10 most iconic riffs of the 70s: Remembering Ed King, the legend who gave us the opening riff on 'Sweet Home Alabama'
The music world lost yet another legend on Wednesday. Ed King, former guitarist of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Strawberry Alarm Clock died in Nashville, Tennessee, at the age of 68.
King was a founding member of Strawberry Alarm Clock, the acid rock band formed in King’s hometown of Los Angeles. Renowned for their 1967 hit single 'Incense and Peppermints', which King wrote with keyboard player Mark Weitz, Strawberry Alarm Clock opened for a young Lynyrd Skynyrd during a run of shows in Jacksonville, FL in 1968, which introduced King to its members, including frontman Ronnie Van Zant.
However, King wouldn’t go on to join Lynyrd Skynrd until 1972, when he briefly replaced the bassist Leon Wilkeson. Upon Wilkeson’s return to the band, King moved to guitar, establishing the famous triple-guitar combination which the band became synonymous with. King played on the band’s first three albums, 'Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd', 'Second Helping', both released in 1974 and 'Nuthin’ Fancy', released in 1975. He contributed to many Skynyrd hits such as 'Poison Whiskey', 'Saturday Night Special', and 'Swamp Music.'
But the single most enduring and memorable contribution King made during his time with the band was undoubtedly the unforgettable guitar riff on the 1974 smash-hit 'Sweet Home Alabama'. The song climbed to Number 8 on the Billboard charts that year and gave Lynyrd Skynyrd their second hit single. The controversial song, was written as a reply to 'Southern Man' and 'Alabama' by Neil Young, which dealt with themes of racism and slavery in the American South. Nonetheless, controversy aside, the opening bars of the song have endured over four decades later as one of the most instantly recognizable riffs in rock history. In the studio version of the song from the album 'Second Helping', you can ever hear Ed King's voice count "one, two, three," before launching into the iconic country-flecked riff.
In the documentary 'If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd', released earlier this month, King recounted writing 'Sweet Home Alabama' with Van Zant, who died, along with band members Steven and Cassie Gaines and the band’s road manager Dean Kilpatrick, in a tragic plane crash in 1977 that would never leave Lynyrd Skynyrd the same again.
“We wrote that song in half an hour, but it took us about a half a day to put it together,” said King. “The song came real quick. I started off with that riff and Ronnie was sitting on the edge of the couch, making this signal to me to just keep rolling it over and over. Finally, after maybe 10–15 minutes, he got up and sang a verse and a chorus. Then, I just put the song together. I knew where to take it. It wasn’t very difficult. Anything you wrote with him was pretty easy. If he didn’t latch on to it in the first five or ten minutes, then you’d go on to something else.”
In memory of Ed King and his unforgettable intro on 'Sweet Home Alabama', we've compiled a list of 10 more iconic opening riffs from the 70's - sounds that instantly click in the ears of any rock 'n roll fan, instantly reminiscent of the golden era of guitar-driven music. Check out the list below:
10. 'Layla' (1971) – Derek and the Dominos
Although written by Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon, it was the Allman Brothers' Duane Allman who came up with the riff that defines this blues-rock masterpiece. Allman came down to the studio when Clapton's fledgling band was tinkering around and after bouncing some ideas off Clapton in a session that producer Tom Dowd called "telepathic", the iconic riff was born. Fittingly, Allman also performed the beautiful slide work that drives the second half of the song. The “crying bird” sound at the end of the track, yet another Allman touch, is said to have been done as a tribute to jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker.
9. 'Summer Breeze' (1974) - Isley Brothers
The only cover to feature on this list, the original track comes from 70s soft rock duo Seals and Crofts, which Bruce Eder of Allmusic calls "one of those relentlessly appealing 1970s harmony-rock anthems ... appropriately ubiquitous on the radio and in the memory". Isley Brothers covered the track in a harder rock-soulful style in 1974. The Isleys' version is notable not only for the harmonies of the three vocal Isleys: O'Kelly, Rudolph and lead singer Ronald, but also for the guitar solo by younger brother Ernie. Adding the finishing touch on the track is the sparse, single-string four-note shuffle intro, which instantly distinguishes it from the Seals and Crofts original.
8. 'Barracuda' (1977) - Heart
Co-written by Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, the galloping riff of 'Barracuda' could be counted as one of the many pre-cursors that laid the transitionary path between hard rock and heavy metal. The blazing distorted guitars set the tone for a song that was written as a reaction towards Mushroom Records' attempted publicity stunt that hinted that her and her sister Nancy were in a made-up incestuous affair. After a fan at a concert approached Ann and asked her how her "lover" was, referring to her sister, Ann was furious and went back to her hotel room to write the original lyrics of the song, while Nancy laid out the riff which has gone on to be covered a gazillion times, featured in countless films and even ended up on Guitar Hero!
7. 'Stayin' Alive' (1977) - The Bee Gees
If one were to answer the question, "What's the one single sound that is the culmination of the 70s disco era?", the answer would undoubtedly be the funkadelic opening riff of The Bee Gees' 'Stayin' Alive'. The iconic opening bassline comes from multi-instrumentalist Maurice Gibb, with Barry Gibb and Alan Kendall adding a flourish with the guitar riffs, and Blue Weaver adding the signature synthesizers. The song was not initially scheduled for release, with 'How Deep Is Your Love' selected as lead single, but fans called radio stations and RSO Records requesting the song immediately after seeing trailers for Saturday Night Fever, and the rest, of course, is history. Fun fact: The song is suggested as a fitting way of remembering the rhythm while performing CPR correctly!
6. 'Baba O'Riley' (1971) - The Who
People who are not too well versed with The Who call it "the teenage wasteland song". Die-hard fans call it the best damn Who intro ever. Granted the song is best remembered for Roger Daltrey's memorable chorus, but that doesn't take away the thunder from the glorious guitar/organ driven intro of the song. Guitarist Pete Townshend stated in an interview that "'Baba O'Riley' is about the absolute desolation of teenagers at Woodstock, where audience members were strung out on acid and 20 people had brain damage. The irony was that some listeners took the song to be a teenage celebration: 'Teenage Wasteland, yes! We're all wasted!'"
5. 'Roadhouse Blues' (1970) - The Doors
In one of the rare instances, 'Roadhouse Blues' is a Doors track where Robby Kreiger's guitar work shines forth over Ray Manzarek's keys. Well, at least in the beginning of the song as Kreiger belts out the classic hit riff before session artist John Sebastian joins in with the harmonica. The continuous rumble of the momentum-gathering riff emulates the feeling of being on the road and echoes the theme of the song perfectly. Fun fact: Alice Cooper claimed he was the inspiration for the line "Woke up this morning and I got myself a beer", as stated on his Planet Rock morning show.
4. 'Highway To Hell' (1979) - AC/DC
Angus Young is the brains behind one of the most simple, yet powerful riffs in the world of rock n roll. AC/DC had made several studio albums before 1979, the year the song came out, and were constantly promoting them via a grueling tour schedule, referred to by Angus Young as being on a "highway to hell." Vocalist Brian Johnson explained to Metro in 2009: "It was written about being on the bus on the road where it takes forever to get from Melbourne or Sydney to Perth across the Nullarbor Plain. When the Sun's setting in the west and you're driving across it, it is like a fireball. There is nothing to do, except have a quick one off the wrist or a game of cards, so that's where Bon came up with the lyrics." The riff is one of the Aussie rocker's signature sounds and there is seldom a setlist where they do not perform the song to this day.
3. 'Kashmir' (1975) - Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin's 'Kashmir' has a misleading title. The band had never been to the northern state of India and neither did Robert Plant write the song there. In fact, it came to him during a drive through a desolate desert area of southern Morocco. But the instantly recognizable opening riff influenced by Page's interest in modal tunings and Arabic and Eastern music, so that might explain the oriental flavor in the title of the track. Kahmir's riff is one of those moments that brings an entire stadium full of people into a moment of frenzy. With a loud bang from Bonham and equally, if not louder kerrang from Page, the track definitely showcases Led Zepellin's talent at the absolute peak of their career. Kashmir's Riff has been called one of the "inimitable moments in the legacy of classic rock."
2. 'Iron Man' (1970) - Black Sabbath
Upon hearing the opening guitar riff for the first time, Black Sabbath vocalist Ozzy Osbourne remarked that it sounded "like a big iron bloke walking about". The title became 'Iron Man', with Geezer Butler writing the lyrics around the title. Ozzy Osbourne sang behind a metal fan to get the sound effect in its first line, 'I am Iron Man!' Those were simpler times!
Indeed, with two of legendary guitarist Tony Iommi's fingers chopped off in an industrial accident, he used to slacken the strings a little more so that he could apply lesser pressure for a fuller sound and thus was born the sludgy sound of heavy metal. Arguably, one of the best offerings of that early heavy metal sound, is the 1970 single 'Iron Man', which of course has nothing to do with the Marvel superhero but trickled into the OST of the first MCU film anyway, leading to a huge resurgence of its sales a good 40 years after it was first released.
1. 'Smoke on the Water' (1972) - Deep Purple
Let's face it! Every teenage kid with an electric guitar has belted out a half-mangled versions of 'Smoke on the Water' at some or the other point in time. It might even be the very first riff that many people learn. Love it or hate it, Deep Purple's 1972 breakout hit is arguably the world's single most ubiquitous riffs. It could very well be the single most recognizable first three notes of a song ever produced - not just in the 70s, but in all of rock history. The reason of course, is quite simple. Composed by guitar legend Ritchie Blackmore, it is the very epitome of simplicity - a bare, stripped-back distorted guitar assault that's lying right there to be found, but Deep Purple did it first. As the band's drummer Ian Paice once said of the riff aptly, "The amazing thing with that song, and Ritchie's riff in particular, is that somebody hadn't done it before, because it's so gloriously simple and wonderfully satisfying."