01/04/08: What Makes The Perfect Riff?:Jay Taylor

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It’s one of the great pub debates, but what is the greatest guitar riff of all time?

A recent internal poll of the students at Guitar-X, the guitar students at London’s prestigious ‘Tech Music Schools’, has resulted in the following list outlining, in order of popularity, the top 25 guitar riffs of all time to coincide with their 25th anniversary celebrations. The list also showed one very interesting thing - that London was, officially, the most rocking town in the UK and the second most rocking town in the entire world! 6 of the riffs in the list were crafted by residents of Los Angeles, but 4 were by Londoners such as The Who's Pete Townshend and "Fast" Eddie Clarke from Motorhead.

The results of the survey are as follows:

Smoke On The Water – Deep Purple (1973)
Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana (1991)
Walk This Way – Aerosmith (1975)
Purple Haze – Jimi Hendrix (1967)
Sweet Child O Mine – Guns N Roses (1987)
Paradise City – Guns N Roses (1987)
Ace Of Spades – Motorhead (1980)
Enter Sandman – Metallica (1991)
Under The Bridge – Red Hot Chilli Peppers (1992)
Welcome To The Jungle – Guns N Roses (1987)
Run To The Hills – Iron Maiden (1982)
Walk – Pantera (1992)
Johnny Be Goode – Chuck Berry (1958)
Back In Black – AC/DC (1980)
Immigrant Song – Led Zeppelin (1970)
Wake Up – Rage Against The Machine (1992)
Highway to Hell – AC/DC (1979)
My Generation – The Who (1965)
7 Nation Army – The White Stripes (2003)
Born To Be Wild – Steppenwolf (1968)
Give It Away – Red Hot Chilli Peppers (1991)
Paranoid – Black Sabbath (1970)
Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) – Jimi Hendrix (1967)
Eye Of The Tiger – Survivor (1982)
Money For Nothing – Dire Straits (1984)
The big surprise it the fact that with only a few exceptions the riffs were all written more than 20 years ago. Pretty interesting considering many of the students who took part in the survey were not even born when the riffs were recorded. Classic rock has indeed won through here.

So why have the guitarists who are going to populate the industry for the next 40 years chosen these riffs? And what makes a guitar riff great in the first place, John Wheatcroft, the Head Of Instruments at Guitar-X gives his opinion:

Where have all the great riffs gone?

What makes a riff great and why do some go on to become classic?

Creating a classic riff isn't as easy as it seems. Your riff needs to be memorable, vaguely familiar, reasonably accessible (i.e. fairly simple to remember and easy to play!), able to withstand countless repetition without becoming tedious and most importantly, somehow original. Not an easy task. The one thing that ties all of our the classic riffs together is that once you've figured out how to play one on your instrument, you'll wonder why you thought it'd be so difficult to write one yourself!

Most of our 'classic' riffs are more than 20 years old, with many of them distinctly 'middle-aged', dating back to the late 60s or early 70s. Whilst it could be argued that we are no longer living in the iconic 'Age Of The Electric Guitar', a quick look around any record shop proves that musical quality lasts, with artists such as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin shifting just as many albums today, if not more than they did in their heyday. It's possible that you have to wait until the 'dust settles' before we can truly consider a riff's eligibility for 'Classic' status. If we were to consider a similar question within either jazz or classical music, would we be truly surprised if most, if not all of the artists were not currently active, musically or otherwise?

Today, there are undoubtedly loads of fantastic artists that continue to feature the electric guitar as the prominent feature of their sound. Perhaps in these days of equality it's down to the absence of any real new 'Guitar Heroes'. Remember those heady days of Rock & Roll, where the audience was treated to the gladiatorial spectacle of the singer and the lead guitarist battling it out for centre-stage dominance and audience adulation night after night?"

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