Documentary tracing the ebb and flow of the guitar riff - the DNA of rock 'n' roll - over the last 60 years of popular music, from Chuck Berry through to The White Stripes.
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This programme contains some strong language.
MUSIC: "Back In Black" by AC/DC
The guitar riff. Unsophisticated, mindless and primitive.
The Neanderthal on music's evolutionary scale. Right?
They are little anchors in the song,
something that you always come back to.
It's almost inside you when you're listening to the song.
Things that are simple aren't easy.
To do something that's rhythmic and compelling, melodically,
is a very sophisticated artform.
It cuts through all the bullshit and just gets to people's feet
as well as their heads at the same time.
The riff, to me, is the most important part of pop music.
From the riff, everything grows out.
MUSIC: "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks
# Girl, you really got me goin'... #
The riff is the DNA of rock'n'roll,
a double helix of repetitive simplicity and fiendish complexity
on which the history of rock'n'roll has been built.
A riff is very much a physical thing.
# Da-da-da, da-da. #
They come out of your gut somehow and you have to catch them.
HE PLAYS "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY"
The whole concept of doing these guitar riffs
were to grab the listener's attention,
to make your ears go, what is that?
SHE PLAYS "BEAT IT"
MUSIC: "Beat It" by Michael Jackson
They are like little musical guitar quotes, really,
that you want to hear again and again.
HE PLAYS "THIS CHARMING MAN"
So plug-in, tune up and turn it up...
HE PLAYS "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT"
As we track and celebrate The Joy Of The Guitar Riff.
MUSIC: "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana
So you can think about riffs in a very limited way,
like, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
contains one of the great riffs of all time.
MUSIC: "Symphony No 5" by Beethoven
-The riff has always been here.
-HE SINGS "1812 OVERTURE"
MUSIC: "1812 Overture" by Tchaikovsky
It's a riff!
The riff, by its very nature, is repetitive, so you get it
again and again, you get it reinforced,
and the rest of the song gets built around it,
like the riff was the skeleton of the song.
Musically, the guitar riff may have lofty classical ancestry
but it wasn't until the late '40s, when mass-produced electric guitars
were picked up by young blues men and women,
that elements of the guitar riff as we know it today began to emerge.
You have Muddy Waters and people and they are quite riffy. Think of...
# Da-da, da-da. #
MUSIC: "Manish Boy" by Muddy Waters.
To me, the guitar is one of the most expressive instruments ever invented.
You hit it, you know. You don't blow it, you don't bow it.
You pick it up and you use it almost like a weapon.
The potential of the guitar as a weapon of riff destruction
was first realised by an ambitious young guitarist from St Louis, Missouri.
In April 1958, he unleashed the mother of all riffs.
When I was a boy growing up in Detroit,
I heard this record on the radio
and this fellow was playing the guitar with such velocity
and such excitement and exuberance...
I thought, "Oh, my God! What is going on here?"
He was so good at what he did.
Just the guitar playing was just out of this world.
-I fell in love with it immediately.
-HE PLAYS "JOHNNY B GOODE"
Chuck Berry! CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
MUSIC: "Johnny B Goode" by Chuck Berry
# Deep down in Louisiana close to New Orleans
# Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
# There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
# Where lived a country boy named Johnny B Goode
# Who never ever learned to read or write so well
# But he could play the guitar just like a-ringing a bell
# Go, go... #
Chuck Berry's "Johnny B Goode" shot the guitar riff
into the heart of the pop mainstream.
The track packed not one,
but two hugely influential pieces of guitar magic.
# Johnny B Goode. #
He played sort of an intro, like, most of his intros started...
HE PLAYS INTRO TO "JOHNNY B GOODE"
All that. But then his riff would be...
PLAYS RIFF FROM "JOHNNY B GOODE"
And it sort of rolls it along, you know?
Until Chuck Berry, rock'n'roll's primary medium had been the piano,
but by transposing his band pianist Johnny Johnson's boogie woogie style
into a guitar riff, Berry changed the course of popular guitar music.
He really was the first rock'n'roll guitar player.
People had probably heard those kind of riffs a lot in piano,
with boogie stuff, you know.
And when they heard it on the guitar, that was,
for the time, quite loud,
it must have blown people's minds.
It still does blow my mind now.
It's so blindingly original and unforgettable and, of course,
Just by putting that sixth on and off, the...
Suddenly the guitar feels like it's doing something
and that dead simple little shuffle riff, that has never gone away.
-HE PLAYS "WHATEVER YOU WANT"
It's also the bottom end of Get It On by T Rex.
I don't think there's a guitarist who honestly could say
they weren't influenced by Chuck Berry.
# His mother told him Someday you will be a man
# And you will be the leader of a big old band... #
"Johnny B Goode" was a huge hit with both black and white teenagers.
Chuck Berry's revved-up blues riffs
were reflecting a faster, freer America.
Chuck Berry's genius was that he was, in his own way,
post-racial in America.
He wrote songs that spoke to young people -
white young people, black young people, it didn't matter -
about the things young people care about.
We have ignition and we have lift-off.
The importance of the Johnny B Goode riff is such that, in 1977,
it was included on the Voyager spacecraft
as one of four songs representing humanity's finest cultural achievements.
Have guitar, will space travel.
My only issue is why aren't there four Chuck Berry songs on that?
He speaks more to me about humanity in his songs
than half of the stuff that'll be on that.
I also heard that we heard back from another planet and they said,
"Send more Chuck Berry!"
As Johnny B Goode was soundtracking
a young, aspirational America in 1958,
a different breed of guitar riff was emerging simultaneously
that reflected the darker underbelly of teenage America.
I think I heard that round at my Uncle Frank's first time,
on a seven-inch single, and it just made me want to smash everything up.
MUSIC: "Rumble" by Link Wray
Link Wray's "Rumble" was born out of a spontaneous blues jam
which a rabid audience demanded four repeats of.
If Johnny was good, Link Wray was bad.
He, I believe, damaged a lung
in a tuberculosis episode and couldn't sing any more,
which is why he started releasing instrumentals.
It's a key moment in the development of the guitar riff
because it's got a primitive sense of excitement about it.
I had the great fortune to meet him once.
He was playing an early show at the El Rey Theatre in Philadelphia.
He'd got these impenetrable kind of shades on and this big
ponytail, playing the absolute bollocks out of this guitar.
He was vicious, and the sounds that he got out of the guitar were...
out of this world.
The riff oozed menace and sex appeal,
a sound so terrifying to picket-fence American suburbia
it became the first rock'n'roll instrumental
to be banned from US radio.
When that record came out,
it sounded unlike anything else on the radio.
It was incredibly exciting.
The word "rumble", as well, it kind of has connotations.
Do you know what I mean? It is quite a savage track.
You know, it certainly wasn't Perry Como, you know?
Chuck Berry and Link Wray's riffs had electrified '50s America
and it wasn't long before Britain began to have a go.
The electric guitar was deposing the saxophone
as the kids' instrument of choice.
Why I wanted to play guitar, I think, was it was just a bit more rugged.
I liked the sound of it. I liked...
Certainly when The Shadows came out, that sound really appealed to me.
I liked the classy sound they had, you know?
MUSIC: "FBI" by The Shadows
In 1959, out of Cliff Richard's backing band emerged The Shadows,
a band that contained Britain's first bone fide guitar hero,
HE PLAYS "FBI"
Hank Marvin is magic. You know, you can play great...
You can play very fast and play all sorts of stuff
but if it doesn't sound right, you're wasting your time.
Hank was the master of sound.
He was influential to all of our generation.
First of all, I got my first Stratocaster in 1959.
Cliff bought it for me.
Strats have a particular clean sound.
The second thing was this - your vibrato bar.
For example, you get...
HE PLAYS A CHORD
Those components coming together helped me create a sound
and a style which, fortunately, people liked.
Hank would always come up with something amazing.
Hank came up with... HE SINGS "APACHE"
HE PLAYS "APACHE"
MUSIC: "Apache" by The Shadows
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
The inspiration for Hank's sound on breakthrough hit "Apache"
came from a unique reimagining of the American West,
via the local Odeon.
When we recorded Apache, I was thinking, I want to try to
really get some kind of feel in my mind, like a vision.
I had this vision of these Apache Indians riding across
that dry landscape that we see so often.
I felt it might give me some extra feeling for this piece of music.
It was so fresh, it was new. It was a unique sound in 1960.
In the early '60s, a good guitar sound was a clean guitar sound.
People tended to expect to hear clean sounds
and even a record producer would say, "That's distorting a bit.
"Can you pull back on that?
"Distortion, it's nasty. People won't like that."
But while Hank Marvin's shimmering clean tone soundtracked
the dreams of early '60s Britain,
something scandalous was bubbling beneath the surface
of sophisticated swinging London.
I was looking for a sound that's more grittier.
There was a lot of things going on in my life, you know,
a young kid growing up.
A lot of frustration
and not knowing how to really express myself.
There must be a sound that represents the way I feel inside.
In an act of frustration, a 17-year-old Dave Davies
was about to change the sound of the electric guitar forever.
I got this little amp and I cut the speaker cone with a razor blade...
..just out of anger of it not sounding right.
When I heard that tone, that sound,
it transformed my whole idea about rock music.
# Girl, you really got me goin'
# You got me so I don't know what I'm doin'
# Yeah, you really got me now
# You got me so I can't sleep at night
# Yeah, you really got me now... #
You Really Got Me was a massive breakthrough.
That's the first time I was aware of what a riff could be.
HE PLAYS "YOU REALLY GOT ME"
It goes into a kind of overdrive
and that's a big part of what makes the riff so exciting.
You Really Got Me was a lobotomised monster of a riff.
Never before had anyone heard a guitar
with such growling distortion,
and for a generation, this was sonic psychotherapy.
Distortion is kind of the sonic equivalent of anger.
It adds venom to the simplest of riffs.
When we first started to perform it live,
you could tell there was a different feeling in the room.
The whole energy of the place was charged.
Young people picked up on the tone because, you know,
that intangible kind of, "I know that.
-"I can relate to that."
This distorted riff's influence was immediate.
The Who's Pete Townshend unleashed a near carbon copy
with 1965's I Can't Explain...
While Keith Richards went in search of a similarly sleazy sound
By 1969, Led Zeppelin had registered a ten on the Riff-ter Scale
with Communication Breakdown.
# Hey girl Stop what you're doing... #
But the expression of adolescent energy
through a distorted guitar riff
would be taken to its extreme conclusion
by a band from Aston, Birmingham.
In 1965 a 17-year-old factory worker
and aspiring blues guitarist would have a fateful accident.
I used to do sheet metalwork, so I'm pushing my hand...
Pushing the pieces of metal under the thing and it went bang!
The machine came down.
The reaction of it trapping my hand, I just pulled the ends off.
God, it was... That changed my life in a big way.
So I got a Fairy Liquid bottle and melted it down to a ball
and then made a hole in it and stuck it on my finger
and made a shape like this.
Then I, sort of, was able to play.
Tony Iommi's accident forced him
to develop a distinctive guitar style,
and from it a riff so colossal was born
that it would birth an entirely new musical genre.
When we played that, there was nothing else like it.
And we didn't know what it was.
HE PLAYS "BLACK SABBATH"
When we could go and try it at a blues club,
we were doing all 12-bar blues
and we threw that one in and it was quite different!
The riff that gave birth to heavy metal is...
HE SINGS "BLACK SABBATH"
It's the devil's chord.
MUSIC: "Black Sabbath" by Black Sabbath
Those notes were banned many years ago.
It was supposed to have been a satanic thing.
It's the atonality, the dissonance of that third note that rubs against
the first two chords that just causes this unbelievable tension.
A lot of people were frightened when we played that
because they thought we were Satanic and going to put spells on them.
People also were frightened to meet us.
You could see the fear on their face,
as though we were going to turn them into stone or something.
It's a powerful three notes.
# What is this that stands before me? #
The first concert I ever went to was Black Sabbath.
I was 13 years old and it changed my life.
All I could see on stage were these black figures with gold crosses
and to me they looked like something from another planet.
They didn't look like human beings. They were like gods.
# Oh, no! #
Sabbath were slow and behind the beat and just...nasty!
# Oh, lord, yeah... #
MUSIC: "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath
Within one song there may be three or four
of the greatest riffs of all time with Black Sabbath songs.
The riffs are a key component of the diabolical,
deeply rhythmic evil that makes Black Sabbath a great band.
Black Sabbath, put simply, invented heavy metal.
An obsession with the darker side of spirituality, the cult lyrics,
operatic singing, the devil's interval.
This is definably heavy metal and this is where it starts.
-Thank you very much.
-CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
As the '70s dawned,
more rock guitarists like Tony Iommi were becoming increasingly
inspired by less bluesy, more experimental approaches.
I wasn't Muddy Waters in Chicago in the late 1940s.
It wasn't authentic for me.
The riff was no doubt part of what King Crimson did
but it was only one part of it. There was a lot more going on.
MUSIC: "21st Century Schizoid Man" by King Crimson
King Crimson's 1969 debut, In The Court Of The Crimson King,
was the sound of rock'n'roll casting off into uncharted waters.
Before long, the band would leave
the musical vocabulary of the blues behind altogether.
My own musical voice began to emerge in 1971 with material that appeared
in Larks' Tongues In Aspic, parts one and two,
which weren't blues.
They were rock, kind of, but something else.
Robert Fripp is undoubtedly a genius.
His early work with King Crimson, it's so technically proficient,
it's so hard to get a handle on what he's doing.
It's all about finding new ways, almost on a mechanical level,
finding new ways to get the guitar to work.
I don't think in terms of a riff.
I might think in terms of a phrase or a motif.
You have various forms of developing variation...
-..unusual time signatures.
-HE IMITATES BEAT
It will always keep you wondering...
What's happening here?
The boundaries were... They weren't boundaries for me.
In the wake of King Crimson
and the progressive rock bands that followed,
riffing got sophisticated.
Everything from classical to jazz and folk music
was now influencing rock guitarists.
Some riffs could even be operatic.
The electric guitar can imitate a human voice.
When we sing, we have a natural vibrato, we go...
Some people have a lot of vibrato,
like a lot of opera singers, you know.
There's almost nothing the guitar can't do that a human voice can.
# Is this the real life?
# Is this just fantasy? #
In 1975, an operatic vision would collide with a unique guitar style
to create one of the most famous moments in riffing history.
That song is really completely unique.
It's like a ballad at the beginning, then all this opera stuff.
We were sort of calling it mock-operatic.
# Thunderbolts of lightning
# Very, very frightening me
BOTH: # Galileo, Figaro. #
Freddie was sort of trying to play the riff on the piano...
But it wasn't until we tried it on the guitar that it really took shape.
It was a great moment.
I remember doing it. We did it, then we double-tracked it and suddenly it was, "Wow!"
# Oh, mamma mia, mamma mia
ALL: # Mamma mia, let me go
# Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me
# For me
# For me!
# So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye? #
Originally, it went...
# So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye?
# So you think you can love me and leave me to die? #
It didn't go... HE LIFTS THE NOTE
# Oh, baby... #
He kind of improvised that on the basis of what we'd done.
He felt he wanted to push it further. And that's a great moment, I think.
It really takes it into the stratosphere.
One of the secrets of Brian May's inimitable guitar sound
was his home-made guitar,
cobbled together from an 18th-century fireplace!
This is what I made with my dad, yes.
It took about two years and we designed it absolutely from scratch.
So there's a lot of things in this which didn't exist at the time.
My guitar was possibly the first electric guitar
designed so that it would feedback very deliberately,
cos it had this acoustic pocket in it.
Everything was done empirically and by hand in my dad's workshop,
so there's no power tools at all,
it's just planes and sandpaper and saws.
And it was very experimental.
# All your love tonight... #
While some guitar playing was being remodelled in the early '70s,
another, more elemental, school of riffology co-existed.
In 1972, a virtuoso guitarist
played a riff that sounded so simple even a child could play it.
It was one of the first things I learned
when I plugged in to an amp and I actually knew how to play a chord.
I figured out...
# Da-da-da, da-da-da-da... #
You can play it with your thumb.
And the end of it, you can play with no hands, you know.
It just had balls!
And when people heard it, they were like...
It was almost like Frankenstein. You could picture Frankenstein
walking down the street with this great big monstrous riff.
It was a huge, huge riff!
Every guitar centre in the world,
at any time during the day or night,
somebody's playing Smoke On The Water.
Inspired by a devastating fire
during a recording session on Lake Geneva,
the primal simplicity of Richie Blackmore's riff
has made Smoke On The Water a rite of passage
for every aspiring rock guitarist.
The moment he starts that,
you can hear, over the racket we're making, the reaction from the audience.
They're on their feet, the air guitar comes out and people doing this.
It's crazy how such a simple riff elicits such a response from them.
It's very primal. It just gets you straightaway.
I think people will still be playing Smoke On The Water
when we're in the old people's home.
# We all came out to Montreux
# On the Lake Geneva shoreline... #
You can get too technical and play too fancy stuff.
I think the idea of a riff
is not to try and build a song round this...
all this stuff, because it doesn't mean anything,
you've got to have something simple
that sort of drives home and registers into the brain.
It's very simple and yet it will sound different
every time somebody different plays it, you know.
That's one of the nice things, they're kind of transparent riffs,
they let your personality come through.
The great...appeal of a lot of great riffs of the '70s
is that the song that comes afterwards
is not necessarily that important.
It's all there in the first few moments.
It's like starting an engine, it's like pulling a throttle.
Smoke On The Water's minimalist genius
marked the beginning of an era
when everything seemed to start with a riff.
MUSIC: "Walk This Way" by Aerosmith
A golden age of stadium rock was dawning.
This age of the killer riff, however,
could have been mistaken for an amped-up stag-do.
But as the '70s progressed, a generation of women emerged
that would challenge the riffing patriarchy.
I think they wanted to see us in sandals and acoustic guitars.
People's perception of rock as riff rock, as very male
and very testosterone fuelled,
but girls have testosterone too.
# Can't stay at home
# Can't stay at school... #
In 1975, a young Joan Jett
set about forming an all-girl rock band.
Before long The Runaways were tearing gender stereotypes apart.
# Hello, Daddy
# Hello, Mom
# I'm you're ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb
# Hello, world
# I'm your wild girl
# Like a ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb! #
I just wanted to form an all-girl band
because there was nobody out there.
And I figured if I wanted to play in a band, there had to be
other girls out there like me who wanted to do the same thing.
I really didn't look at myself and say, "You're a girl, you shouldn't be doing this."
It didn't enter my mind.
The Runaways were rebellious, jailbait, teenage rock.
We were hell on wheels.
When you had musicians like Joan Jett come along,
I think she was quite significant in saying
that it was perfectly all right for a woman to be standing still
and doing something with her hands
instead of cavorting round at the front of the stage.
I'd put us up against any band.
And I'd put Lita Ford up against most any, you know, lead guitar player.
She could really...rip up a riff.
The Runaways may have riffed with the best of them,
but they often met with abuse from male rock crowds.
I figured we wouldn't have a problem,
because to me I thought rock'n'roll was freedom.
I was really wrong about that.
People started calling us names. You know, everything you could call a woman.
A whore and a dyke, you know.
I really don't understand where the hatred came from.
# Wasted lives of wasted drives
# Wasted days and wasted nights... #
the runaways took a lot of abuse from a lot of different people
and they weren't all from the audience, they weren't all fans.
Some of 'em were inside the music industry itself.
Industry sexism would be the catalyst
for one of the signature American Rock riffs of the '70s,
when Heart's Wilson sisters wrote a brutal response
to a rumour implying they were lesbian lovers,
started by their own record label.
We were so offended that some record company type guy
would insinuate anything sexual to us,
especially with each other at the time.
We were just scandalised!
The industry was, like, pretty much packed full of those type of guys
and people that were just trading on sexuality instead of quality.
# You lying so low in the weeds
# I bet you wanna ambush me
# You'd have me down, down down on my knees
# Now wouldn't you, Barracuda? #
A lot of people were like, "Wow! It's just so strange to see women up there doing that."
We were like, "Why?! Who said we couldn't?"
Can women be just as oestrogen toxic as men could be testosterone toxic?
Yes, we can. We can be bitches too.
But not all the game-changing riffs of the '70s
were borne out of hard rock.
When a young jazz guitarist from New York City met a funk bassist,
an entirely new riffing template was born.
My style developed as a result
of me meeting this incredible guy named Bernard Edwards.
To him, all music had to be funky.
So he taught me a style that was not particularly familiar to me,
what we call chucking.
All those in-between notes. I built my whole house on that.
# Ah, freak out
# Le freak, c'est chic. #
What Nile plays is not actually funk.
I mean, yeah it's funky, but what Nile plays is actually disco.
One doesn't really think in terms of disco as being a guitar-hero form.
# All that pressure got you down... #
When disco exploded in the late '70s,
it seemed to pose a threat to the health of the guitar riff.
It was uptown pop built on strings and horns, but Nile Rodgers
bucked this trend with something truly original, the disco riff,
a sound most perfectly realised with 1979's Good Times.
I actually really wrote the foundation of it only a few hours before we recorded it.
And when Bernard walked in, he heard us playing it,
he just instinctively went...
HE HUMS THE TUNE
The riff was written first and then the bass happened after the riff.
His bass parts were written to complement my guitar part
and it just seemed magical right on the spot.
And I screamed to our engineer, "Make it red!"
# These are the good times. #
And we just recorded it right there on the spot.
It was a one-take recording session.
# Good times
# These are the good times... #
Good Times was the riff that never stopped.
Its influence was vast,
inspiring not just artists, but entire new musical genres.
# Good times. #
When hip-hop came out, a lot of people say that, of course, it evolved from Good Times.
I mean, the first big hip-hop record was Rappers Delight.
# Bang bang, the boogie to the boogie
# Say, up jump the boogie, to the bang bang boogie, let's rock. #
How many songs sound like Good Times?
Queen. Another One Bites The Dust.
# How do you think I'm going to get along
# Without you when you're gone?
The Clash. # This Is Radio Clash. #
# This Is Radio Clash from pirate satellite... #
INXS. I Need You Tonight.
HE MIMICS BEAT
has served me very well.
While Nile Rodgers was riffing outside the rock template,
another artist with roots in R&B
was about to harness the power of the rock riff.
In 1981, one of the most respected session guitarists in the world
received a fateful call.
Eight o'clock in the morning I get this call,
"Hello, Steve, this is Michael."
And I'm like, "Right, who is this?" You know.
"Which one of my asshole friends is calling me on the phone right now, waking me up at eight o'clock?"
And I hung up the phone. About 11 o'clock that morning,
I get a call from Quincy Jones' office.
And Quincy goes, "Hey, man, that was Michael.
"You should probably call him back."
I went, "No! You're kidding me?!"
So he gives me the number and I call the house and he answers the phone!
And I go, "Michael this is Steve. Look, I'm really sorry, man."
He goes, "Oh, it's OK, happens all the time."
Hard rock was new territory for both Michael Jackson and producer Quincy Jones.
And the recording session with Steve Lukather produced a guitar riff
that would boldly go where no riff had gone before!
It was kind of a weird riff.
It was kind of...that was not a guitar player coming up with that riff that was Michael singing it.
So, you know, I got out the stacks of Marshals and I quadrupled it.
It was really shouting like this, big, almost metal.
And I sent it back to Quincy and he goes, "It's great, but it's too much."
"I've got to be able to have a crossover from rock and pop and R&B."
In 1981, a new rock music channel, MTV, was launched,
and Michael Jackson had seen its huge crossover potential.
Jackson was ready to rumble.
When MTV started up, they said this is a rock'n'roll channel
and we don't want R&B artists on it.
Yeah. So he almost didn't get on it.
Never before had there been a soul hit that rocked so hard
or a rock hit with so much soul.
Michael Jackson had begun to merge the black and white pop markets.
# Just beat it
# Beat it
# No-one wants to be defeated. #
Being able to cross over and get the rock people
interested in somebody that had only been on the R&B charts previously,
and pop charts, it was a big deal. That's not easy to do.
You can't just throw a distorted guitar on a tune and expect it to cross over.
They went from the Jackson 5, all these sweet pop songs, you know, Ben.
It was a sensation that nobody could have predicted.
# Beat it
# Beat it... #
As if the riff alone wasn't enough,
in the middle of the song, Jackson deployed his secret weapon,
Eddie Van Halen, with an absolute face-melter of a solo.
I remember the first day I heard the Beat It solo,
I was at a band rehearsal and we had the radio on while we were setting up equipment.
And that came on and everybody just stopped,
cos it was such a different solo.
This was just raw.
He came in from nowhere, just...
All these squeals and harmonics are just beastly.
# Beat it
# Beat it
# No-one wants to be defeated. #
The early 1980s was becoming the age of the "look at me" guitar player.
Big hair and spandex were increasingly the order of the day...
..as the guitar became a symbol of...manhood!
The riff had taken a wrong turn into a cock rock cul-de-sac.
Guitar culture just took on this very corny,
you know, sexist sort of posturing.
There was a lot of stuff that needed throwing out, really.
In 1983, a 20-year-old Johnny Marr's
reductive post-punk approach on This Charming Man,
harked back to a cleaner, more melodic era of guitar riffing.
Johnny Marr placed severe restrictions on himself,
he wasn't allowed to look at heavy metal for inspiration,
he wasn't allowed to look at classic rock.
And it was the conflict, the battle
between his innate ability and talent, and these restrictions.
And that's where the sparks come from.
# Punctured bicycle on a hillside desolate... #
It is a useful device...
to pare down, get rid of, and then just find out what you're left with.
And then do something within those sort of narrow...
sort of constraints.
Long solos were out. Distortion was out, really.
You know, rockisms.
You know, that was the real...
You know, you don't want to do anything rockist.
# He knows so much about these things. #
The sound is almost political, really.
I was trying to write just as melodically as I could,
but not use kind of big rock chugging chord changes.
But I wanted to make a big sound.
It was like this constant kind of arpeggioing to fill out the sound.
# All men have secrets and here is mine
# So let it be known... #
He's like that the master of the clean tone.
Not many guitar players
can make a riff sound heavy without distortion.
He did that really, really well.
The riffs have so much drama to it and they're quite pregnant riffs,
you don't really know where they're going,
but you know they're going somewhere.
Marr's approach formed part of an emerging anti-rockist trend.
The age of the Indie band was dawning.
# And when I'm lying in my bed... #
He had a huge influence on the development of indie music.
The sort of wash of sound that Marr gets,
that lovely meshed sound of many notes jangling away together,
they call it the Rickenbacker jangle,
sort of weaving around the vocal line,
I think was hugely influential.
By the late '80s, a whole generation of underground bands
were blowing guitar music wide open.
Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine,
The Pixies, they were all breaking
the last of the undiscovered territory for the rock band.
Sonic Youth were using crazy tunings,
so, you know, they were using guitars with only three strings on
that were tuned in a very avant-garde style.
They sounded like they were really sort of
almost trying to destroy rock'n'roll.
What they were doing with guitars was a lot more interesting.
Just seeing a guitar for what is.
You know, it's a piece of wood with strings on it,
there's no rule book attached to it.
This re-appraisal of the guitar's role in rock music
was giving birth to new guitar methodologies.
The riff was getting experimental again.
-How many pedals have you got, do you know?
-No, I don't know.
A good few hundred. It's sort of various types of distortion, really.
It shouldn't work, but it really works.
At the vanguard of this fresh wave of sonic experimentation
was a band from Dublin, My Bloody Valentine.
You hear My Bloody Valentine for the first time
and nothing prepares you for it. It's like, "What is this?!"
It's like a mermaid falling into a black hole or something.
I think those early My Bloody Valentine records
are ground-breaking sonically.
Just with adding these little bends and things with his whangy bar,
it just causes these beautiful swells.
Instead of just going...
You know, I'd go...
And that really creates all these juxtapositions of tone.
Kevin Shields' guitar riffs were drowned in an ocean of feedback,
played at a volume designed to shake buildings ...
and make a few ears bleed.
I was never interested in particularly standard rock guitar sounds.
The sound we were going for in our heads was so loud
and everything squashed together.
It's a bit like an infinite horizon, it just goes on and on as far...
And unlike horizons where your eyesight stops,
with sound you can imagine it infinitely.
That whole volume extreme thing,
at a certain point your brainwave changes to around seven hertz
and that basically creates a trance state.
The first time we did it, we just did it for an hour
and at the end of the hour,
we were just laughing hysterically, we were like little kids.
We were just high.
And so we wanted people to experience that.
But then, of course, one third of the audience has left by that point
really angrily and they haven't had a meditative experience.
At the dawn of the '90s, alternative bands like My Bloody Valentine,
on both sides of the Atlantic,
continued their exploration of the riff beneath the radar.
Meanwhile, back on Planet Rock...
The lead guitar playing in American rock becomes like Grand Prix racing.
It becomes like all these incredibly focused individuals,
incredibly highly trained,
operating these unbelievably precision-crafted instruments.
And the fact that this is all supposed to be tunes gets completely lost.
People got so...
out of control with the recording process in the '80s.
They were like, "What are we doing?! Are we thinking too hard?"
Or like, "Have another line. Jeez, dude!" You know.
But finally, in 1991, a riff exploded from the underground
whose rawness and simplicity
reconnected a generation with the primal power of rock'n'roll.
To a 13-year-old kid it was just everything you'd been waiting for.
You know, it was absolutely perfect.
Here are these guys that were rocking far, far, far harder
on just, you know, cheap pawnshop guitars and three chords.
Smells Like Teen Spirit really affected...kids.
I think there were a lot of people like me that was like,
"God dammit! I want something fucking real and noisy!
"I want someone to break their shit in front of me."
At a time when you would have thought all the great guitar riffs have been invented,
along comes this guy who just puts his passion into it, his physicality.
Kurt's ability to...
play a riff that was easy to play,
easy to hum along, but so original,
he had a really unique...
I was just knocked out.
First of all, that guitar riff just grabs you right away,
and then it comes right back with that powerful, powerful chorus.
# With the lights out it's less dangerous
# Here we are now, entertain us
# I feel stupid and contagious... #
The inspiration for this anti-mainstream anthem
came from a TV ad.
The title actually came from a friend of ours.
We got all fucked up one night and came back to the apartment,
kind of trashed the place, and she spray-painted on Kurt's bedroom wall,
"Kurt smells like Teen Spirit."
-It's a physical sensation
-# New Teen Spirit #
Anti-perspirant made for you and your generation.
Teen Spirit was like this teen deodorant
that was...that had just come out and had these ridiculous ads
of teens like, "Yay," but their armpits smelt or whatever, you know.
And it just seemed really funny to us.
Cos we wanted to start a revolution
but it wasn't going to happen with this deodorant ad, you know.
Nirvana's Teen Spirit had connected with '90s teenagers
in a way that corporate America could only dream of.
# With the lights out It's less dangerous
# Here we are now, entertain us... #
What alternative bands like The Smiths, Sonic Youth
and My Bloody Valentine had started,
the Smells Like Teen Spirit riff finished off.
Hair bands went from being par for the course
to looking extremely silly in the space of about 48 hours.
The era just like guillotined off.
It was really Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit
that kind of broke that door down
and all of a sudden made it possible for all these underground bands
to explode into the mainstream.
The past 60 years has seen the evolution of the riff
relentlessly ebb and flow between the elemental...
..and the experimental.
And as the 21st century unfolds, the power of the riff
continues to transcend the sum of its profound but limited parts.
The idea of the riff that has its own life outside of the song
is most easily demonstrated by what has happened to Seven Nation Army.
CROWD CHANTS RIFF
You've got, like, 40, 50, 60,000 football fans singing that riff when they score a goal.
That is like a mega riff.
It just makes people go absolutely ape shit.
It's a simple riff that feels less like someone wrote it than that it was unearthed.
You know, it's something that's always been there
and it's something that really speaks to the reptilian brain of rock listeners.
We live in an age where advances in music software and technology
could see the guitar riff under threat,
but some force repeatedly draws us back to the DNA of rock'n'roll
and the primordial power of the riff.
Anybody now can get a laptop and tap in single notes
or program beats and create music, and that's amazing,
but there's something about that physical connection
with strapping on a guitar and trying to play a guitar riff.
And that's always going to be with us.
The more everything's virtual,
people are going to ache for something
like holding a guitar and playing a riff,
because that's going to be like an orgasm.
As long as pop and rock music is going to be around, the riff will be around.
They'll always be popular, always.
Any kid can pick up a guitar and get something out of it.
And the something that he gets out of it will be very related to how he feels unconsciously.
That's the great thing,
you can hear the guitar and it will kind of express you in some way.
You can tell the world who you are, what you care about.
The great riff is the key to unlocking
the mysteries of the universe.
MUSIC: "Johnny B Goode" by Chuck Berry
The guitar riff is the DNA of rock 'n' roll, a double helix of repetitive simplicity and fiendish complexity on which its history has been built. From Chuck Berry through to The White Stripes, this documentary traces the ebb and flow of the guitar riff over the last 60 years of popular music. With riffs and stories from an all-star cast including Brian May, Dave Davies, Hank Marvin, Joan Jett, Nile Rodgers, Tony Iommi, Robert Fripp, Johnny Marr, Nancy Wilson, Kevin Shields, Ryan Jarman, Tom Morello and many more. Narrated by Lauren Laverne.