This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 217, August 2011. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Christian Ward. Click the image on the right to download a pdf of the article.
Guitar solos. We love them, of course, but don’t you always have a sneaking suspicion that the audience is just waiting for the singer to get on with the rest of the song? Our secret weapon in this attention war is the riff. These ‘mini-solos’ are easy to play, sound great, and perhaps most importantly, remind everyone that you’re the Most Important Person In The Band.
Riffs are almost always one, two or four bars in length and repeat at various points throughout the song. There are three broad types, defined by their function: solo riffs, call-and-response riffs and underscore riffs.
Solo riffs often form the intro of the song and typically reappear between vocal sections. Notable examples include Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water, Thin Lizzy’s The Boys are Back In Town and Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight. When you’re writing a solo riff, you can be as busy or melodic as you like, because anything you play won’t get in the way of the voice. Take Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years: its four-bar riff is filled with fast triplets. It would be near impossible to hear the vocal over such a detailed guitar part, so the band sensibly provides 16 bars of space to let the riff shine through.
Call-and-response riffs are used to fill the gaps between vocal phrases within a section. Examples include John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom and The Rolling Stones’ The Last Time, which start exactly one beat after the voice. Again, these riffs give you a lot of freedom to do whatever you want musically, as long as it’s the same each time, but you have to get in quick before the next vocal phrase. AC/DC’s Whole Lotta Rosie uses call-and-response for the verses, then adapts the riff so that it becomes the accompaniment in the chorus. Read more…