So what is it?
by Curt King
It’s time to talk Metal Riffs folks. What I have in mind specifically today is to bring forth a special riff. A riff that has stood the test of time, a riff that almost every band has managed to play in some way, shape or form throughout their career. If you are in a band and somehow you did not have a song that included this riff, then you will most likely have played it (or a variation of it) as a cover tune and or subconsciously played this “universal riff” whether you were aware of it or not.
We’ve all heard this “Metal Staple” many, many times before and also in many variations as well. For the sake of discussion I will bring out the two main variations of this monster riff, which tend to be older (to me) Metal riffs from the mid 80′s. Later, in the late 80′s, a gazillion bands turned this into a kind of “standard” riff to base almost any type of Metal (Hair Metal, Glam Metal, Hard Rock or Commercial AOR Rock + Metal etc.) song on.
When I first thought of this idea, I intended on trying to trace this back to the original source and find out who actually played it first. Once I started digging around for songs to edit then it became increasingly clear that this was going to be a tough task. First, when you hear this riff (while casually listening to some Metal) then it pops out immediately and it’s very easy to jot down the title and artist. But, trying to remember these songs and then pinpoint when and how they used this riff proved to more of a challenge!
I have a fairly extensive music collection that I can pull from but as I started to figure out (rather quickly I might add) that I might never find the originator of this killer riff. Why? Well mainly due to my age. I did have several bands in mind that had their version of it, but just as they had their versions, I was pretty sure that meant that several other bands surely had an even earlier version of it as well perhaps. I also thought it might be fun to make this post and to invite reader participation and let you guys scour your collections to see if we can’t track this “beast” of a riff down.
So instead of making this the Metal equivalent of a deep archeological dig, I will bring forth the first section of this article and bust out some the earliest known versions of this: “the most popular Metal riff of all time”!
I remember hearing this waaaaay back in 1983 folks. So this is surely an early runner for this discussion. Even though this is a variation of what I am going to attempt to audibly illustrate, if you listen close then it’s all there. So maybe this was a blue-print for this riff? Maybe they too copied it from someone else in the 70′s (possibly the great Ritchie Blackmore) or even back in the late 60′s with the greatest ever – one Jimi Hendrix.
“Curse of the Pharaohs” by MERCYFUL FATE
Ah yes, the excellent riffage of the King and crew. I wonder who wrote this classic riff from 1983? Was it Michael Denner, or could it be the great Hank Sherman on guitar? It might even be the King himself as he sometimes writes guitar parts as well. Either way this is a fine example of this classic Metal riff that has stood the test of time.
*Play it again and you will notice just how slow this baby is!
Up next the (much faster) riff from the great German band ACCEPT. Technically this was released in Europe a year earlier than the above but it did not make it’s way onto these shores as a domestic release until 1983. Either way, Restless & Wild is an awesome LP and this is still a staple of their live show and no one seems to tire of this riff.
“Flash Rockin’ Man” - by ACCEPT
*Excellent riffage by one of my favorite Metal guitarists – Wolf Hoffmann!
Now the battle heats up a bit…
Anyone remember the rockin’ American band called RIOT? Who could forget their classic riffage! Let’s go all the way back to 1981 from their Fire Down Under LP. Yes, you read that correct and this next classic riff pre-dates the above ACCEPT tuneage. So without further ado, check this one out and pay special attention to how and when the drums come in. Then go back and re-listen to “Flash Rockin’ Man” again and or alternate a few times.
“Swords And Tequila” by RIOT
Wow, that was pretty heavy for 81′! As a matter of fact, rumor has it that Capitol Records even dropped the band because they were too heavy. Go figure…Luckily someone over at Elektra Records wised up and released it.
*So what do you think – a mere “metal” coincidence or like me, do you thinks it’s eerily close? I wonder what guitarist Mark Reale and Rick Ventura would have to say about it. Remember there was no internet back then and some of these records would have to be purchased as an expensive (for the time) Import, so not a lot of fans were able to get the early versions of these gems.
So have you heard this riff before?
I’ll bet a lot of you out there in Metal-Land thought the next band came up with that riff! Ha ha…at first I did too. But on further investigation, this proved to be blatantly incorrect.
Next up, IRON MAIDEN‘s massive “Two Minutes to Midnight” from one of their best LP’s of all time: Powerslave from 1984.
Whoa, did you hear how fast that was? Great work from Mr. Dave Murray and Adrian Smith.! I thought the ACCEPT version was fast. Did you notice the similarities in the riff and also when and how the drums came in? I am not sure who copied who, or how this came about but all I know is that the earlier RIOT version is almost identical to this, while the actual guitar tone and sound is more akin to the slower MERCYFUL FATE version.
So which version do you guys like best?
Even though they ALL jam -I think I like IRON MAIDEN‘s version for the sheer power + amazing groove from Nicko McBrain.
So there you have it, what I consider to be one of the most popular Metal riffs of all time. Go back and listen back and forth a few times and see for yourself. If anyone can come up with any earlier versions of this riff, then please get in touch with me and I will do a part II.
*When I listen to the above riffs, I cannot imagine JUDAS PRIEST or SABBATH not making a similar riff, but off the top of my head I could not remember it.
The Saga Continues…
Ok, so those were earlier versions of that riff. What came next? Well, enter the burgeoning 80′s L.A. Metal scene. A lot of these American bands were either influenced by IRON MAIDEN or JUDAS PRIEST but they put a slightly more commercial spin on things. The next three were favorites of mine at the time.
*Notice the slight change of the riff, but the basics are still there. It was mostly a rhythm change, and with this “new and improved” version, I am sure you could squeak out hundreds of variations on this new theme.
“Can U Deliver” by ARMORED SAINT
Love this song and this long intro with accompanied riff! This just = excellent Metal from 1984. This was hot on the heels of the above-mentioned Powerslave release from the MAIDEN boys too.
Hats off to Dave Prichard (R.I.P.) and Phil Sandoval for their twin guitar attack on this opus.
*You could tell around this time that American bands (in general) were kicking it up a notch as far as guitar tone, crunch and heaviness was concerned.
*This picture was taken on the “Hell on Wheels Tour” in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was Dave’s birthday, so the band decided to throw a pie in his face (but it landed on his head!). You can see the remnants from the pie – what a fun show! – CK
Slowing things down a bit, but just as grinding and crunchy is another West Coast Metal band named WARRIOR. Although they were actually made up of San Diego transplants, the band called L.A. their “home” in the mid 80′s.
“Fighting for the Earth” by WARRIOR
Kudos to Joe Floyd and Tommy Asakawa for this prime slab of Metal from their 1985 début Fighting for the Earth.
Along the same lines was another cool left-coast American Metal band named MALICE.
“Stellar Masters” – MALICE
*After listening to these riffs over and over, I’ll be the first to admit that the above riff (from their 1985 début LP entitled In the Beginning) is not 100% identical to the others but it’s in the same realm and is a damn fine riff anyway! Good work Jay Reynolds and Mick Zane. Enjoy…
Another West coast band at the time that was coming up through the ranks and invariably influencing some of the above bands (whether they will admit it) was none other than RATT. With the talented Robin Crosby and main axeman Warren DeMartini on board, it was only a matter of time before they laid claim to their own version of that riff.
“In Your Direction” by RATT off their 1984 release Out of the Cellar.
*So this has a “lighter” feel to the riff and was one of the new offshoots to this sound. Kudos to MOTLEY CRUE, GREAT WHITE and DOKKEN who were also great bands in the early 80′s scene and had a similar guitar sound + style.
Speaking of MOTLEY CRUE, I might as well drop this next tune for the fact that I think they (i.e. Mick Mars) may have encapsulated perhaps the finest form of this riff ever with their excellent hit “Looks that Kill” from 1983′s Shout at the Devil album.
“Looks that Kill” by MOTLEY CRUE
This song was wildly popular at the time and after all these years remains a staple of their live show to this date as well. So I tried to rack my brain to try to figure out what this song sounded like and or a decent influence on them. I know for a fact that VAN HALEN was a major influence on the CRUE and I am sure sir Eddie has played this riff (maybe when he was 5 years old) at some point in his career.
*What I did find was an older PRIEST track, which (in my mind) is what I think spawned this classic CRUE song.
“You Don’t Have to Be Old to Be Wise” by JUDAS PRIEST
Off their massive + ground-breaking British Steel LP from 1980. As a matter of fact, this was recorded in early January of 80′, so that probably means it was older than that even! If you switch between the two clips, you will hear the drum sound is similar and the main part on the PRIEST sample when they all come in together. The beat, the bass and everything.
The CRUE version is obviously more aggressive (playing-wise) though due to being released a few years later perhaps. When (and if) you heard Halford and Co. do this live, then I am 100% sure you will remember how the PRIEST “beefed” it up a bit and was much more aggressive in front of 5,000 or more screaming fans.
BTW you owe it to yourself to check out their newly re-mastered special 30th anniversary/2010 version of British Steel. They have several versions, including a bonus live DVD and special edition CD. Buy or Die! This is a very influential and important Metal album kiddos.
So what’s next?
After hearing many versions of this riff maybe you are asking yourself what else can they do with it and or how else can it be twisted into yet another form? Well, when in “Metal doubt”, you can always play faster! Right? Read on…
Playing this riff faster and meaner is exactly what the following bands decided to do:
“Dirty Girls” by MADAM X
*I used to love this rather oddball-looking conglomeration from the Midwest. An excellent female drummer (Roxy Petrucci) and her sister/lead guitarist (Maxine Petrucci) were founding members of this Pop/Glam Metal band.
“Bad Boys (Like To Rock N’ Roll)“ by SAXON from their excellent Crusader LP from 1984.
“Metal Thrashing Mad” by ANTHRAX
*I detect a heavy MAIDEN influence on their Fistful of Metal début album from 1984 (this was actually recorded in 83′).
Speaking of East Coast Thrash + Metal:
“Hello From the Gutter” by OVERKILL from their third LP entitled Under The Influence.
*Possibly the fastest riff of the lot from original guitarist Bobby Gustafson circa’ 1988.
Enter the Third-Wave
What in the hell is the “third-wave”? Well, I think it’s when the riff finally crossed over into more mainstream bands. Although some of these bands were still considered “Metal”, the riff started to be used pretty extensively in bands with a main shredder guitar hero dude (ala’ TNT, LION, DIO etc.) or more flashy, visually oriented groups I should say.
After this last group of shredders did their damage, then it became so mainstream and watered-down that it was hardly a credible or classic Metal riff anymore and was so assimilated into the minds of all guitarists that it’s almost considered a cliché.
Here are a few examples of the “shredder-era”:
“Stand Up and Shout” by DIO
Man I do love this song + tight version of this riff. Vivian Campbell rocked!
“Deadly Metal” by TNT
TNT was an under rated Norwegian melodic Hard Rock/Metal band from the 80′s.
*If you ever get tired of worshiping Eddie Van Halen then give guitarist Ronni Le Tekrø a listen on Knights of the New Thunder from 1984.
Unfortunately (after their 1st & 2nd LP) they too fell into the “this riff is over-used and watered down now” Pop Metal trap that a lot of bands got caught in.
Here are a couple of examples of the “this riff is over-used and watered down now” Pop era”:
“Never Surrender” - by LION
circa’ 1987 era.
“Love Is A Lie” by LION
circa’ 1984 era.
Not to rip on LION (as they had a few decent songs IMO), but I needed some examples to audibly illustrate what I think happened to this (in)famous Metal riff. If you’ve heard these two songs once, you’ve heard them hundreds of times since. It’s just the way it is!
With the risk of going out on a sour note (as it seems I unintentionally went from great riffs to mediocre riffs) lets just insert what I still consider the BEST and most famous version of this riff and call it a day.
*This version is also quite possibly the version that birthed all the water-down copycats for decades later. It’s not CRUE’s fault, so don’t hate on them. It’s still great song!
I hope you enjoyed my song selections, riff selections/edits and overall concept!?
If you enjoy 80′s Metal as much as we do or Heavy Metal in general, then you might want to drop in your email addy below and subscribe to our ever-growing online Demolish Metal Network.
Special thanks to the following for use of their logos. Check out some of these cool instructional Metal guitar books or DVD’s. Rock House METAL GUITAR, MVP METAL RIFFS OF THE 80′s Guitar Lessons, HOOKS THAT KILL (the best of Mick Mars and Motley Crue) and METAL RIFFS from Lick Library.