Thursday, August 14, 2014

I Love This Song!

5 Favorite Opening Riffs --
Guitar Heroes

Note that I'm not saying The Best Opening Riffs-- too many songs, too little time; I couldn't even limit it to 10 (thanks for all the suggestions), so 25 Favorite Opening Riffs it has to be, in five 5-riff installments.

A few arbitrary rules: 1. One riff per band. 2. Has to be an opener, starting from the record's very first note.  3. Vocals don't count. 

Let's face it -- guitar licks are our opening-riff bread and butter. And here are the masters: 

Fun, Fun, Fun / The Beach Boys

Probably the perfect surf guitar lick -- stolen from Chuck Berry's "Johnny B Goode," of course, but just enough crisper and tighter. This is a song near and dear to my heart, if only because it mentions Indianapolis in it.  The Beach Boys rushed out this single in February 1964, knowing that in a week or two the British Invasion would hit, and their clean-cut monopoly of the airwaves would be over. Well, they went down swinging with this one.

California Dreamin' / The Mamas and the Papas

Fast-forward to January 1966, with Beatlemania subsiding (until Sgt Pepper) and Folk Rock making its bid to take over. And here came John Phillips & Co., ready to score a hit with this beauty. That brooding acoustic opening (played by Wrecking Crew guitarist P. F. Sloan) was the perfect mix of protest-song edginess and sublime melancholy. They may have been dreaming of California (and recording it in L.A.) but the mood here is definitely cold and gray as a New York City winter.

Son of a Preacher Man / Dusty Springfield

Dripping slow and sweet as tupelo honey, this sexy September 1968 hit comes from the iconic album Dusty in Memphis. That's guitarist Reggie Young of the Memphis Cats, bringing a lazy Southern style to Dusty's soul sister sound. This narrowly beat out Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" -- there is no doubt what Dusty and the preacher's kid will be throwing off the Tallahatchee Bridge.

Ohio / Crosby, Still, Nash & Young

Protest song? This is the greatest one of all time. And that opening is just about perfect -- insistent, calm, ruthless. The marching tempo, the blithe skipping treble notes, that stern bottom line, and just enough harshness to the electric guitar to let you know we mean business.  In June 1970, this was the record that defined us.

Stairway to Heaven / Led Zeppelin

Oh, this song goes a LOT of different places before its eight minutes are over -- but for a perfect slow acoustic opener, can you beat this?  I always forget how slow it is, each note taking its exquisite time before the recorders kick in. Nevertheless, you know exactly what song this is. Wait for it....


wwolfe said...

Perfect description of "Ohio's" opening riff: "insistent, calm, ruthless." Also, very nice to see Dusty's "Son of a Preacher Man" included.

NickS said...

I also wouldn't have thought of "Son Of A Preacher Man" but think it's a great choice.

You got me to listen to "Ohio" again, and just focus on the guitar the whole way through, and I agree with wwolfe, your description is spot on and what you refer to as the "marching tempo" really anchors the whole song.

If I was going to quibble, I would dispute your characterization of the Beach Boys riff as "tighter" than Chuck Berry. "Cleaner" yes, but I just went and listened to "Johnny B Goode" and it's definitely tight.

When you started the list I was curious to see if either Chuck Berry would make it. I almost feel like they he's outside the scope of competition. You could include him, but if you don't it isn't so say that he doesn't have great opening riffs, it's just that they're so famous they almost don't need to be mentioned.

Going down the list, I was surprised to see "California Dreaming." I think it's a fine choice, but compared to some of the others it isn't as memorable outside of the context of the song. It is really well done (and John Phillips wouldn't accept anything less) but so many of the songs on this list are ones for which, even if you don't like the song you'd have to admit, "that is a great riff" whereas, if that opening 8 seconds to "California Dreaming" was part of a bad song, rather than a classic, you'd never think of it as a great riff.

Finally, seeing the title of "Guitar Heroes" I thought of the Albert King / Stevie Ray Vaughan recording. For example, to pick a great opening, "Stormy Monday." There are lots of great blues guitarists but that particular recording hold some significance for me because at one point I was trying to sell a nice pair of headphones, and that was one of the tracks that I would always use to demo them. It just sounds good.

Also, one other note, about the project, apparently I like to push back on rules, because after seeing, "3. Vocals don't count. " I've been trying to think of great wordless vocal riffs. I have at least 2 that I'd offer as worthy all-time great openings, but I'm going to see if I can come up with 5 (to match your lists) and will post it in comments if I do.

NickS said...

I just remembered one more that I have to mention -- probably the only song within the last couple of years for which the first time I listened to it I got 20 seconds into the song and went back to the beginning a couple of times just to hear the opening riff again.

Suede -- "Beautiful Ones" It has a slightly tinny sound that is just perfect for that riff. I just wanted to hear it over and over again without the drums and the rest of the band. In my book, that's a killer opening.

Anonymous said...

P.F. Sloan wasn't really a wrecking crew guitarist. He did sessions for Lou Adler, so he's on The Mamas and Papas and Barry McGuire, and he did earlier surf sessions like Jan and Dean-some guitar, some vocal, that's him on "Little Old Lady From Pasadena"-, but mostly he did his own stuff under different names; The Grassroots, The Fantastic Baggies, The Street Cleaners, probably a few others.

His real claim to fame, of course, is being one of the major songwriters of the sixties.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks, Fred -- that clarification is very helpful! Maybe that's why that riff is such a nice counterpoint to the song's melody...

Anonymous said...

I once saw him talk about that riff, and the chords are taken from "Walk Don't Run." It's interesting to hear him talk about the sixties. I'm not sure how is him romanticizing things in his own mind and how much is him really being involved in everything. Probably both, since he has a VERY impressive list of credits. Plus, he seems like one of the nicer people in music. At one point, a recording deal had fallen through, so he sent a CD of the demos to anyone on his Yahoo group for postage. Some good stuff on that, too.