05 Sep 2013 Comments 0



Web 2.0 Attention-Deficit Summary for the Reading-Impaired:

Guitar riffs – trains – cardboard boxes – maraca’s – home-made distortion pedals – Carpe Diem


Writing melodies around a strong guitar riff* is not easy.

Well, it’s ‘easy’, but so is public speaking, right? Until you try and do it, that is.


I love and always will love guitar riffs. There’s a reason they call Malcolm Young “Dr. Riff”, and currently, nobody’s doing it better than The Hives. It’s an old-fashioned idea, and it harks back to a time of 2-minute-30-second testosterone-fueled 45 rpm rock swagger.


Not a beard or skinny jean pant in sight.



As a songwriter, if you can come up with a melody line that’s as strong or even stronger than your riff, you’re onto a winner. Think about John Lennon’s riff for “I Feel Fine” and then think how strong the song is when he starts singing. That riff is fully integrated into the song. [Actually, think too about “Ticket To Ride”, “Day Tripper” and George Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone” for more evidence of The Beatles’ riffiness.]


So, all that being said, I’ve also tried over the years to come up with a good riff and still be able to sing something over it. During the Tree/ Tree63 years I got it right with songs like “Treasure” ,“1*0*1” and “Joy”, and in my short time as a solo artist I’m proud of “Rant” (off ‘Come Out Fighting’) and now a new song called “Oncoming Train”.



Riffs hang around forever, and you noodle with them and worry them and tug at them until they begin to yield up some gold. “Rant” took forever and a day to turn itself into a song, and “Oncoming Train” was a similar exercise in patiently stalking a melody through the jungle until one of us got tired.



The trick with a riff is to keep it part of the song, not veer off it as soon as it’s done its duty as the song’s introduction. It’s always first prize to be able to sing a melody over the riff, so that you can keep things as simple and as focused as possible, and I managed it on this song. The verse and chorus are separated by 2 bars of prehistoric bludgeoning, and then we’re back with the riff, and a different melody. Simple, messy, noisy rock ‘n roll.

Sometimes, there’s nothing better.



The recording of “Oncoming Train” has a similar story to that of “Bush Telegraph”. I wanted the guitar riff to appear over a good-old-fashioned hand-made stomp-n-clap. A good stomp is possible with a bunch of bandmates, but not so much on your own, so Brent and I mic’d up the laminate studio floor and threw a big empty cardboard box all over the studio. You’d be surprised how effective a cardboard box is at sounding like 10 people stomping their boot-heels on the barn floor.



Once we got the stomp-n-clap right, the rest was ‘easy’. Andy Turrell once again showed up to beat the oddly-mic’d drum kit to death, and then it was guitar-time.


The riff for “Oncoming Train” was played on an acoustic guitar plugged into a VOX AC30, in a similar quest for something slightly unorthodox. The solo was performed on my old black Les Paul Frankenstein through a very odd guitar pedal hand-made by Brent. Last but not least, some Rolling Stones-type maraca’s and some dirty synth-growl from a Korg MicroSynth, and we’re all done.

Sounds like a recipe. “A pinch of distortion, a good glug of tambourine and let it simmer on a low heat for 2 weeks”.



Lyrically, the song’s a bit of playing around with the old joke of ‘the light at the end of a tunnel may be an oncoming train’. Well, if life is hurtling down the track to crush your hopes, you’ve got two choices: get out of the way or be crushed.

I’ll freely admit to being regularly splattered all over the windshield, but there are some days when you have enough of what it takes to jump the train and ride it, and the day these lyrics arrived I happened to be in a train-jumping mood.


Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.


There you have it: a bit of grimy guitar-driven rock ‘n roll, hand-reared and cooked in a greasy Waffle House skillet to within an inch of its life and lovingly converted into a delightful confection of marketable ones-and-zeroes by the makers of “Bush Telegraph”.


Because we can all only take so much Mumford, can’t we?







*If you say ‘rift’ instead of ‘riff’ you’re an idiot. A ‘riff’ is ‘a short repeated phrase in popular music and jazz, frequently played over changing chords or harmonies or used as a background to a solo improvisation’, while a ‘rift’ is ‘a crack, split, or break in something’ as in “The Great Rift Valley”.

If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me to play the rift to Smoke On The Water…


Next week:




Listen to Oncoming Train and buy the Bush Telegraph EP on the SA iTunes store here:


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