Recently we had a look at ways to increase the power of your distorted sound via various boosting methods. And with good reason: distortion is one of the cornerstones of rock, alongside such other crucial staples as big hair, pointy guitars and more pointy guitars. But guitar cannot exist on distortion alone: some of the most powerful, most crushing, most monumental rock and metal riffs have been preceded by clean intros. It's a great way to create drama and impact: lull the listener into a false sense of security with a melodic, intimate musical statement, then clobber them over the head with your distorto-riff of doom.
Here are ten great clean intros that perform the dual roles of being great pieces in their own right, and crafty setups for some monster riffage. They might do it via a truly clean, pristine electric guitar tone, or they might involve an acoustic, or even just a rolled-back volume knob for some natural gain attenuation before kicking into top gear. Here we go.
10. Van Halen - "Pleasure Dome"
Okay, let's not forget that we live in a world where "Cathedral" precedes "Little Guitars," and "Spanish Fly" comes before "D.O.A." But Eddie Van Halen's semi-clean introduction to "Pleasure Dome" from 1991's For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge fulfills the crucial criteria of being a perfectly formed piece of music on its own, while building up the whole 'false security' thing with some pretty little arpeggios and harmonics - before Eddie tears it all down with a whammied harmonic in tandem with a thunderous, Bonhamesque Alex Van Halen drum performance. This song has only rarely been performed live by Van Halen - Eddie once told Guitar World that its spoken verses made it a difficult one to deliver in an arena setting - and that might be why it hasn't quite worked its way into the band's accepted list of bona fide classics. But between that killer intro and Eddie's wild high-speed soloing - surely one of his greatest leads on this very guitar-heavy album - it deserves a second listen.
9. Frank Zappa - "You Didn't Try To Call Me"
The late great Frank Zappa was many things: visionary composer, pioneering satirist, guitar iconoclast - but amid all the compositional density ("The Black Page"), the biting humor ("We're Turning Again") and incredible guitar solos ("Inca Roads") it's easy to overlook the sheer prettiness of some of Zappa's compositions. This simple four-bar introduction wraps it all up in a neat little bow and plops it down on your doorstep on your birthday. That an introduction so gentle, delicate and beautiful could exist on the same album as "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" and "Who Are The Brain Police" is a testament to Frank's vision, because it foreshadows later also-pretty melodies such as "The Dog Breath Variations" and "Outside Now."
8. Guns N' Roses - "Paradise City"
It's reassuringly simple to play, but where would Guns N' Roses' Paradise City be without that slightly jangly intro? It's almost like a metaphor for the lyrical thrust of the song itself, which is about the optimism of following ones' dreams - in this case in Hollywood - and quickly discovering that it's not all as pretty as it might initially seem. And GNR build the tension in layers - just guitar at first, then with drums, and then vocals before crunchy overdriven guitars pick up the chord progression. Then it all gets swept off the table in favor of one of the most intentionally gritty, sleazy, dirty rock riffs ever.
7. Randy Rhoads - "Dee"
In many ways "Dee" is the ultimate clean intro. Sure, Randy Rhoads' Rennaisance-inspired, multi-tracked little ditty - named in honor of his mother - may not have been specifically intended to serve as an intro to "Suicide Solution," but when you listen to its parent album Blizzard of Ozz in chronological order (the way it should be listened to, dammit!), the beauty and levity of "Dee" forms an intriguing textural duo with "Suicide Solution," whose distorted guitars, echoed vocals and whammy bar whinnies couldn't be further removed from the simplicity of what comes before.
6. Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
"Teen Spirit" borrows from the Pixies dynamic of clean/dirty/clean/dirty, but the dirty just wouldn't have the same filthy impact if it wasn't preceded by Kurt Cobain's percussive, slightly rough delivery of the song's signature riff in clean form prior to stomping on the distortion and changing the face of rock at the nine second mark. There are other clean tones during the song but they're swimming in wobbly analog chorus and are more atmospheric than this very direct, very tension-building intro.
5. Black Sabbath - "Children Of The Sea"
Tony Iommi has written plenty of great mid-album acoustic interludes over the years - Sabbath Bloody Sabbath's "Fluff" is particularly pretty - but would Dio-era classic "Children Of The Sea" have the same impact if it wasn't for that multi-tracked, 12-string-laced, jazzy-melody-festooned intro? Dio's echoed vocals build the foggy, dungeon-dwelling atmosphere before the full band kicks in with a huge riff which balances palm mutes, chord slides and plenty of patented Sabbath evil.
4. U2 - "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"
This one might not even qualify as a clean intro in its own right, depending on your point of view, but c'mon! A rare chance to hear The Edge's textural approach to delay and orchestration up close before the rest of the band kicks in? I'll take it! The first fifteen seconds of this song are proof that a great guitarist can be instantly identifiable even when playing a single note. Lots of players have attempted to borrow from The Edge's style - and this intro gives you a front seat to trying to figure out how he does it - but nobody does it with quite the same simple magic.
3. Pink Floyd - "Another Brick In The Wall" Pt. 1
Of course, one can't talk about The Edge's delay extravaganzas without mentioning David Gilmour's pioneering efforts on Pink Floyd classics like Echoes, Run Like Hell and this legendary intro - which sounds great on the album as a prelude to "The Happiest Days Of Our Lives" but is even more immense and engaging when used as the intro to "Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2" in the live arena, particularly on the Pulse live album and DVD. Every note Gilmour plays is always going to be great, and here you get to hear them over and over - so that makes it even more great, right?
2. Metallica - "Battery"
Metallica made the clean, classically-inspired intro into such a stylistic feature that they kicked off three albums with it: Ride The Lightning, Master of Puppets and …And Justice For All before making the conscious decision to move on from the idea with 1991's Metallica. But the intro to "Battery" seems to draw special mention, possibly because it's so authentic to the style it's borrowing from, and because it comes before a riff of such unprecedented heaviness. In the case of "Battery," the very first time you listen to it it's bound to knock you sideways with that juxtaposition of sophisticated classical harmony and hyper-speed palm-muted picking. And on subsequent listens the intro takes on a new significance because when you hear it you know what's coming.
1. Led Zeppelin - "Stairway To Heaven"
Of course "Stairway" has to be on this list. This 8-minute epic goes through many moods over its duration, including anthemic fist-pumping rock, but the Renaissance-influenced guitar-and-recorder intro is the perfect way to set the scene.
HONORARY MENTION: Mr. Big - "Just Take My Heart"
Truth be told, this is the intro that inspired this article. Sure, it's not Paul Gilbert's most shred-tastic example of flawlessly fast guitar playing - it's a relatively simple, clean, chorused, fingerpicked interlude that's only about half a minute long - but it's engaging, melodic and pretty. And it kinda overshadows the rest of the song, which I guess can be a bad thing.