An ostinato (derived from Italian: “stubborn”, compare English: obstinate) is a motif or phrase which is persistently repeated in the same musical voice. An ostinato is always a succession of equal sounds, wherein each note always has the same weight or stress. The repeating idea may be a rhythmic pattern, part of a tune, or a complete melody in itself.
In rock music it’s called a guitar riff.
And there have been some monsters.
The greatest guitar riffs had to be written where the player who discovered it, looks up slowly and realizes, it doesn’t matter WHAT I do from here. This is gonna be HUGE!
Yeah, it helps a lot to have a great song that goes around it. And that’s what brings the song up a notch or two. But a song built around a great riff has a huge advantage. It’s all gravy after that.
Check out “Smoke on the Water”. What’s the song about? A fire at a mobile recording studio? What? Frank Zappa was there? Really? Who gives a damn without the riff.
And every young boy at the time (and most today) knew the riff, and actually could at least play part of it if he could play nothing else at all on a guitar. It’s simple. It probably sounded like it had been done before when Deep Purple and Ritchie Blackmore came up with it.
But it was sent from above.
Yeah, it’s overplayed now, but so what. Can you possibly think of the first time you heard it? It was life changing. A four note blues motif… life changing.
Keith Richards dreamed the riff from ‘Satisfaction’ so it DID come down from the heavens. He woke up one night and mumbled something into a tape recorder beside his bed. It was almost indecipherable, but he could get enough out of it to remember the riff.
There are so many great ones, and again always up for debate, but here are what I consider the greatest rock and roll riffs:
1. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (Stones)
2. Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple)
3. Layla (Derek and the Dominoes)
4. You Really Got Me (Kinks)
5. Whole lotta Love (Zep)
6. Iron Man (Black Sabbath)
7. Sunshine of your Love (Cream)
8. Sweet Home Alabama (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
9. Day Tripper (The Beatles)
10. Back In Black (AC/ DC)
What about you….
Have a greatest riffs list?