in the background vocals.

"Helter Skelter" (from the 1968 album, The Beatles)

McCartney was the primary composer of this 1968 song — the fiercest, most punk-like track the Beatles ever committed to vinyl. Purportedly, McCartney was inspired to write the song — which has been described as "proto-metal" — after reading an interview with Pete Townshend wherein the Who guitarist described "I Can See For Miles" as the loudest, rawest, dirtiest song the Who had ever recorded. Harrison handled the chorus's descending guitar riff.

"Revolution" (1968 single)

The best known of the three versions of "Revolution" kicks off with one of the loudest, most distorted guitar intros the Beatles ever recorded. Lennon's ferocious scream at the start has been duplicated by everyone from Roger Daltrey ("Won't Get Fooled Again") to Paul Westerberg ("Bastards of Young"). The dirty-sounding riff was achieved by plugging both the rhythm guitar and the lead guitar directly into the recording console and overloading the channel.

"Come Together" (from the 1969 album, Abbey Road)

This 1969 track — written by Lennon — was inspired by a 1956 song by Chuck Berry titled "You Can't Catch Me." Berry's music publisher, Morris Levy, eventually sued Lennon over the similarities, and Lennon settled the suit by agreeing to record two Berry songs (including "You Can't Catch Me") for his 1975 covers album, Rock and Roll. McCartney's eerie bass riff is the song's definitive feature.

What songs did we leave out? Let us know below!

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