Reclaim the Riff - Two Examples of Legendary Riffage...



There's no doubt that today's pop music is a stripped-down sound. Most melodies are written on one note, (the root of the key), and there are little to no sparks between the lines. 

Instead, the songs opt for one unifying theory. There's a main message with one general theme and not much else left to really "figure out." It begs the question, "whatever happened to the riffs?"

There used to be a real lean toward implied tension in pop songs. It was done to manage the retention of some of the more progressively daring and exploratory tendencies from pop music's past. 

But, these days, when it comes to today's pop song, there's a real lack in the department of dishing out some serious kick-ass riffage. This begs the question... Is there still room for the sound of a heavyweight riff?

In this post we'll look at two classic riffs from pop music's past and we'll learn what made them such huge success stories. These pop-riffs will give you a good selection of ideas that you can then take and use for your own compositions.



Example #1).
KUNG KU FIGHTING, CARL DOUGLAS (1974)

This song was a huge hit in 1974, the single sold more than eleven million copies worldwide and it won a GRAMMY in 1974.  In fact - this song is still classified as a best selling single of all time. Plus it’s disco-pop. That part is a little important too, because disco shaped a lot of what we now find in today's hip-hop music.




 
Ex 1a). THE CHORD RIFF: The underlying chord riff is a funky key of "D major" 16th-note rhythm over the tonic chord and the keys II-chord (Dmaj7 to the Em7). Learn it below.

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Ex 1b). THE ASIAN RIFF: The key factor of this piece is the cool "Asian style" riff. Learn it below.

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The Asian-style riff in the song may make it interesting. But, there's a lot more to it than that. Pop songs of the past, generally had multiple implied messages that went beyond the strong riffs that made the piece stick in the listeners mind.

THE SONG'S EXCITEMENT:
[KUNG FU]... This song is obviously about kung fu fighting. But, since there's so much excitement for kung fu fighting in the song, it causes the listener to feel like, "acting that out," while singing along. 

And, that extra physical /mental layer, (along with the funky guitar jam and cool Asian-style riff), is what makes this song so much fun to listen to. And, it's also is what - very likely - made it such a huge hit.




Example #2).
WALK THIS WAY, AEROSMITH (1975)

In December 1974, Aerosmith opened for The Guess Who in Honolulu. During the sound check, guitarist Joe Perry was "fooling around with riffs and thinking about The Meters," (a group that guitarist Jeff Beck had turned him on to).

Loving their "riffy New Orleans funk" he asked the drummer "to lay down something flat with a groove." The guitar riff to what would become "Walk This Way" just "came off [his] hands."

Needing a bridge, he invented another riff. But he didn't want the song to have a typical, boring 1, 4, 5 chord progression. After playing the first riff in the key of C, he shifted to E before returning to C for the verse and chorus. 

By the end of that sound check, Joe Perry had the basics of a hit song.




 
This song was so successful that it not only went on to become a top 10 hit in 1975, it also saw a resurgence in 1986 and 1987 when rappers "Run-DMC," made a cover of the song. 

The cover was a touchstone for the new musical sub-genre of "rap rock," (the melding of rock and hip hop). It became an international Top-5 Billboard hit and won both groups at the Soul Train Music Awards for the Best Rap Single in 1987.

What occurs in this song, once again ties into our theme of songs using "multiple implied messages" rather than a single, "unified theory." 

The piece begins with a really catchy guitar riff right up-front. Give it a try in example 2a, below...

Ex 2a). THE MAIN RIFF: This is the corner-stone of the song. A super catchy riff that engages the listener into the piece right from the start.

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After the four bar principle riff that instantly grabs the listeners attention, we move onto a really groovy (almost Motown - James Brown style), background riff for the verse. 

This secondary follow-up riff is another really cool guitar idea that takes the listener into a secondary feel as the piece shifts gears. Learn this single measure idea outlined in Ex. 2b shown below...

Ex 2b). THE SECONDARY RIFF: This passage introduces a locked down groovy feel that acts as a strong secondary riff in the piece.





THE SONG'S EXCITEMENT:
[SEX]... The song's third "spark between the lines" is it's blatant lean toward sex and promiscuity. A popular cheerleader, (who throws it around town like the paper boy), leads a high school loser through his first sexual encounter for her own pleasure. He then uses his "new knowledge" to "teach" the neighbor girl, (although her daddy isn't too thrilled about it).

CONCLUSION:
When riffs are catchy and they stick in the mind, you're already onto something. But, then when you combine two cool riffs, you've got that "double-trouble effect" that can be the foundation of a great start to a song. 

And then, when you add in that extra top-up - that third ingredient - those, "Sparks Between the Lines," will really have your song headed toward something bigger and more engaging. That's the power of the blend of the multiple message, (Riff #1 + Riff #2 + Exciting Theme = a HIT).

So, when you're working on coming up with new riffs and new song ideas, keep these song riff elements in mind. They're powerful and they're timeless when it comes to composing great riffs in songs.

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