It’s the engine that propels the machinery, the fire that ignites the fuel. It is, quite simply, The Riff — a mystical combination fretted notes that can launch a song into the stratosphere. The ’50s certainly saw its share of classic riffs from the likes of Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy and Eddie Cochran, but it was during the ’60s when the riff exploded as an art form (and bludgeoning tool). With future legends like Keith Richards, Dave Davies and Pete Townshend leading the charge, a new generation of listeners were compelled to crank up their radios lest they miss the crucial opening, overdriven notes of a tune. After a few painful list trimmings (fare thee well, “How Many More Times”), I present to you the Top 10 Riffs of the decade of Jackie O, Neil Armstrong and Beatle Boots.
1. “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones
Keith Richards claims he came up with what is, quite possibly, the greatest riff of all time in his sleep. Fellow guitarists have been trying to learn just what Keef had for dinner that night for decades. Like a musical razor blade glued to the back of the ultimate teenage frustration lyric sheet, it continues to send chills 45 years later.
2. “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks
If this riff didn’t give birth to heavy metal, it certainly put the legs in the stirrups and started the breathing exercises. Fuelled by a two-chord combo delivered with brutal efficiency by Dave Davies, this is the song that lit a fire under Pete Townshend’s butt (more on that below) and later helped put a covering Van Halen on the map.
3. “Paperback Writer” by The Beatles
It’s simply impossible to pick one Beatles riff, given the sheer volume of all-time greats the band produced (“I Feel Fine,” “Day Tripper” and “Dig a Pony,” to name a few). But if any one stands as more propulsive than perhaps any riff ever written, it would be this gem, penned by the future Sir Paul.
4. “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix
Top of the charts on Gibson.com’s Top 50 Guitarists of All Time, Jimi Hendrix marked a flash point in the history of rock and roll, when the guitar exploded (sometimes literally) as a lead instrument. Nowhere is that sizzle heard more than on the opening of “Purple Haze.”
5. “I Can’t Explain” by The Who
Inspired by The Kinks, but delivered with an urgency the likes of which only one wind-milling maniac has ever been capable, the opening chords of “I Can’t Explain” kicked in the dull, white-washed doors of the music industry for the ‘Orrible ‘Oo. Decorated with vintage Townshend lyrics of frustration and anger, the song is two minutes and four seconds of teenage desperation.
6. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly
Okay, so the 17-minute version is nigh impossible to listen to without accompanying hallucinogenics (and yes, we’ve even chosen a clipped version here to spare you the drum solo). Nevertheless, this proto-Sabbath dirge was the heaviest thing in the world in 1968.
7. “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream
Clapton may have been a few years past his “God” status, but with Cream he began a peak period of riffage that lasted through the Derek and the Dominos days and culminated with “Cocaine” on the Slowhand album. Enjoy here, Cream at their peak of sweet, riffed-up jamminess.
8. “James Bond Theme” by The John Barry Orchestra
Written by Monte Norman (or was it orchestra leader John Barry; the courts are still figuring it out) and notably played by awesomely named session guitarist Vic Flick, the guttural, but oh-so-cool “Dum-Di-Di-Dum-Dum” riff inspired everyone from The Beatles (“Hey Bulldog”) to Pink Floyd (“Lucifer Sam”). It remains the ultimate walking-into-a-room song.
9. “Last Train to Clarksville” by The Monkees
The story goes that songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart (“Come a Little Bit Closer,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”) clicked on the radio just in time to hear the dying strains of the just-released “Paperback Writer” fade-out. Having no idea what preceded it, they decided to write “that” song. The opening riff rivals any jangle The Byrds, Peter Buck or anyone ever produced.
10.“Over Under Sideways Down” by The Yardbirds
A psychedelic blues guitar freak-out by the king of psychedelic blues guitar freak-outs, Jeff Beck. Off the album with the most prosaic title ever (Roger the Engineer), this whippoorwill dive bomb grabs the listener by the lapels and demands full attention (even if it still lacks a proper “Beckbirds” clip on YouTube!).