“Absolutely, under no circumstances at all are customers allowed to play “Stairway to Heaven,” “Sweet Child Of Mine,” or “Smoke on the Water” while trying out guitars.” Sign in the window of a music store on Denmark St, in England.
It’s imperative that anyone in the market for a new guitar have a grab-bag of great licks at his or her disposal. Ask any sampling of store clerks which riffs are played most often by potential buyers, and chances are you’ll get a fairly wide range of selections. Still, when a shopper takes a seat and cradles that Les Paul or SG, some licks just beg to be played. Below are ten songs that boast riffs likely to be heard on a daily basis in guitar stores throughout the world.
10. “Walk This Way” – Aerosmith
Based on the E blues scale (E G A B-flat B D), the opening lick to this funk-rock romp is a snap to master. Lots of novice players never venture past those first four bars, but that brief snippet comprises one of rock’s most instantly recognizable hooks. Shoppers who go deeper into the song are guaranteed to cause heads to turn.
9. “La Grange”’ – ZZ Top
This prime example of ZZ Top’s low-down boogie style kicks off with just a handful of notes, plucked with the promise of more powerful stuff to come. Sophisticated guitar shoppers are careful to incorporate the subtle bends Billy Gibbons tosses into the pattern. Players who move past the first drum-fill should have a pick handy, as Gibbons sets fire to the lick and kicks it into a full-on wallop.
8. “Smoke on the Water” – Deep Purple
Simplicity and brilliance have rarely merged in better fashion than on this Deep Purple classic. Virtually every beginning guitarist is drawn magnet-like to Ritchie Blackmore’s easily-fingered two-string intro (although many make the mistake of picking the strings instead of plucking them). The verse sections are only a tad trickier, consisting, as they do, mostly of single notes and occasional double-stops played at a leisurely tempo.
7. “Purple Haze” – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
It’s fitting that the very first song on Hendrix’s very first album is also the one most often heard in guitar stores. The reason? The intro sounds amazing and is one of the most easily-grasped licks in the Hendrix canon. Based on E pentatonic minor, the intro is richly melodic in an outer-space sort of way. For players drawn toward psychedelic-blues, this riff offers a great test-run.
6. “Enter Sandman” – Metallica
Some shoppers are compelled to play “Enter Sandman” because it’s simple; others are drawn to the song’s ominous vibe. Moreover, as metal riffs go, this one ranks among the most melodic. Lars Ulrich once aptly characterized “Enter Sandman” as a “one-riff” song, since all the parts emanate from Kirk Hammett’s memorable lead pattern.
5. “Sunshine of Your Love” – Cream
This riff is not only one of Eric Clapton’s most memorable, it’s also one of the most fun licks for beginners to play. Nailing the song’s signature vibrato is probably the trickiest challenge, along with accurately duplicating Clapton’s renowned late ‘60s “woman tone.” It’s imperative that an SG be the instrument of choice for shoppers using this Cream classic as their “test” riff.
4. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana
Shoppers of a certain age invariably like to showcase their skills with this alternative-rock classic. Played in the key of F minor, the main riff consists of four power chords played in a syncopated sixteenth note strum. In typical fashion, Cobain brushed aside the riff’s minimalist brilliance, hinting that it was a rip-off of Boston or even The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie.” In point of fact, the riff was a master-stroke that established how grunge players approached their instrument.
3. “Heartbreaker” – Led Zeppelin
We understand that a day rarely passes that guitar clerks aren’t treated to at least one version of “Stairway to Heaven.” Still, “Heartbreaker” is the go-to Led Zeppelin riff for electric-guitar shoppers. Characterized by paint-by-numbers simplicity and elegant blues aggression, the intro marks one of the first instances in which Jimmy Page used his famous Les Paul/Marshall stack combination. Steve Vai once said it was this riff that “had the biggest impact on [him] as a youth.” The same is undoubtedly true for a sizeable portion of guitar shoppers.
2. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” – Guns N’ Roses
The opening riff for this Guns N’ Roses classic has all the ingredients aspiring six-stringers love: majesty, melody and just enough difficulty to constitute a challenge. Comprised of a simple eight-note pattern, the riff pedals around the fifth note of the key – a standard exercise in rock guitar. It’s ironic that a riff that started out as a throwaway exercise for Slash is now regarded as a prime example of why melodic octaves sound so great.
1.“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – The Rolling Stones
It’s a good thing it was Keith Richards who dreamed the riff for “Satisfaction.” A less astute player might have laughed it off as child’s play, rather than seeing it for the slice of minimalist brilliance that it is. Echoes of Richards’ beloved Chuck Berry licks can be heard in those four simple notes. Many shoppers gussy up “Satisfaction” with their own personal flourishes, giving the lick an even greater wallop than it already has.