Is the guitar riff dead?

Posted: 28 February 2019

Defined as a ‘repeated musical phrase’, guitar riffs are usually instantly recognisable, easy to remember, and set the tone for the song. Regularly credited as the DNA behind rock and roll, we delve into what goes into some of our favourite riffs of all time, how they have evolved, and if there’s still a place for riffs in today’s tunes.

Read time: 7 mins

The late ’50s brought the guitar riff to the forefront of music. Rock and roll riffs until that time were associated with the piano thanks to artists like Little Richard, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis. It wasn’t until Chuck Berry took these influences and laid them down on 6 strings that the guitar riff burst into modern consciousness. Since then riffs have been a constant weapon in the arsenal of almost all rock guitarists, so we’ve taken a look at some classic riffs to help discover what makes particular riffs so iconic, and asked if they’re going to stick around any longer.

So where does that leave the guitar riff today?

It’s true, the guitar riff is heard less and less often nowadays. It’s also pretty rare that a riff is the centre piece of a song, however that’s not to say that the riff has disappeared completely. The guitar riff has taught us throughout history that you write it off at your peril, and every time you do discount it, it has a knack of reinventing itself to capture your attention all over again.

Look to Royal Blood, who have taken the guitar riff and transposed it to the bass. Bring Me The Horizon’s latest album has advanced their typical formula of heavy guitar riffs by merging them with a fully electronic sound, following in the footsteps of bands like Enter Shikari and Nine Inch Nails. Run DMC and The Beastie Boys were mixing riffs with hip-hop beats back in the 80s but look to the modern day and Kanye West, A$AP Rocky and Childish Gambino are keeping the guitar riff at the forefront of what’s popular by contrasting it with drum machines and samples. Perhaps the riffs greatest achievement is its ability to transcend genres, sealing its importance for many years to come, no matter what’s popular.

On top of this history teaches us that guitar riffs may not be fully appreciated when they first burst into the mainstream. The single of Back in Black peaked at no 37 in the US charts upon its initial release and didn’t get into the UK charts at all. Smells Like Teen Spirit was overlooked on its original release and didn’t chart on either side of the Atlantic until 3 months later, despite both these tracks being arguably some of the most recognised songs of all time. It’s only when we look back now that we can measure the true impact of these riffs and how they pushed boundaries for generations to follow.