Rik Emmett Picks The Five Best Guitar Riffs In Rock History

by Greg Prato

We're going to rate Rik Emmett as an authority on rock guitar. With his band Triumph, he built a reputation as a versatile and very creative guitarist, helping them become one of the biggest bands in Canada in the late '70s and early '80s. He's also written extensively on the subject - for many years he was a contributor to Guitar Player magazine. With these bona fides, we thought he was just the right guy to name the five best rock guitar riffs of all time, with an explanation of what makes each rise to the top.

After Triumph split up in 1988, Emmett went solo, releasing a series of acclaimed albums. Eleven of those, spanning 1998-2012, have been reissued digitally and are now available for streaming. Call up any one of them, and you'll hear sounds ranging from classical guitar to smooth jazz to the expected hard-rock stylings. Following his list, check out the Q&A where he picks some key tracks from the reissues and tells the stories behind some of his biggest songs with Triumph.

Rik's piks for the five greatest guitar riffs in rock history:

1) Chord head for "All Along The Watchtower" by Jimi Hendrix. Still the greatest guitar recording that ever made the Top 40. A legendary guitarist making a defining statement.

Plus, the epic transfigured Biblical setting of a Bob Dylan song? As good as it gets.

2) Going to cheat here and quote three at once: [A] Clapton [B] Page [C] Beck. The Yardbirds alumni.

I will also go personal on this, rather than trying to interpret universality (although they are closely linked, if I may be so bold).

A) Clapton – "Steppin' Out," from the Blues Breakers album. The tone. The confidence. The pure roar of the blues legacy pulsing in every note. This is where "riffing" became crystallized in my teenaged mind.

B) Page – "How Many More Times" from Led Zeppelin I. Could there be anything heavier and sexier on a guitar than a low open E riff from Jimmy Page? No, there could not.

C) Jeff Beck - Arguably the greatest living electric-rock guitarist. And what defined him in my teenaged mind? The opening riff of "I Ain't Superstitious," on Truth (with wah wah, to boot! Mrrrrowww!). I could just as easily have picked his "Bolero," which I also played in basement bands in high school - but the best "riffs" are sometimes the most succinct. DOGS BEGIN TO BARK ALL OVER MY NEIGHBORHOOD.

3) "Smoke On The Water." Ritchie Blackmore, Deep Purple. It is the perfect blend of the Spinal Tap fine line between stupid and clever. The bass and drums provide the engine, but the riff itself is the hulking mass of metal and chrome up top.

4) A handful of Jimmy Page Zep riffs: "Whole Lotta Love" is the chugging champion of all time. But... what about "The Ocean"? "Heartbreaker"? "Moby Dick"? You can go on and on, but let "Whole Lotta Love" stand as the elected representative to speak on behalf of so many worthy others.

5) Where did riffage begin? For me, "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris, "Secret Agent Man" by Johnny Rivers. I know there were historical precedents, but surf rock started for me with "Wipe Out." Plus - best title!


Greg Prato (Songfacts): From your solo reissues that just came out, please select some of your favorite tunes and explain the lyrical and/or musical inspiration behind each.

Rik Emmett: Strung Out Troubadours - "State of Grace." A self-defining spiritual statement from a humanist: the encapsulation of living one's way towards a zen moment.

Raw Quartet - "Crazy Woman." My version of an old Delta blues acoustic song. I felt I captured a nice lyrical "novelty" thing in this, of a pair of lovers being two of a kind, in their craziness.

Good Faith – "Beacon Street Hotel."

Also, Swing Shift – "Mr. Bebop" and "Taste of Steel." This is the "swing" jazz singer/songwriter/guitarist in me. One of my favorite types of song to write, even though I know jazz is a tough sell. So I guess part of the charm for me, is my own contrary arrogance towards the marketplace.

Swing Shift – "Santa Fe Horizon" and "Key Chain." "Santa Fe" is one of my best "mood" instrumentals, and "Key Chain" remains one of my most difficult-to-play instrumentals. I didn't have great chops [yet] as my own producer on this album from 1998, but I had now fully inhabited my composing talent as an artist.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical and/or musical inspiration behind "Fight the Good Fight"?

Emmett: My aunt was dying of cancer. What can you tell someone who is facing the last challenge of this life? Or - what will you tell yourself? If you're in a rock band called Triumph, what message can you share with the people listening to a song on the radio, or standing on their chairs, out in an arena? Everyone gets to decide what their own "good" fight will be, but everyone should be encouraged to discover it, and do it.

In this, St. Paul was on the mark. It's about resilience. It's about persistence. It's about finding a calling when things get bleak.

Songfacts: "Magic Power"?

Emmett: A lyric I wrote about myself as a 9-year-old with a transistor radio, and then I changed the pronouns to "she" and "her." If there hadn't been a John Sebastian "Do You Believe in Magic?" and a Pete Townshend "Won't Get Fooled Again"/Who's Next, "Magic Power" might not have ever been born.

Songfacts: "Allied Forces"?

Emmett: Gil [Triumph drummer Gil Moore] and I wrote the riffs on the floor of Studio 1 at the Metalworks. Gil wrote the lyric. Clearly, he had developed a theme about denim armies, and music as a rallying and unifying force.

Songfacts: "Midsummer's Daydream"?

Emmett: A ditty that grew out of a drop D tuning, trying unsuccessfully to cope with a Chet Atkins alternating bass. But I had been playing a classical piece on concert stages, and I wanted to compose a more effective and catchy vehicle for that live showpiece.

Songfacts: Why do you think Canada spawned so many renowned rock acts with progressive leanings (Rush, Triumph, Saga, FM, etc.) in the '70s?

Emmett: Probably the influence of FM radio and the fact that prog bands toured Canada with some success (Yes, Gentle Giant, Genesis). Canada was always (and still is) a breeding ground for singer-songwriters, where the song rules. But if you were a guy in a band in the early '70s, the whole Deep Purple-then-Zep-morphing-into-prog bands had hit hard in basements and garages everywhere. You wanted to play music that took itself very seriously. Float like a butterfly, rock like a piledriver.

Songfacts: In your estimation, did Triumph offer one of the top arena rock shows in the '80s?

Emmett: We aspired to that. We certainly took out enough truckfuls of lights and special effects. Lots of aging folks come up to me and tell me that, now. So - anecdotally, it would seem to have some merit.

July 31, 2020

To get the reissues, go to rikemmett.com. Rik told the tales of "Lay It On The Line" and "Hold On" in his 2012 Songfacts interview.

Further reading:

Michael Sadler of Saga
Buck Dharma of Blue Öyster Cult
Michael Schenker
Excerpt from Greg Prato's book, Shredders

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