Learn The Fascinating Stories Behind These Classic Rock Guitar Riffs

Sometimes they literally dream them up.

By Frank Donovan

Usually we’re told that rock stars make their success only look easy, when in reality long, hard hours are spent behind the scenes in the studio crafting their masterpieces. But sometimes, writing a riff that sticks really is as effortless as they make it seem.

For some of music’s biggest names, classic riffs have come to them while trying to create a “filler” track, in a dream, or while aimlessly “messing around” on the guitar.

Riffing (no pun intended) on other artists and genres, like Eric Clapton, Michael Jackson, and the Beatles have done, is also a common approach that’s yielded some of music’s most memorable riffs. If you ask us, it’s downright unfair how quickly some artists have slapped together a song that’ll last forever.

Here are 10 such stories behind rock’s most memorable riffs!

  • “Birthday” by the Beatles (1968)

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    One night when the Beatles were recording The White Album, the 1956 musical comedy The Girl Can’t Help It was airing on TV. One of the younger studio engineer had never seen the movie, so they took a field trip to Paul McCartney’s house to watch. When they returned to the studio, they were so inspired by the simple ’50s rock sound that they wrote “Birthday” on the spot in the studio.

  • “Beat It” by Michael Jackson (1982)

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    Producer Quincy Jones asked MJ to come up with a song along the lines of The Knack’s “My Sharona.” Makes sense now, doesn’t it? Jackson clearly delivered on Jones’ request with an upbeat electric guitar riff that gets everyone on the dance floor–just like MJ wanted. He once told Ebony that with “Beat It,” he wanted to write a rock and roll song that kids of all ages would enjoy.

  • “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks (1964)

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    The Kinks came up with this impossibly catchy power chord riff while playing “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen. Now that we think of it, those songs do sound like musical cousins. They fuzzed up the sound by sticking knitting needles into the speakers.

  • “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles (1969)

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    George Harrison found respite from weeks of stressful business meetings in his friend Eric Clapton’s garden. He’d retreated there on a sunny spring day when he’d played hooky from one of these obligations. He picked up the guitar for the first time in a while, and out came “Here Comes the Sun.”

  • “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses (1988)

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    Slash says he was just messing around on his guitar when he came upon this famous riff. His bandmates nearby jumped right in with music and lyrics, and reportedly they wrote the hit in 5 minutes.

  • “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana (1991)

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    Kurt Cobain is famously quoted as saying that his best-known track was his crack at “the ultimate pop song.” It’s been rumored that he was inspired after listening to the Boston classic, “More Than A Feeling.” While it’s not your parents’ pop, this riff is about as catchy as grunge gets.

  • “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath (1970)

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    Guitarist Tony Iommi quickly came up with the riff on the spot in the studio. “The song “Paranoid” was written as an afterthought,” recalls bassist Geezer Butler to Guitar World in 2004. “We basically needed a 3 minute filler for the album, and Tony came up with the riff. I quickly did the lyrics, and Ozzy was reading them as he was singing.”

  • “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith (1975)

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    According to Joe Perry, he was at a sound check when he accidentally came upon this riff. He was looking to write an R&B-influenced track, and was inspired by artists like James Brown and funk band The Meters.

  • “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos (1971)

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    Eric Clapton has admitted that the Layla lick is essentially a copied and sped up riff from Albert King’s “As The Years Go Passing By.” Give it a listen and you’ll see what he means.

Hear Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi talk about the complete history of heavy metal in the animated clip.