Comparing the new to the old is always a perilous proposition. To assert that Babe Ruth was a better hitter than, say, Albert Pujols, for instance, you first must take into account night games (which Ruth never played), lowered pitching mounds and the impact of juiced-up baseballs. Still, with regard to guitar riffs, a case can be made that the old is better than the new. Even some veteran rockers say the writing of great riffs is an art in need of revival.
“I have noticed that riffs are less important to players than they once were, because the stuff that goes on around the riff isn’t as important,” Def Leppard’s Phil Collen recently told M – Music & Musicians. “When you do find someone playing a strong riff, it’s usually in a context where the music doesn’t stand up. I think that’s because the motivation for being in a band changed at some point. People want to be famous, or rich, or they just want attention, whereas in the past players were more about sharing their gifts. Some of the grunge bands had great riffs, but nothing much has come since then.”
Indeed, sometimes it seems great riffs, in the 21st century world, have gone the way of the rotary phone. Where is today’s “Layla”? “Walk this Way?” “Back in Black”? Where is the unadorned majesty of CCR’s “Up Around the Bend”?
Perhaps we should first consider what constitutes a riff.
Broadly speaking, a riff is a (usually) short musical figure that's repeated several times within a song. By that definition, riffs are everywhere -- as ubiquitous as water from a tap. A truly memorable riff, on the other hand, aspires to a narrower definition, albeit one harder to articulate. Generally speaking, the following attributes can be roughly applied: First, a great guitar riff tends toward a type of minimalism. Like Forrest Gump, its charm lies, in some measure, in its simplicity. Thus, single-string riffs or double-stops are usually more memorable than those that rely on full-strummed chords; similarly, fewer notes are preferable to many.
Second, a great riff is sturdy enough to shoulder a vocal melody for the length of an entire song. No one would dispute that Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years" sports a spectacular guitar intro, but fifteen seconds into the song, it's gone, never to resurface. On the other hand, the riff in T.Rex's "Bang a Gong (Get it On)” is little more than a two-chord double-stop mantra, and yet it’s relentlessly seductive, getting under the skin and remaining there till song's end.
In a recent interview with Gibson, KISS’s Paul Stanley went so far as to declare that most great riffs have already been written, and that Jimmy Page probably wrote most of them. “Granted,” Stanley added, “much of what Led Zeppelin did was based on Blind Boy Fuller, Robert Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, you name it -- but they took those things and skewed them in a way that created a signature. Most of what’s come afterward has been based on that. Has anyone else come up with riffs that great? There have been other good riffs by other players, but most of them tip their hats to those same sources. I doubt they’ll stand the test of time as well as the originals.”
Perhaps the most important characteristic of a great riff is that it sounds both instantly familiar and altogether new. It also thrills, in a way not altogether different from watching a roman candle explode across the sky. Regrettably, it's this characteristic that seems to confound, or elude, many contemporary players and writers.
New Yorker writer Ben Greenman’s review of the latest Stones single, “Doom and Gloom,” is instructive. “There are many exciting things about a new Rolling Stones song,” Greenman writes, “but the first is hearing the band uncork its latest riff. The old riffs are all present in your memory: ‘Satisfaction,’ ‘Jumping Jack Flash,’ ‘Brown Sugar,’ ‘Start Me Up’…. So one of the central questions that a new song from Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and company presents is whether its opening riff belongs in the canon. By that standard, it’s heartening to report that the new single comes out of the gate confidently, with a shark-toothed guitar part.”
So there you have it. One of the best riffs in recent years comes from a band that first perfected the craft nearly a half-century ago. Is the unforgettable, all-ingratiating, Vulcan mind-meld of a riff in need of resuscitation? Are new permutations on this electrifying art form, so long a staple of rock guitar, harder to come by? Perhaps a new player or band will come along who will open up entire new vistas for the guitar riff, or elevate it in newfangled ways. Meanwhile, I think I’ll go drop the needle, again, on “Smoke on the Water.”