The first question, probably, should be, “What IS a riff?”
In the language of pop music, a riff is the little part that most often (but not always) repeats itself at the beginning and/or throughout a song. A riff is made up of only a few notes, not really enough to be called a theme, or a movement. Just that little eight- or 10-note ditty, often done on just one instrument, like the piano or guitar. Typically, it makes the song identifiable and adds a unique personality to that song—like when you hear the first couple of seconds of music and already know the song that is on the way. It’s one of the most delightful things in the already-rich history of pop music.
The big “riff-writers” to me, began in the jazz age. Musicians like Duke Ellington and Count Basie had a way of introducing you to a song that felt like you were meeting a new friend. If you are familiar with 1920s and ’30s American pop, you probably know the riffs to classics like “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” or “All of Me.” After they get into your heart, they sound like a family member’s knock on your front door. In my opinion, Willie Nelson did the whole generation a favor when he recorded his smash record, Stardust, which introduced a nation of young musicians, myself included, to jazz standards at a time when some of us would sooner eat a plate piled high with soggy spinach.
That impact was immediate with me. It was exactly nine years after Woodstock, and I noticed something great about these songs—these things my grandparents listened to—with those sweet riffs. Willie (and an all-star team) had managed to arrange and record these songs in a way that was so palatable to us “rock heads.” It made me want to look into what was so appealing about them.
I had begun to write music around that time. In the seventies, I had come to realize that a pop song absolutely requires a riff. My first co-producer, engineer and recording mate, Johnny Mulhair—still a mentor and friend of decades—later showed me how to structure a song. When he did it, I was literally in the studio, getting ready, as if I WERE ready, to record my own first album. “It can’t just be a bunch of words and a guitar strum,” he told me. I took this as harsh criticism at the time, but of course, I was really green, and he was really right. Every song, like a story, should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The way a song is held together, tied up like a bow, is the riff. Johnny is an underrated but world-class riff writer. Nearly every song that comes out of his studio has some magic on the guitar tracks that came from someone who may not have even been mentioned in the credits.
Another great riff-writer Johnny and I both had the good fortune to work for was Norman Petty, of Buddy Holly fame.
Norman also produced the Fireballs, who had mega hits with “Sugar Shack” and “Bottle of Wine.” The Fireballs, most of whom have remained friends of mine over the years, told me this story. “We were riding around in the car the first time we heard ‘Sugar Shack’ on the radio. We heard that little whistle-sounding riff and none of us had put that on the record. We didn’t like it. We agreed that there was going to be a problem with that sound. It wasn’t rock-and-roll, and none of us wrote that, and we were worked up pretty good, and Norman had a lot of nerve putting that wimpy-sounding little penny whistle thing on our song, etc. Then the DJ came on the air and said, ‘The Fireballs have broken into the American Top 10 with their new hit, “Sugar Shack.”’ And suddenly we were all just fine with that little riff!”
“That little riff” was all that was required to add the finishing touch to the song, and Norman used it to put the song over the top.
With movies like Muscle Shoals and Standing in the Shadows of Motown, It’s no longer much of a secret that the majority of hit records through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s were played in the studios by a small and elite group of musicians. We call them “studio cats.” A writer sends his stuff to a studio, and that studio uses its own musicians to cut the demo or the finished product. I cut my teeth doing that, in much smaller studios. I was never the best guitar player, but I worked cheap, and the studio who hired me back then was desperate. The point is, whatever the record was, we all knew that the final wasn’t complete until the “riff guy” showed up.
So, what’s in a riff? Magic, I guess.