The History of Rock Musically Told in 100 Guitar Riffs and 100 Bass Riffs

Rare excep­tions may only under­line the rule: a good rock riff should be sim­ple, primal—two, three, maybe four notes. What makes a riff so dis­tinc­tive you can’t stop hum­ming it in the show­er? Per­son­al­i­ty. Bends, slides, dou­ble-stops, etc, put in exact­ly the right places. How do you write such a riff? Giv­en how most famous gui­tar play­ers talk about it: entire­ly by acci­dent, a frus­trat­ing answer for would-be hit­mak­ers, though it shouldn’t stop any­one from try­ing. The best riff-writ­ers wrote hun­dreds of riffs before they stum­bled upon that just-right col­lec­tion of notes. Or they just ripped off a less­er-known riff and made it their own. All’s fair in love and riffs.

Artic­u­lat­ing what we already intu­itive­ly know, Chica­go Tri­bune crit­ic Greg Kot writes at, “a riff, when done right, can shape a song and often rule it. It’s a brief statement—sometimes only a hand­ful of notes or chords—that recurs through­out the arrange­ment and can become the song’s cen­tral hook. Many of the great­est songs of the rock era begin with a riff—the Rolling Stones ‘(I Can’t Get No) Sat­is­fac­tion,’ Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water,’ Aerosmith’s ‘Walk this Way,’ The Smith’s ‘How Soon is Now,’ Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spir­it,’ The Isley Brother’s ‘Who’s that Lady?’ And when done that spec­tac­u­lar­ly, the riff becomes the core of the tune, its most mem­o­rable fea­ture when lis­ten­ers play it back in their head.”

Indeed, so cen­tral is the riff to the catch­i­ness of a song that one could write an entire his­to­ry of rock ‘n’ roll in riffs, which is exact­ly what Alex Chad­wick has done in the video above, open­ing with the groovy jazz lick of 1953’s “Mr. Sand­man” and wrap­ping up with St. Vincent’s “Cru­el.” Though the more recent riffs might elude many people—having not yet become clas­sic rock hits played at hock­ey games—nearly all of these 100 riffs from 100 rock ‘n’ roll songs will be instant­ly famil­iar. The video comes from music store Chica­go Music Exchange, where employ­ees like­ly hear many of these tunes played all day long, but nev­er in chrono­log­i­cal suc­ces­sion with such per­fect into­na­tion.

And lest we think gui­tarists deserve all the riffage glo­ry, the folks at Chica­go Music Exchange put togeth­er a fol­low-up video of 100 bass (and drum) riffs, “A Brief His­to­ry of Groove.” Here, bassist Marc Naj­jar and drum­mer Nate Bau­man cov­er 60 years of music his­to­ry in under 20 min­utes. As not­ed a few years back, these impres­sive med­leys were per­formed “in one con­tin­u­ous take.” See the full gui­tar riff track­list here and bass riff track­list here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The His­to­ry of the Blues in 50 Riffs: From Blind Lemon Jef­fer­son (1928) to Joe Bona­mas­sa (2009)

The Evo­lu­tion of the Rock Gui­tar Solo: 28 Solos, Span­ning 50 Years, Played in 6 Fun Min­utes

The His­to­ry of Rock Told in a Whirl­wind 15-Minute Video

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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