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Memorable guitar work puts the rif(f) in terrific

It’s been just over a year since the death of the legendary Les Paul, an eclectic musician and inventor whose pioneering contribution to the development of the solid-body, electric guitar is credited with making “the sound of rock ’n’ roll possible.”

So, it’s a good time to pay him tribute by recalling a few of the many memorable riffs his guitar innovations have helped make possible. Here are some of my favorites, and feel free to add yours in the Comment section below.

I’ll start with two “soft,” slow, hypnotic riffs: Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” and Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.”

Then let’s try some classic rock ‘n’ roll:

• Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”

• The twangy guitar of Duane Eddy on “Forty Miles of Bad Road” and “Rebel-‘Rouser”

• Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” which unfortunately has become one of the most overplayed songs in modern music history

And then move on to two more hypnotic hooks:

• Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy”

• Jefferson Starship’s “Runaway”

And a couple of rock superstars:

• Bruce Springsteen with “Born To Run” and his classic “Dancing in the Dark” video (complete, of course, with the pre-cougar Courteney Cox)

• And the Rolling Stones, the kings of the instantly recognizable rock guitar riff: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,”  “Brown Sugar” and “Start Me Up”

• And the spectacular Bill Kirchen, a rockabilly guitarist known as “The Titan of the Telecaster.” He played on Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen’s 1972 remake of “Hot Rod Lincoln” with its wonderful ending:

They arrested me and they put me in jail,
and they called my pappy to throw my bail,

and he said, “son, you’re gonna drive me to drinkin’
if you don’t stop drivin’ that hot … rod … Lincoln.”

Here’s Kirchen’s expanded seven-minute version — stick around for his mid-song tribute to guitarists ranging from Johnny Cash to Muddy Waters to Marty Robbins to the Ventures of “Walk — Don’t Run” fame.

And we’ll end with a tribute to the surf guitar and the likes of Dick Dale, the undisputed King of the Surf Guitar.  

Junior Brown’s seven-minute “Surf Medley” wraps together all sorts of favorites. Here’s a short, live excerpt:

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Bill Hansen on 10/15/2010 - 09:33 am.

    Great post. Of course, you are opening the floodgates of great guitar riffs… My suggestion: Duane Allman on Wilson Pickett’s cover of “Hey Jude.” .

    And then there’s Hendrix on “Voodoo Chile”….

  2. Submitted by Gin Kujawa on 10/15/2010 - 10:23 am.

    I vote for “Misirlou” by Dick Dale and His Deltones. Classic.

  3. Submitted by John Reinan on 10/15/2010 - 10:54 am.

    Don’t forget several great riffs by Les Paul himself on “How High the Moon.”

    Here’s a 1950s video from Alistair Cooke’s “Omnibus” with Les demonstrating how he mixed a multi-track recording of that song.

  4. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 10/15/2010 - 01:58 pm.

    It would be weird if we forgot “the beard”

    ZZ Top playing “Sharp Dressed Man” in front of a live audience in Texas!

  5. Submitted by Adolph Rickenbacker on 10/15/2010 - 02:50 pm.

    How about Steve Croppers opening riff on Soul Man?
    (saw him do it at The Dakota!!!)

  6. Submitted by Mike Cohen on 10/16/2010 - 12:01 am.

    I’d have to put my cents in for two songs by guitarist/songwriter/inventor/ham radio enthusiast Joe Walsh- Funk #49 and Rocky Mountain Way. Though probably more well known for his work with The Eagles, he and his band the James Gang definitely helped define riff-rock in the 70’s!

  7. Submitted by James Miller on 10/17/2010 - 08:52 pm.

    Wonderful article, replete w/examples. How about anything by the late John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service.

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