Writer Ian Alterman, and his brothers Eric and Tony, create email threads that have left me intoxicated, annoyed, and most often in a mental frenzy as they suck me into all sorts of music minutia. But boy can they wax poetic; always an education. Ian's latest thread continues that trend:
"The following are arguably the dozen most recognizable opening guitar riffs in rock. I've arranged them alphabetically by band. However, I would be interested to see what order each of you puts them. You can use any criterion: favorite, most influential, most important, chronological, etc."
While I appreciated his list -- a very fine list, a list I could find very little fault with, and certainly a worthy email chain (that continues) -- I wanted my own list. That's the problem with lists, they are never definitive and almost never complete. Someone always feels slighted.
So I decided I would compile my own rock riff intro list. I did find merit in a few obvious choices from Ian's "Classic Rock" list, but most were a tad too pedestrian for my "garage rock" leanings. And I purposely left off The Beatles because I could have filled all twelve slots with their opening riffs. Ditto for Zep's Jimmy Page, early Kinks, The Who, Clapton (Cream, Derek & The Dominos), Hendrix, and a few other obvious omissions.
- "The Little Black Egg" - The Nightcrawlers hailed from Daytona Beach, Florida and probably launched many a garage rock band in the mid-'60s in Akron, Ohio. Some critics maintain that the tune was a overt homage to Afghani black hash. Regardless, it is the first lick I learned on my Sears acoustic git-tar way back when, and still my favorite riff.
- "There She Goes" - The La's succeeded in defining a generation of Brit Guitar rock with one jangly McGuinn-style opener that remains as good as anything I've ever heard. And one of my favorite singles of all time.
- "Hey, Little Girl" - Syndicate of Sound wrote this timeless Nuggets (Lenny Kaye's garage rock album compilation) staple and another one of my favorite jingle jangle rock riff git hooks. No doubt it cops a similar lick borrowed off of The Nightcrawlers (see No. 1 above). Punk rockers Dead Boys recorded a way boss cover version, too.
- "Rock Lobster" - The B-52's party anthem has a psycho surf riff that is so freakin' infectious that you can't help but move your feet to it. Nearly 7 minutes of new wave wonder.
- "Satisfaction" - The Rolling Stones got nasty on this original that boasts one of the meanest and rudest guitar riffs of all times. Borrowing heavily from Link Wray's "Rumble" it still evokes a mandatory volume increase when I hear it on the radio. I know we've heard it a million times, but it's worth repeating a million more.
- "All The Young Dudes" - Mott the Hoople's axe man Mick Ralphs may have had larger success with Bad Company, but damn if his stint with Ian Hunter didn't produce some tasty FM licks. This may have been his crowning string-bending moment.
- "Sweet Home Alabama" - Lynyrd Skynyrd's southern rock sing-along always gets a whoop in any bar with a jukebox (remember them?). This was the most glaring omission from Sir Ian's "Classic Rock" list.
- "Secret Agent Man" - Johnny Rivers' descending/ascending riff is so simple and so sweet that you never want it to end, something he claims he "worked up with P.F. Sloan." Eddie Van Halen says he learned to play guitar to this 1966 tune as well.
- "Enter Sandman" - Metallica's crushing hard rock guitar anthem intro has been used to accompany NY Yankee badass closer Mariano Rivera from the bullpen for years. An ominous, timeless riff regardless.
- "What Difference Does It Make" - The Smiths' Johnny Marr (image above) created this timeless Rickenbacker riff back in the '80s. In fact, he wrote many timeless guitar riff hooks that framed their Manchester sound and vision.
- "Little Sister" - Elvis Presley's 1961 recording had the rockabilly snarl thanks to guitarist Hank Gallard's memorable snaky guitar riff. One of the few guitar riffs I've nearly mastered. T.C.B.! Long live the King!
- "Walk This Way" - Aerosmith's Joe Perry hit it out the park with his timeless riff. Just ask Run-D.M.C. as they co-opted it into a huge rap crossover hit. And thankfully more rock riffage would filter into rap because of it.
Steve, our CC music editor, probably has some interesting choices too. Maybe we try country, R&B/soul, and jazz next?
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 4 solo CDs, and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was a William Morris agent.