Nobody knows how or why a guitar riff becomes a classic. It’s like hit songs, if everybody knew how to write them then all they would write were hits. It doesn’t work that way. We can’t define a classic guitar riff, but we know it when we hear it. And we know we can sing it, and more importantly we know we want to sing it. And if we can’t play it, we want to play it. That’s air guitar 101. It can be two notes and a chord (“Whole Lotta Love”), played on one string (“Satisfaction”) be chord based (“You Really Got Me“) be the melody of a song (“Iron Man”) played in plucked 4ths ( “Smoke on the Water”) be multi-tracked ( “Layla” ) be the intro to a song (Sweet Child O Mine), played with a Wah pedal ‘Voodoo Chile” (Slight Return)”, or include a touch of chromaticism (“Walk this Way”, “Sunshine of Your Love”). An indelible guitar riff is as much a musical hook as an indelible vocal melody, except it’s cooler.
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My vote for a classic guitar riff that totally deserves more appreciation goes to Whiskey Train by Procul Harum. Written and played by Robin Trower on the 1970 album Home, the song was strong enough to be the opening track on side 1 back when being a lead off track actually meant something. As simple and direct as any riff on Mountains Climbing album, it was no surprise that 24 years later Leslie West recorded his own version of the song. The original studio version of Whiskey Train also has one of the most memorable cowbell figures ever recorded, courtesy of drummer B.J. Wilson. Plus there’s three, yes three melodic and snarling Trower guitar^olos. But it’s that simple pentatonic riff that takes up permanent residence in your brain and brings you a whole lotta love, and satisfaction. Pun intended.