Editor's Note: As those of you who read the blog know, Erik Gundel has been a frequent contributor over the years. He writes a semi-regular column called "On the Jukebox with Erik Gundel" and participated in the Puddles of Myself reading this past fall. When it came time to discussing Led Zeppelin, I just knew we had to have Gundel weigh in on the obvious influence that the band had on the way anyone plays the guitar. After all, Erik is one of the best living guitar players and he knows that of which he speaks. This summer, he released an EP, A Home to Keep You, full of guitar tricks and other beautiful melodies and has released a series of sophisticated and sonically layered singles this past fall. All of which you can listen to or buy.
First thing’s first: Led Zeppelin are one of my all-time favorite bands. They caught my ear in that second phase of music fandom in which you survey the evergreen classics that you hear on the radio while driving around with your parents (the first phase of fandom, for me, being cassette tapes of Disney soundtracks and MC Hammer. It was 1990, after all.)
Zeppelin have such a rich catalogue that I have not grown fatigued by them the way that I have by a band like Pink Floyd, who I haven’t voluntarily listened to since eighth grade. I may not be ecstatic to hear IV for the millionth time, but I have a lot of listening to Physical Graffiti to go before I get sick of it. Perhaps the main reason they have never grown tiresome is that they are fucking heavy as shit. If you’ve ever heard their live album How the West Was Won, you wouldn’t be able to argue that, as a group of people playing different instruments and singing as a unit, they don’t eat the Beatles’ lunches (mustardy crumpets with tea and pie for dessert, probably.) They are not merely “more than a sum of their individual parts”; they seem to say, rather, “Hey math, how about you take a hike, we’re going to rock with the impossible power of an imploding star and then slap your girlfriend on the rear with a big fish.”
But what was the key to their ability to rock so hard? To my ears, that would be the musical device known only as The Riff. There are probably a lot of ways to define a riff, but I have a set of guidelines that I think make a good one. The first speaks to the notion of unity that Zeppelin displays so fiercely: everyone plays the riff. The guitar and bass are locked together, and the drummer is reinforcing the rhythmic aspects of the riff while maintaining the underlying beat of the song. The second guideline is that the riff should display a sense of monolithic power and simplicity, meaning it is usually one note at a time. If the bass player is going to be playing the riff, it can’t have a lot of chords or musical accoutrements (I, the riff judge, will allow for guitar harmony, or guitarmony, in which a second guitar player will play the riff in a melodically complementary way—think Boston or Thin Lizzy—because usually this rocks. The fundamental riff will remain beneath.)
The final guideline is more subjective, and it is that a good riff will make you at least nod your head. This is the first step towards the logical endpoint of listening to riffs, the head bang. There is a sweet spot for the tempo, or speed, of the riff: too fast and it loses any sense of a groove, too slow and it can become easily tiresome. There is a lot of wiggle room there, as I am a big fan of slower riffs, but most great ones fall around 80-100 beats per minute. The last thing I’ll mention is that a lot of riffs gain power from their context in a song, i.e. buildup and release. Some need no context to rock, others are the payoff for minutes of non-riffage. It does not count as a riff guideline though, F.Y.I.! So, let’s take a listen to some riffs, Zeppelin and otherwise, and see how they fit into the discussion I just had with myself.
“Bring it on Home”- Led Zeppelin from Led Zeppelin II
This has not always been one of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs. In truth, to speak about context, the nearly two-minute introductory section of Robert Plant singing in an affected way over a simple blues progression turned me off to the point that I didn’t listen to the full song until a friend of mine cited it as his favorite in high school. Whoops! Now I see that intro as the build-up to one of the all-time greatest riffs. It hits all the guidelines, nay, smushes them. After Jimmy Page plays that thing once through alone (one note at a time, mind you) John Paul Jones doubles it up perfectly on bass, and John Bonham lays it down on drums as only he could; accenting the upbeats of the riff while maintaining a locked groove underneath. Once you get the picture the first time around, Page overdubs a guitar harmony the second time through, scoring amazing bonus riffage points! There may be a lot of quick notes going on, but the underlying rhythm slots right into the T.S.S. (tempo sweet spot) at about 100 bpm. Textbook riff work right here.
“In the Light”- Led Zeppelin from Physical Graffiti
As a point of contrast, here is a song from a later stage in Zeppelin’s career, demonstrating that they never veered too far from the riff, they just appropriated it to suit their mystical needs. The intro to this song is some heady stuff, man. But then we get an embarrassment of riff riches (A.K.A. riffches.) There’s the punctuated, descending riff that comes out of nowhere, snapping you out of your opium haze. There’s the stabilizing riff of the verses that you can really bob to, this time a slower, juicy 60 beats per minute. Then there’s the riff in the choruses, which fractures the unity of the bass and guitar, but features an ascending Page line that seems to lift you up into the eponymous “Light.” This is a good deal more complex than their early bluesy material; this song would be in a riff textbook for an advanced class, like Riffs 301 with that tough professor you had last semester who gave your final paper a C. What a dick that guy is.
“Black Sabbath”- Black Sabbath from Black Sabbath
Black Sabbath are probably the only heavy band that can rival Led Zeppelin for influence, and it could be argued that they are the more important band for today’s metal scene. Whereas Led Zeppelin’s interest in the occult was a thing of legend, and you had to play “Stairway” backwards to hear Plant sing about Satan, Ozzy calls out the name of the beast in their very first song on record. They have endless good riffs, but you can’t deny the simple power of “Black Sabbath,” the titular riff as it were. This riff has three notes to it, played nice and slowly, and it garners its power from emphasizing the tri-tone interval. Without getting technical, if you played every possible combination of two notes on a guitar to Satan, the combination he would like the most would be the tri-tone. Also, if you can convincingly add church bells to your riff, you’ve got yourself a classic.
“Spanish Castle Magic”- Jimi Hendrix from Axis Bold As Love
I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t include a Jimi Hendrix song in my riff article, yet his playing is so expansive that not many songs fit the Zeppelin-oriented guidelines I have imposed. Vermont classic rock stations never touched this song, perhaps because it is too heavy for those wookies. Go “feed her with a tweezer,” or whatever it is you guys want to do with your time. (Sorry, just kidding VT. )
Anyways, the Experience plays this song as a very tight unit throughout, extra credit given to Mitch Mitchell’s tasteful yet explosive drumming. Really, though, it’s all about that riff that opens the song, probably the heaviest thing in Jimi’s discography. Except for “Machine Gun.” I should have written about that song now that I think about it. I’ll say that song doesn’t count because it sounds like an alien must have played it, which is immediate disqualification in the riff guidelines. No aliens, sorry.
“Asteroid” — Kyuss from Welcome to Sky Valley
Based on my research, there were no decent riffs from 1975 to 1991. Sorry. Chalk it up to the stylistic or production choices of the time, but it was a dry age for solid riffage. There arose a revival of heavy, Zeppelin and Sabbath-influenced rock in the 90s, attributed in no small part to Kyuss. Featuring two future members of Queens of the Stone Age, these dudes played some pretty mean riffs. They tuned their guitars way lower than other bands. So low, in fact, that their early demos were completely inaudible. This song is simple to the point of being stupid, but in the best way possible. “Ok, so we do that quiet part for a little while, and then we play the riff really loud like eight times, then we do it all again, sort of.” The rest of the album has some fairly dated singing on it, so give these guys credit for knowing when to get outta the way of a riff.
“Bullet in Your Head” — Rage Against the Machine from Rage Against the Machine
Ah yes, Rage Against the Machine. This band is, for me, so closely associated with adolescence that I have a hard time believing that anyone over twenty-five was ever into them. The lyrics were made up of endless slogans, almost completely devoid of a single personal thought or feeling. But I’ll be damned if they weren’t the most successful riff-smiths of the last twenty years. You could pick a song at random and it would feature a riff that fits the guidelines I have set forth. Everyone plays the riff together? Every time. Guitar and bass united? Glued together. T.S.S.? These guys wouldn’t leave the T.S.S. if you lured them away with a piping hot cheese pizza from Sal’s. In addition, the formula for building to the riff was there from the start: Zach of the Rocha raps about injustice over a tight bass/drum groove with weird guitar sounds over it, then he screams about injustice over a hard rocking riff. R.O.T.M. SONG RANDOMIZER HAS SELECTED: “Bullet in Your Head.”
No joke, this song was selected using a random number generator.
“Oblivion” — Mastodon from Crack the Skye
Mastodon is a band that seems to aspire, more than any other heavy band around these days, to the levels of cosmic grandeur that Led Zeppelin mastered. Their albums have over-the-top concepts that variously revolve around evil Czars, sleeping giants, and the white whale itself, Moby Dick*. The acoustic guitar wanders in and out like a faint whiff of some really heady nuggage. As they are equally indebted to proggier acts like Genesis and Rush, they don’t always make their riffs easy to grasp. The introduction to “Oblivion” is a rare slab of simple Sabbath-ness, building and expanding as it goes on. On a personal note, my former band Motel Motel covered this song a bunch of times on our final tour together, and it was perhaps the most fun I’ve had performing. There is a real joy to playing the same exact thing as your compatriots that not a lot in music can match; good riffs have a primal force and directness that will probably never get old. How many riffs can there be? Who will be the next riff master? I was trying to write the word “riff” 400 times in this article, did I make it?
(*Editor’s Note: Not to be confused with the Led Zeppelin song “Moby Dick,” which, if I may be so bold, would certainly fit within the very stringent riff guidelines set up by Mr. Gundel.)
Note on omissions:
I only have so much space to write about riffs, so I apologize if I missed your favorite. A lot of people cite “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” as the best riff of all time. Sure, nice riff, but it’s about as light as my wallet after eating dinner at Sal’s Pizza (light because I get a lot of food, not because it’s expensive. Sal’s is good value.) The bass player should have doubled it if you ask me. “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple was immediately and forever disqualified when the fifth kid I taught guitar lessons to in Vermont asked to learn it. Do you really like that song, kid? Do you even want to learn the next part? Good, I don’t know it either. “Tom Sawyer” by Rush was omitted for length. I wrote a very long piece about it, had to cut it. The main riff in “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins is on the drums, not generally considered in the riff conversation, and thus omitted. Anything I missed? I look forward to your comments, and thanks for reading.
Yours in eternal riffdom,
Erik P. Gundel