August 24th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Biological and transgender worldviews are mutually exclusive

CANBERRA OBSERVED Can you have too much of a renewables thing?

FREEDOM OF SPEECH Professor Augusto Zimmermann addresses NCC WA on freedoms

NSW ABORTION BILL Clear and present danger to women's health

RURAL AFFAIRS Land-clearing laws render productive land useless and worthless

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Why an indigenous referendum is misconceived

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY The post-liberal way: Make good use of the time in the wilderness

ASIAN AFFAIRS Hong Kong defies its obtrusive overlord

SPECIAL FILM REVIEW Danger Close: Australia's fiercest battle of the Vietnam War

HUMOUR Rage against the baked bean

MUSIC Riff wrap: The thing that makes it go 'pop'

CLASSIC CINEMA Dr Strangelove: Helpless fear turned to laughter

BOOK REVIEW The epic awfulness of Mao and his 'isms'

BOOK REVIEW From slave to son of the Church




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Riff wrap: The thing that makes it go 'pop'

by David James

News Weekly, August 24, 2019

One of the most enjoyed, and least analysed, musical devices is guitar riffs in popular music. A riff is a rhythmic motif that is usually two bars long: think the sliding, repeated blues line in The Rolling Stones’ hit Satisfaction.

Writing a memorable guitar riff is one of the most challenging of musical tasks and no amount of learning will make it easier; it is intuitive and primal. It may sound easy enough, but anyone who has attempted it quickly finds out that it is the Mount Everest of popular music.

The reason for the extreme difficulty is that it has to be musical and memorable, but you have usually only two, sometimes four, bars to achieve the desired effect. That is very different from a melody, which typically goes over at least eight bars, allowing the composer room to develop the ideas.

To appreciate the difference, think of the famous da-da-da-dum motif in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. That initial motif is the equivalent of a riff but Beethoven then extends it into a melody built up from the rhythmic units of the opening.

Writing riffs is the equivalent of trying to paint a masterpiece on the back of a postage stamp, so it is no surprise that there are very few that are truly memorable. Those that are effective are typically derived from blues lines, a musical form that heavily uses guitar lines within a repeated harmonic format.

Some of the more effective examples are based on heavy repetition, such as Jimi Hendrix’s line in Foxy Lady, which relies more on its heavy swing and percussive attack for its power rather than any rhythmic complexity – that is left to the drummer to provide.

The two-bar riff used in Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love is based on syncopation, which moves the beat around so that it sounds off balance before returning again. That is why it can be played repeatedly without becoming repetitive.

An extraordinary outlier is Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog, which is a 12-bar riff and, instead of being in the usual 4/4 time signature, is a mix of 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 and 5/4. There is no parallel in rock music and gives an interesting insight into what could be done with greater sophistication.

Not that sophistication is the point with rock, as evidenced by AC/DC, whose riffs are percussive and powerful and appear to be very simple. Appearances can deceive, however. There is often a clever use of space that implies the structure without it actually being played.

For example, the four-bar three-note riff in Highway to Hell starts before the structure begins (on the 3 and half-beat of the fourth bar, rather than the first beat of the first bar). That is repeated, then, in the fourth bar, the rhythmic motif is doubled up. The momentum is sufficiently strong such that no matter what melody is sung, it scarcely matters.

Many pop artists have flirted with riffs. It was not an especially prominent part of the Beatles’ musical tool kit, but there are some fine examples, such as the two-bar guitar line in Day Tripper and the simple four-bar intro to Get Back.

Michael Jackson rarely used them prominently, but an exception is Black or White, where the simple two-bar guitar riff creates displacement because it emphasises the second beat in the first bar and the first beat in the second bar.

The master of guitar riffs, though, is Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. No other rock guitarist comes anywhere near him for the number of timeless riffs, nor for the mix of subtle displacement and immediate accessibility.

Consider some of his lines. There is often a mix of syncopation and displacement of the beat, such as the riff in Brown Sugar. Sometimes he emphasises the first and third beat in the first bar, then the second and fourth beat in the second bar (they are usually two-bar riffs).

He discovers extraordinary variations within the two-bar structure. In Start Me Up, the emphasis is on the second and fourth beat. In Bitch, they are on the first and third. When it came to creating masterpieces on a postage stamp, there has been no one to equal him.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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