There are a lot of ways to approach learning how to play guitar. When I started playing, I was amazed and inspired by super shredders like John Petrucci, Randy Rhoads, and Yngwie Malmsteen. I was in awe of their technique and their sound. All three shared a real elegant ferocity that somehow paid tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach and a volcanic eruption at the same time. I tried to recreate that and spend time diligently learning scales and practicing very non-musical exercises to build dexterity.
Very early on, you also begin to absorb styles that you hear around you. Most of the friends I kept when I was cutting my teeth on the instrument were into a mixture of classic rock, heavy metal, and punk rock. I spent time playing local church basements and DIY halls playing in bands with my friends for fun, with practices more often than not ending abruptly with nachos and cigarettes without any actual work getting done. My buddies and I were constantly turning each other on to new bands and expanding our horizons in search of what new music would resonate with us on a deeper level.
At some point, I got hooked on to the idea of getting into the roots of the music I liked and the roots of the instrument. The honest story of how this happened is as followed. At one point or another, I had gotten turned onto the classic Dr. Dre record “The Chronic” and soon discovered and became a fan of early 90’s hip hop, especially the G-funk sounds coming from Los Angeles. The sound of early 90’s West Coast hip hop was influenced by classic funk and r&b. Dre sampled a wide variety of artists like Parliament, the Isley Brothers, and even Led Zeppelin on this record. I happened to also be a fan of the Grand Theft Auto games and I found myself in a particularly risque club in a particularly risque part of Liberty City when I noticed that the music in this establishment was familiar. To me, it was “It Was A Good Day” by future rap icon Ice Cube but it was really “Footsteps in the Dark” by the Isley Brothers. I was hearing the song that was sampled for the first time in it’s own form and I had a realization.
Are all of these 90’s bangers I’m listening to in my buddy’s truck on my way home from marching band practice every day sampled from old records?
Obviously not everything was sampled, but I was closer than I could have imagined and that moment of clarity set me on the path to discovering essential artists and records that influenced the music I liked. I can’t imagine my life now without having gone down that rabbit hole. The real revelation of that initial trip back in time was Parliament, particularly the record Mothership Connection. It’s not hard for me to say that without listening to Mothership Connection and falling in love with funk, I may not have been equipped to take the step into the world of playing for a living when I got my opportunity. I never would have connected with people who I now consider close friends and musical kindred spirits over all of the new music I discovered.
The idea of discovering influences eventually led to me to really digging into blues music. Led Zeppelin was a favorite of mine, and still is, and while looking into their influences, I discovered Chicago blues and really began to understand the impact that artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and eventually Chuck Berry had on the landscape of music. We’re talking about the beginning of rock and roll. This was an instance in which a traditionally folk style of music, the blues, encountered new technology, the electric guitar and modern recording, and became a cultural and artistic force. Without those artists, we don’t get players like Eric Clapton or Keith Richards. Are you a guitar player right now, if you’re a guitar player, if Eric Clapton never played guitar? Chew on that for a moment. Maybe we’re all shoe salesmen and accountants in a weird parallel universe without Slowhand.
During this exploration of Chicago Blues, I came across the musician I consider the first riff master of the guitar. My personal vote for the Lord of the Riff is Hubert Sumlin, guitarist for Howlin’ Wolf. Howlin’ Wolf had tunes that took a different take on the blues. A lot of blues songs follow the classic twelve bar blues form with variations on the turn around. Wolf did have songs like this in his catalog, but some of my favorite songs of his are just one chord vamps, propelled forward by a repetitive and rhythmic hook that reinforce an emotion or idea. A classic example of this is the tune “Smokestack Lightning”.
The riff feels like a train chugging a long, and is a classic blues lick. It instantly transports me to Chicago, riding on the Dan Ryan Expressway towards downtown. I can almost hear the repeated riff playing in my head as even the thought of it conjures strong memories of time spent in the Windy City. It’s mind boggling that music has the power to do that. A song written by someone I’ve never met that lived in a completely different time and place than I do has the power to emotionally impact me, influence my thoughts, and summon vivid memories.
Sumlin’s brilliance was in his simplicity and creative ability to craft the perfect riff that ties the song together and draws the listener in. Many people since have learned to harness the power of the riff, and there’s a long tradition of folk music and classic music that is driven by motifs, but I truly believe that Sumlin was one of the first electric guitar players to create with that as the center of his style. The power of the riff is easily obtainable for even the beginner guitar player, and using the original Lord of the Riff as a frame of reference, you can possibly one day write the Riff to End All Riffs.