It’s a while since I wrote a blog post on music, so here goes

Heavy metal music fans dancing.
A mosh pit. Photo by dr_zoidberg. Creative Commons license.

Riffs (some believe the word is an abreviation of rhythmic figure,) are an important part of rock music, used as a counter melody for the vocal line, a repetitive theme for the soloist to play over or a killer introductory piece that comes back later in the song.

to people reading this blog in the future, I am showing clips from Facebook. For various reasons including the original poster taking the clip down or for copyright reasons. After a month or so some of these links may disappear.

One thing that many people listening to riffs may not know is that riffs are jazz. There are ostinato figures in classical music, but the riff as we know it comes from the mixing of West African music with the folk music of Europe which largely happened in North America.

Hete are examples of what I consider great riffs.

Count Basie and his Orchestra – C Jam Blues:
A simple repetition of a syncopated five note figure, the first four are the same, played by the whole orchestra except for the bass player and drummer, though with a little variation serves as a platform for musicians to solo over. A simple idea well executed. Of course a good idea gets used in other contexts, Here is the C Jam Blues riff being used by The Bonzo Dod Do Dah Band in The Intro and the Outro.

The Glen Miller Orchestra – In the Mood
A three note figure repeats over a four note beat so that the beat falls on different noted each time.

The Beatles – I feel Fine and Come Together
Despite the move of instrumentation, the I Feel Fine figure is basically still a jazz riff. Imagine it played on saxophones and it would not be out of place in a swing band.
The Come Together introduction becomes a riff with its placement before every verse. This is not a guitar riff, the guitar is in there mixed low, nut it is the bass and drums of McCartney and Starr that carry what is my favourite Beatles riff.

The Guitar Circle of Europe – The Great Deceiver
Guitar riffs can be simple or complicated. Led Zeppelin has simple riffs like Whole Lot of Love and complicated with the wonderful Black Dog. Robert Fripp was responsible for the simple but effective guitar riff on David Bowie’s Heroes, but is better known for more complicated playing in King Crimson. The opening riff of Great Deceiver is a case in point, but why have one guitarist when you can have 12?

Coldplay – Clocks
Other instruments can lead the riff. A simple piano tango in a rock setting can lift a song, like here:

Stevie Wonder – Superstition
Superstition, a song given by Wonder to Jeff Beck, who was supposed to release it as a single first was rushed out without Wonder’s permission by his record company. However it is Jeff Beck playing the riff on Wonder’s version too. Riffs can be funky, this riff played simultaneously on guitar and clavinet is one of my favourite riffs.

The Stranglers – Golden Brown
Riffs can be in odd time signatures. I thought about putting up some prog metal by Porcupine Tree, but there’s a better known example: A quiet song in 13 time by a band thought at the time as being punk. Punks playing harpsichord, who’d have thunk it?

Lighthouse Family – Ocean Drive
Another very effective riff is the gentle acoustic strum that opens this song, the riff here is the gentlest part of the song. It does not need to be about showing off.

The Cardigans – My Favourite Game
The best use of an electric guitar is this. The simplest or riffs, it wouldn’t take long to teach a non-guitarist to play it, just two notes a semitone apart. It really is that simple. But it does what a riff is supposed to do, it enhances the song. My Favourite Game is a good song, but not great without the riff, and the riff on its own is nothing compared to the ones above. Yet the song and the riff complement each other so perfectly so that the result is greater than its parts.

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