Thursday, 9 April 2020

Whatever happened to the melodic, killer guitar riff?

As a guitarist, I’ve been using the lockdown to brush up on my technique. I started playing at 15, following Mark Perry’s ‘here’s three chords now form a band’ back in 1978. We did that. When Paul Marvin joined the band, I got an impromptu lesson from his Dad, Hank at his house in Radlett. I was rubbish, could barely play, but Hank gave me some really great advice. He said that if you make your riffs and solo’s melodic and catchy, the ordinary punter will think you are a better guitarist than someone who plays a million notes a second. I was also lucky to get advice from the great Alan Warner of the Foundations, when we recorded at Lane studios. Alan emphasised the importance of listening to the music and making sure what you play is sympathetic to the song. This was reinforced by BB. King who said of Joe Satriani ‘If I could play like him, I wouldn’t’. I originally posted a version of this blog on Facebook and it got a fascinating response. I thought I'd develop it a little bit further. In one of the comments,  I was reminded of the amazing performance by Carlos Santana at Woodstock, performing Soul sacrifice. This is a classic example of how a lead guitarist who appreciates melody can make amazing music. No overplaying, tasteful but technically brilliant.

As Soul Sacrifice is an instrumental track, it is one where the guitar really needs to be spot on. For years, as a guitarist, I wanted to make an epic instrumental guitar track. Back in 2008, working with Fil Ross, Paul Hircombe RIP and Tony Caveye of The False Dots, we recorded Paul Song. At the time, it was just a bit of self indulgent fun. When Paul passed away in 2012, it became his requiem. I hacked together a video of it for fun. The video is pretty dodgy, but I think the guitar work, most of which is Fil (I just mostly do the keyboards, rhythm and acoustic guitars), is excellent. I love playing in a band with Fil, as above all, he gets melody and his solo's and riffs are always sympathetic. What do you think?

It seems to me that there is a modern trend amongst guitarists to overplay, to not focus on melody and sympathy to the music. I can’t remember hearing a really amazing ear hook riff in a new song for ages. There’s lots of widdling but when was the last Apache, Satisfaction, Rebel Rebel, 20th Century Boy, Smoke on The Water, Pretty Vacant, Kinky Afro, etc style killer riff in a guitar based song? Hit records with simple, catchy riffs? I really think that we need tutorials need to emphasise that if you are a guitarist and you want to write a hit, learn to write catchy riffs.

Rant over. What’s your favourite guitarist and their best riff? My favourite guitarist is Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band. I love his economical bluesy style and his ability to mix things up. I think Rockin Me is an almost perfect rock and roll single. A great guitarist playing economically, with a great riff (which was tastefully nicked from a Free track, another great band who extol melodic lead guitar). There are plenty of more technical, more accomplished guitarists, but for me simplicity and melody is king. Steve Miller's songs are all full of this.

As for best riff, this is a very tough one. I could have chosen a hundred, but I will go for Brian James  riff at the start of Fan club, by The Damned. I found a rare clip of the band playing in 1977 at Sussex Uni. Every time I play Damned Damned Damned and hear this riff, it sends shivers down my spine. It is evocative and transports me back to 1977, to buying the album at Mill Hill Televison, bringing it home, putting it on the turntable and letting the music wash over me. Many of the early punk bands were great live, but the debut albums didn't really catch the excitement. Damned Damned Damned was the first and it is a masterpiece. I wonder if the band really expected that people would still be listening to it 40 odd years later?

Fan Club starts with the lyric

Well, I'm craving for a cigarette, hey give me a light
Feeling kind of thirsty, give me something that bites
Sure been hanging 'round here for much too long
All you crazy people waiting for my song

Anyone who has ever been in a band will understand this, when you perform a gig, you arrive hours before, hang around, eventually you do a soundcheck, then you hang around for many more hours. It is the most boring experience imaginable. You are in a state of nervous anticipation, but there is really nothing to do. Often there is a bar, in the good old days, we all smoked like chimneys, not always combustables of an entirely legal nature,  in the changing rooms.  Even if you didn't smoke, you'd smell like a kipper by the time you went on stage. Then there is 30 minutes of raw excitement and energy. That is it. And to me, Fan club is perhaps the song that sums it all up. And that riff at the start. That is what a proper riff does. The song also reminds me of Paul Hircombe, who was the bass player in the False Dots for 28 years. We spent so long hanging around, waiting. If you are in a band, you really need to be with people who's company you like.

I saw the Damned a few years ago at The Roundhouse, performing the whole album in it's entirety. The show reminded me of why I fell in love with live music. Yeah, I know its personal.

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