The power of the almighty riff

If you wanted to be a guitar god back in the eighties, you moved out to Hollywood and enrolled at GIT, the Guitar Institute of Technology.

A nine month course cost about $3,000, and you’d come out of the school shredding your ass off. 

Of course, a lot of players that came out of the school sounded exactly alike, and many of them couldn’t write a song or come up with a good riff to save their lives. And the big building block of metal and hard rock has always been the almighty riff.

This month’s cover story in Guitar Player saluted “50 Rhythm Guitar Gods,” and on the cover is none other than James Hetfield, one of the greatest riff masters of all time, and one of the key figures in metal who redefined riffing.

The key to a lot of speed / thrash / extreme metal are all downstrokes with your right hand, because they sound tighter, and they’re easier to overdub in the studio. (Trying to get several tracks of galloping rhythms synched up and tight, like in Iron Maiden’s Run to Hills, is a lot harder.)

It’s odd that one of the kings of metal riffing, Scott Ian of Anthrax, didn’t make this list, and as he’s said of his own downpicking techniques, “If each note is rigidly downstroked perfectly in time, you can match it perfectly (in the studio). Iit’s like fascist guitar playing. There is no room for any space or error.”

Also making the list of Guitar Players rhythm masters are Pete Townshend, who always had one of the deadliest right hands in the business; James Brown guitarist Jimmy Nolen, who pioneered funk guitar playing; Eddie Van Halen, who in addition to being a great soloist in his prime also was a great rhythm player and could write songs (something a lot of shredders never developed); Tony Iommi, who almost singlehandedly invented metal; AC/DC’s Malcolm Young, Johnny Ramone (try playing all downstrokes that fast), and more.

With the popularity of Guitar Hero inspiring kids to pick up real guitars and play, I’m sure enrollment in GIT went up, where back in the days when Seattle made solos uncool, attendance was in the toilet.

Great guitar soloing is always inspiring to listen to, but the best players always knew that without great songs and riffs, all the flashy leadwork in the world don’t mean sh*t.