I've been thinking of attempting this for a while - as a variation on my 'Great Basslines' series of the past six months - and last week's 'Blues Week' brought it to the forefront of my mind again. I discovered quite a few rundowns on Youtube (mostly 'Top 20s') that provided food for thought, but they were mostly fairly similar: And I found that I was somewhat out of sympathy with several of the most obvious choices. Layla is indeed devastatingly hooky, but I find it rather wears out its welcome (after 6 minutes of almost nothing but the riff!); Smoke On The Water is certainly iconic, but a bit too plodding for my taste (high recognition value, but zero adrenalin rush); the key riff in Sultans of Swing is buried in the middle of the song (after the "We are the Sultans of Swing" refrain) rather than taking centre stage from the outset, and it doesn't stand out so much in a song full of memorable guitar bits (the insane run of 1/32-notes in the extended instrumental break at the end is what makes the most lingering impression for me).
Just a few minutes of reflection on this threw up getting on for 30 candidates, so, as with the 'Great Basslines', I may return to this in a series of further posts (although I'm running out of time to do all the music posts I'd like to, because - as we all know - the world is going to end on 21st December). For this first selection, I thought I'd try to focus on the most conspicuous omissions from the various other lists I've consulted - the really great rock riffs that most compilers somehow seem to overlook.
So, here we go....
A Top Five Great Rock Guitar Riffs
5) Whole Lotta Rosie - AC/DC
Of course, we could have a whole 'Top Five' (Top 10, Top 20!) just on these boys: AC/DC are all about the riffs - Highway To Hell, You Shook Me All Night Long, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Back in Black, Thunderstruck... But it's Bon Scott's unlikely celebration of an oversized groupie that's long had a special place in my heart. (At the end of my university days I was for a while dating a very beautiful art student called Rosie - very slender, and not at all a rock chick; but nevertheless, this song, and its monster riff, became a happy reminder of her.) Here's a great live version from 1977. [The album version can be heard here.]
4) Rebel, Rebel - David Bowie
Bowie would also have more than one contender here, especially amongst his early '70s stuff (Mick Ronson's influence?). Jean Genie would be a close runner-up, but this is surely one of the greatest rock riffs of all time.
3) Unbelievable - EMF
This Gloucestershire band (from the Forest of Dean, in fact; just a few miles up the road from where I grew up) faded from view in the mid-90s, and are probably perceived as a one-hit wonder. But damn, what a hit! (Curiously, America was the only country where it reached No. 1.) And what a riff!!!! Here they are playing on a comeback/greatest hits tour in 2001, at The Astoria at the top of London's Charing Cross Road (one of my favourite music venues; I was sad to discover that it had recently been demolished). [Plus, of course, Tom Jones chose to cover it. What higher accolade can there be?]
2) Seven Nation Army - The White Stripes
Surely the greatest new entry into the pantheon of awesome riffage in the last decade, and much covered. No disrespect to Jack and Meg, but this is such a monster song that it really benefits from having a full band belt it out, and the best live version I've found is this one by Audioslave. [The original White Stripes video is here, and a good live version here.]
But in the top spot??
1) 20th Century Boy - T. Rex
I think the late '60s and early '70s was the Golden Age of Riffage, and, for a brief shining moment, Marc Bolan was the golden boy of that era.