rich pickings in the great rock riff-off
A critic was attacked by a million air guitarists when he said The Beatles' Day Tripper contained the best-ever riff. Aidan Coughlan joins the fray. . .
Published 18/12/2011 | 06:00
When Paul McCartney launched into 'Day Tripper' at London's O2 Arena last week, he was playing to an audience very much under his thumb.
He was midway through his first encore, having just finished 'The Word' -- a rare John Lennon number in a set otherwise dominated by his own material -- and moments later he would invite Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood on stage to play lead guitar on 'Get Back'.
Perhaps it was that wave of bleary-eyed enthusiasm that led to one music critic stating in his review of the show that 'Day Tripper' boasts the greatest guitar riff of all time.
Now, we all know it's one hell of a riff. But the greatest of all time? Well, buddy, that's a mighty statement to be making.
It is, to be fair, something most music critics will relate to. These words are written after you've made it home through the cold night, cup of tea in hand, basking in the aftermath of an evening spent in the presence of genius.
As the riff swims repeatedly around your head -- or, in some cases, it might be a song or a lyric -- it's quite impossible to conceive that anything could possibly sound better. And so, with a rush of blood to the head, you pay tribute with what seems like a throwaway line.
It's always the throwaway lines that get you in trouble, though, and sure enough the statement has provoked a huge debate across the water over what constitutes a truly brilliant riff.
But before going into that, what exactly does the term mean? Well, on a technical level it's "a short repeated phrase, frequently played over changing chords or harmonies".
Sounds simple -- and some of the best ones are -- but that definition doesn't quite capture their impact.
Recently, riffs have come to take two predominant forms: melody-based and chord-based. The melodic type -- like 'Day Tripper' -- are ones that we've all sung along to at some point and are perhaps more closely associated with the term in general, but chord-based riffs, such as those found in Oasis's 'Wonderwall' or Blur's 'Song 2', have become equally recognisable.
And while some are simple motifs, designed to embellish or bed a composition, others are so crucial that their removal would render the song almost unrecognisable. Once again, 'Day Tripper' fits firmly into this category -- mention the name to anyone, and there's only one part of the song that is going to come to mind.
What follows is not a list of the eight best-ever riffs -- that's a subject for the pub, where space limits do not apply -- but rather a selection of songs that best showcase what the device can do.
The Beatles -- Ticket To Ride
When it comes to choosing the best of The Beatles in this regard, it would be hard to argue against 'Day Tripper' -- and personally, I wouldn't say the critic was too far off the mark in his controversial assessment. But this number would be up there too, alongside 'If I Needed Someone' and 'You Can't Do That'.
Interestingly, there's also a case to be made that Ringo's drumming in this song constitutes a riff -- strip away the rest of the tune, and you're left with a very distinctive line that both alters the song radically and is fully recognisable in its own right.
Pink Floyd -- Young Lust
While David Gilmour's most extravagant and brilliant guitar moments came in the form of solos -- 'Dogs' and 'Comfortably Numb' in particular -- he was far more subtle in the art of the riff. And it's a four-note lick at the end of each line that turns this song, a turning point on the album The Wall, into an angry, urgent affair.
Two Door Cinema Club -- Undercover Martyn
Moving into the 21st Century, the riff that almost single-handedly brought this Northern Irish band to our attention is a slightly more complex example of the device. Like the best of its kind it takes an otherwise-dull piece, devoid of much tune in its own right, and turns it into an addictive gem.
Oasis -- Wonderwall
When it comes to chord-based riffs, this shares a top spot with Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. Its simplicity can't be overstated, but then neither can its distinctiveness.
Ben E King -- Stand By Me
The importance of the bassline, which repeats itself throughout the entire song, was made plain when John Lennon covered the song for his Rock'n'Roll covers album.
Bravely, he decided to omit it -- and despite one of his finest-ever vocal performances, and a sublime guitar solo, the take feels quite naked without that signature element ticking away in the background.
White Stripes -- Seven Nation Army
The song that transformed White Stripes (left) from cult band to global superstars was, in fact, seven notes with a few words thrown on top -- riffs are quite often prominent in introductory songs, due to the recognition value they can provide within seconds.
Daft Punk -- Aerodynamic
Because of its emphasis on repetition, the riff is obviously a staple of dance music. This crunchy, distorted centrepiece defines the song's rhythm all by itself.
Metallica -- Enter Sandman
Drawing from classical music -- where this device is known as an 'ostinato' -- metal songs such as this one use chugging, driving riffs as the force behind their sound.
Guns N' Roses -- Sweet Child o' Mine
There's not much that needs to be said about this riff. It makes the song instantly recognisable from its opening bar, then carries the song right through to the end. Intensely irritating in the wrong circumstances, but for fans of air guitar it's a masterpiece.