The Riff – A Defining Characteristic of Rock Music

What makes rock music “rock” as compared to rock and roll? Rock and roll was sort of a catchall term, much like the term rock has become, but, all rock and roll had its roots in black music. Yes, Chuck Berry was influenced by country music (called hillbilly music at the time), and we can’t forget Elvis and the other rockabilly artists – and yet, all of these were amalgams of white folk music with African – American music. However, rock and roll also encompassed Doo-wop, which had no such roots in country music. It also included music influenced by gospel (Ray Charles, Sam Cooke) and rhythm and blues that predated rock and roll.

Rock music similarly has become almost all encompassing including pop stars and rappers alike. However, I believe that one thing that defines rock music is the recurring motive called a riff.

You could argue that many songs by rock artists don’t contain a riff. This is true. Rock artists don’t always play rock. Think about it, if you didn’t know who the Beatles were and did not know that they were a rock group would you upon hearing Eleanor Rigby exclaim, “Oh, that’s a rock song”?

Rock and roll started to be called rock when the music displayed a harder edge sometime in the mid 1960’s. Early Beatles tunes fit comfortably into the AM radio format with Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons’ pseudo doo-wop. However, things started to change when Keith Richards and Mick Jagger started to write their own material. Keith was an avid blues fan and many blues songs were based around great guitar riffs. When you hear Keith rocking his Gibson Les Paul with a Maestro Fuzz on the opening bars to Satisfaction you know we’re not in Kansas anymore.

This was the shot heard ’round the world. For the rest of the 1960’s through the mid 1970’s this would be the first thing you learned to play if you were a young aspiring rocker. Even if you were from another planet you could not mistake this music for anything other than rock.

Some might object and cite the Kinks earlier songs such as You Really Got Me. However, this would be confusing power chords with riffs. Riffs are mainly single note runs sometimes combined with chords or double stops.

The rock riff soon became an art form. Eric Clapton contributed the iconic riff in Sunshine of Your Love (he also borrowed a great riff from Albert King in Born Under a Bad Sign) Hendrix was a master of riffs, such as in Purple Haze and Voodoo Chile (Slight Return), and Jimmy Page turned riffs inside out from Dazed and Confused to Heartbreaker, Immigrant Song and Rock and Roll. The opening riff to Whole Lotta Love is also outstanding since he takes Earl Hooker’s riff from You Need Love and alters it just enough to sound original.

Soon a new group of guitarists were perfecting riffs. There was Leslie West (Mississippi Queen), Black Sabbath’s Tommy Iommi (Ironman), Savoy Brown’s Kim Simmonds (Leaving Again), and who could forget Jethro Tull’s Martin Barre?

Barre’s opening riff from Aqualung has to be the most ominous sound I have ever heard. They say that the tritone, used by Hendrix in Purple Haze, was forbidden in early classical music because it was allegedly the devil’s tone but the riff in Aqualung is much scarier to me. It is ingenious because it raises anticipation, it begs for resolution, you just have to hear what comes next – this is exactly what a great riff should do.

Keith Richards would be memorable for Satisfaction alone, nevertheless since 1965 he continued to generate great riffs; Jumping Jack Flash, Brown Sugar, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, Tumbling Dice, etc. My personal favorite is the opening riff to Gimme Shelter. Like the opening to Aqualung it just raises the hair on your neck. You know that something is coming but you don’t know what it is. Where Satisfaction is announcing its presence this is ambiguous, leaving you in suspense.

Unfortunately, in rock music today I hear little resembling iconic riffs like Satisfaction, I hear even less like Gimme Shelter.

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