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Memorable Classic Rock Guitar Licks - Part 2

More riffs that hekped make classic rock classic


If the electric guitar had never been invented, would there even be classic rock? The question is unanswerable, but interesting to ponder.
Sure, there have been some memorable songs with a predominant bass lead, like Pink Floyd's "Money" and some with drums, like Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" or Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band." Some combined bass and drums in the opening, like "Radar Love" by Golden Earring. Some have led with keyboards -- "Light My Fire" by The Doors and Iron Butterfly's "In A Gadda Da Vida" for example. And sometimes the memorable licks were from acoustic guitars, as in "Blackbird" (The Beatles); "Roundabout" (Yes); "From the Beginning" (Emerson Lake & Palmer) to mention but a few.
But it is electric guitar that pretty much defined classic rock. The most memorable licks weren't always long or complicated. Some might be two or three chords repeated. But in the hands of skilled players and composers, it didn't matter how short or how simple the hook. It only mattered that they were often what made a song memorable.
A little while back, I published the first list of 10 memorable classic rock guitar licks. Now, in alphabetical order by title, the next 10.

"Black Betty" - Ram Jam

Ram Jam
Phantom Sound and Vision
Lead guitar: Bill Bartlett
If you know anything by Ram Jam it is probably their raucous rendition of "Black Betty" from 1977. It is one of the most covered songs in modern music history, with nearly three dozen known recordings between 1933 and 2012. In the early days, the song was often done a capella, without instruments. In this version, strong percussion serves to underscore some hot guitar licks.
Watch Ram Jam in a promotional video for "Black Betty"

"I Love Rock 'n' Roll" - Joan Jett and The Blackhearts

Joan Jett
Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images
Guitars: Joan Jett, Ricky Byrd
"I Love Rock 'n' Roll" was first recorded by Arrows in 1975. Joan Jett first heard it when she caught an Arrows performance while she was on tour with The Runaways in 1976. Post-Runaways, Jett first recorded a version of the song with Paul Cook and Steve Jones of Sex Pistols, as the B-side of her first single, "You Don't Own Me" in 1979. When she recorded it again in 1981 on her first album with The Blackhearts, both Jett and the song became permanent hits.
Watch Joan Jett and The Blackhearts perform "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" live in 1987

"La Grange" - ZZ Top

ZZ Top
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Imasges
Lead guitar: Billy Gibbons
No doubt one of the keys to the success of ZZ Top's 1973 classic "La Grange" was Billy Gibbons' nudge-nudge-wink-wink delivery of the lyrics. But it could be argued that lyrical interpretation alone would not have made it the song that Rolling Stone called "a standard for guitarists to show off their chops" because of what the magazine called the song's "muscular boogie."
Watch a 2008 live performance of "La Grange" by ZZ Top

"Life in the Fast Lane" - Eagles

Joe Walsh
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
Lead guitar: Joe Walsh
In 1976, Joe Walsh, who had already established himself as an A-list axeman with James Gang and Barnstorm, replaced Bernie Leadon as Eagles lead guitarist. The first Eagles album with Walsh, Hotel California was a huge success, thanks in no small part to its three hit singles -- the title track, "New Kid in Town" and "Life in the Fast Lane," which Walsh co-wrote with Don Henley and Glenn Frey. The opening riff came about before the song was written, Walsh having devised it one day while warming up for an Eagles rehearsal.
Watch Joe Walsh perform "Life in the Fast Lane" during Ringo Starr's first All Starr Band tour in 1989

"Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" - The Hollies

The Hollies
Lead guitar: Allan Clarke (on the original studio album)
When it was released as a single in 1972, "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" made it to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and sold more than two million copies. In the liner notes for an anthology of The Hollies' recordings for Epic Records, lead guitarist/vocalist Allan Clarke said that the song took "about five minutes" to write. Additionally, it was recorded on a day that producer Ron Richards was out sick, so the band produced it. As it happened, Clarke left the band shortly after the album it was on, Distant Light was released.
Watch a performance of "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" by The Hollies

"Soul Sacrifice" - Santana

Carlos Santana
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Lead guitar: Carlos Santana
The release of Santana's self-titled debut album coincided with their appearance at Woodstock in 1969. The album contained two of the songs that would become signature songs, "Evil Ways" and "Soul Sacrifice." Up until they recorded their first album, Santana were largely an improvisational group, a jam band. Although Carlos Santana was clearly the "star" of the band, they retained the jam mentality to the extent that in live performance, "Soul Sacrifice" gave each member of the band an opportunity to shine, including the lead guitarist.
Watch Santana's performance of "Soul Sacrifice" at Woodstock in 1969

"Sweet Emotion" - Aerosmith

Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images
Guitars - Joe Perry, Brad Whitford
Most classic rock songs that had a prominent lead guitar lick featured it at the beginning of the song, but Aerosmith did it a bit differently with "Sweet Emotion." The first guitar lick doesn't come until almost a minute into the song, following an opening featuring bass, drums, an electronic talk box, and the first couple of lines of the vocal. Once it's established, the guitar riff punctuates each line of the lyrics.
Watch the music video: Aerosmith - "Sweet Emotions"

"Sweet Home Alabama" - Lynyrd Skynyrd

Lynyrd Skynyrd
Promotional photo courtesy Artimus Pyle
Lead guitar - Ed King (on the original studio album)
A few bars into the opening guitar riff of "Sweet Home Alabama" we hear the late Ronnie Van Zandt, the lead vocalist, asking the engineer to "turn it up," referring to the volume of his headphones. It was a blooper, never intended as part of the song, but it fit, and turn it up is exactly what most of us did when we heard the song start. To this day, Lynyrd Skynyrd's live performances of "Sweet Home Alabama" include a spoken "turn it up" and the crowd invariably responds accordingly.
Watch the official live version of Lynyrd Skynyrd performing "Sweet Home Alabama"

"Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" - Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix
Photo by Central Press/Getty Images
Lead guitar: Jimi Hendrix
There are those among us who would say that you could make a list of the Top 50 classic rock guitar riffs, and all of the slots could be filled by Jimi Hendrix. One of the best things about "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" is that Hendrix rarely played it the same way twice, so if you were fortunate enough to see him in a live performance, you could never predict what you might get -- a "quick" jam of 7 or 8 minutes, or one that went almost 20 minutes. The one you're about to watch is somewhere in between.
Watch Hendrix's 1969 performance of "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" in Stockholm, Sweden

"Wasted" - The Runaways

The Runaways
Album cover image courtesy Cherry Red UK
Lead guitar: Lita Ford
Anyone who entertained the notion that a band made up of high school girls couldn't be anything more than novelty is someone who never heard The Runaways. As musicians, each of them could hold their own against any male on the same instrument. As performers, they added high energy and (let's just be honest about it) good looks to the mix. Lita Ford had auditioned as a bass guitarist for the band, but ended up playing lead guitar. This performance of "Wasted" (from their 1977 album, Waitin' for the Night") clearly shows why.
Watch The Runaways in a 1977 performance of "Wasted"
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