My friend Pete sent along this entertaining video of a guitarist running through rock ‘n’ roll history in 100 riffs. Watching it, I was amazed at how quickly you wind up with the foundation pieces upon which everything else is built. Within those first 10 riffs you’ve got the melodic rock of the Beatles and R.E.M. (Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love”), the fuzz guitar that would mutate into hard rock and metal (Link Wray’s “Rumble”), the canny use of drop-outs that underpin a thousand hit singles (Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”), and of course you have Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” without which nothing.
Listen and you’ll hear what I mean. The Who’s “Can’t Explain” shows up early, but without “Summertime Blues” it isn’t there. “Day Tripper” doesn’t exist without Buddy Holly. “Satisfaction” makes its appearance quickly, but you can hear “Rumble” and Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” propping it up. And so on.
I’m not dismissing 45+ years of rock as derivative. Rather, I was struck by the fact that a handful of useful building blocks can be rearranged, tweaked and combined to form a near-infinite number of riffs, melodic lines and songs.
Other than the regrettable fact that nubile young things don’t scream for a well-turned plot twist or a deft bit of characterization, storytelling’s a lot like that too.