“A great guitar riff is worth its weight in gold,” KISS guitarist Tommy Thayer told Gibson, in a recent interview. “It should be simple and memorable, and it should hit you in the face. Coming up with great riffs isn’t as easy as people think.”
In that same interview, Thayer asserted that the early to mid ‘70s was an exceptionally fruitful period for great guitar riffs. Like many guitarists, however, Thayer admitted to a certain bias, proclaiming a special fondness for that era because that’s when he came of age as a player.
So, which decade did produce the most memorable guitar riffs? It’s an open question, to be sure, but for the purposes of our discussion, let’s confine our choices to the ‘60s, the ‘70s and the ’80s. While it’s true that Chuck Berry wrote the textbook for rock riffs in the ‘50s, and Nirvana and many other post-‘80s bands had a fabulous way with guitar hooks, the “classic rock” decades yielded a multitude of riffs proven to stand the test of time.
Call it the shock of the new. As the electric guitar gained prominence as rock’s primary instrument, players were inspired, musically, in ways that were probably similar to how inventors were inspired by the discovery of electricity. As the British Invasion took hold, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones churned out troves of riff-based songs containing guitar hooks that were as memorable, in many instances, as the vocal melodies.
“Ticket to Ride,” “Day Tripper,” “The Last Time” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” merely skim the surfed of this deluge. As the decade wore on, riffs attained a harder edge, as exemplified by the likes of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” In keeping with the rising stature of riff-based songs as a dominant force on AM radio, many one-hit and two-hit wonders appeared as well. The Troggs’ “Wild Thing” and Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” remain classics from this category.
Other great riff-based songs of the ‘60s: “Oh Pretty Woman” (Roy Orbison), “You Really Got Me” (The Kinks), “My Generation” (The Who), “Love Me Two Times” (The Doors)
Power pop, glam rock, punk and what today is termed “classic rock” triggered an avalanche of superb riffs in the ‘70s. At the dawn of the decade, tracks like Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” Derek and the Dominos “Layla,” and Badfinger’s “No Matter What” set a high mark, and, amazingly, other artists rose to meet the challenge. Glam artists proved exceptionally up to the task, as hits like “20th Century Boy” (T. Rex), “Rebel Rebel” (David Bowie) and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” (Elton John) scored big on the charts.
For the first half of the decade, Alice Cooper (the original lineup) may have been the most dominant riff force of all. Cooper hits such as “I’m Eighteen,” “Elected,” “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and (especially) “School’s Out” demonstrated that no band was better at delivering unforgettable guitar hooks. Later, punk bands such as The Clash and The Sex Pistols carried that torch further.
Other great riff-based songs of the ‘70s: “Iron Man” (Black Sabbath), “La Grange” (ZZ Top), “Walk This Way” (Aerosmith), “American Woman (The Guess Who)
Synth-based music and electro-pop gained a substantial foothold in the ‘80s (in part thanks to MTV), but still, great guitar riffs held their own. AC/DC led the charge, with tracks like “Back in Black” and “You Shook Me All Night Long” coming off as ferocious assertions of the power of riff-based music. Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” sported one of the best riffs of the decade, thanks to a sensational guitar hook played by Toto’s Steve Lukather. Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” boasted similar riff-based power.
ZZ Top continued their dominance as riff maestros as well, as hits such as “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs” percolated amidst other MTV fodder. And lest we forget, rising from the streets of L.A. came newcomers Guns N’ Roses, whose back-to-basics approach injected renewed vigor into riff-based music.
Other great riff-based songs of the ‘80s: “Crazy Train” (Ozzy Osbourne), “Panama” (Van Halen), “Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones), “Rock You Like a Hurricane” (Scorpions)
So, what’s the verdict? When the word “riff” is mentioned, songs from which decade – the ‘60s, the ‘70s or the ‘80s—first spring to mind? Please chime in with your vote and your thoughts in the comments section below.