Riff on (and on and on…)

The need for riffs in music.

I haven’t written a music blog for ages, so here goes …

Riffs are not just for Classic Rock and Metal, no matter how important they are for those styles. Where would Metallica’s Enter Sandman be without that glorious riff?

But it’s not just guitar, where would Coldplay’s Clocks, John Lennon’s Imagine or Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing be without their piano riffs? It is the bass riffs in Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean and Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust and Under Pressure that make the songs. Riffs can be plated by more than one instrument, bass and guitar on Led Zeppelin’s Black Dod and Black Sabbath’s Iron Man, and the full orchestra except the soloist riffing away on Count Basie’s C Jam Blues, not forgetting Mars from Gustav Holst’s Planet Suite. (Technically speaking I should be referring to ostinato rather than riff in classical music, but it is the same thing.)

Riffs can be complicated (Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog again or the Bass riff in Muse’s Hysteria, The Guitar riff in King Crimson’s Larks Tongues In Aspic Part 2 has a 10/8 time signature) or simple like The Cardigans’ My Favourite Game, two notes with a rhythmic variation on the third repeat.

The riff is basic, it is a form of hook, that short musical idea that gets your attention. But hooks are flexible. Take the hook in The Beatle’s Yesterday: The simple melody in the first word ‘yesterday’ is repeated higher up the scale on ‘far away’ then again on ‘here to stay’ before being reversed on the final ‘yesterday.’ But a riff is more basic, more repetitive than that, as demonstrated in the same band’s Dat Tripper, I feel fine, Ticket to ride, Taxman and my favourite, McCartney and Starr riffing together in the bass and drum intro to Come Together.

Riffs are also reusable. Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love and the Glen Miller Band’s In The Mood both used riffs which had been used earlier. They can also be used simultaneously; My Girl by the Temptations starts with a simple bass riff, then an ascending guitar riff comes over the top. It does not rock, but its use of two different riffs at the same time has to be the best use of riffs in popular music. (Symphony No 4, known as the inextinguishable, by Neilsen manages two riffs at the same time in different keys.)

The riff in some pieces of music is the song (Iron Man again) but it is better when it contrasts with the melody. The melody in Billy Jean is good, but it is the combination of melody and bass riff played in counterpoint that makes the song great, In my view Michael Jackson’s greatest song. The riff lifts the song.

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