The Joy of the Guitar Riff – TV review

Sam Wollaston grabs his air guitar to play along as Johnny Marr, Joan Jett and others riff on rock'n'roll in this BBC4 documentary

I know what a riff is. It's the short, repeated, recognisable part of a song, usually played on a guitar, right? How the hell are they going to get an hour of television out of that? Dun-nuuunn dun-nunn, for example (that's a blues riff, obviously). There it is. End of story.

Waaaaah! (That's a "wrong" buzzer noise.) Because, according to The Joy of the Guitar Riff (BBC4), a riff is actually "the DNA of rock'n'roll, a double helix of repetitive simplicity and fiendish complexity on which the history of rock'n'roll has been built". OK?

The history begins with Chuck Berry's Johnny B Goode (dur-nur-nur-di-di-di ... etc), carries on through the decades of rock, metal, funk and pop, right up to thousands of football fans chanting DUN … duh-duh-duh-duh DUH … DUH (White Stripes' Seven Nation Army, clearly) from the terraces.

The story is told not by the usual clip-show music journalists and comedians you've never heard of, but by Brian May, Johnny Marr, Tony Iommi and Nile Rodgers, and even a sprinkling (I think that's the correct collective noun) of women, Joan Jett and Nancy Wilson among them. They're not a bad bunch of history teachers, many of whom have their own axes with them, ready to grab and show you what they mean. Duh-duh-DAAHH duh-dur-DA-NAAH (got that? Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water). Interestingly, but not surprisingly, none of them can do Johnny B Goode as well as Chuck Berry could.

Of course, it's not only about a few repeated simple notes and chords. It's about the people who made those notes and chords, and their stories, and how their stories fit into the story of rock'n'roll, and into history itself. The double helix of complexity and simplicity and whatever the hell it was – with some fabulous footage, of course. I don't have a guitar of any description to watch along with; I couldn't even find an old squash racket. So, after checking the curtains were properly drawn, I had to make do with air. Yeah, that works. DUH-duh dadadadada-duh DUH-duh dadadadada-duh … Easy, no? Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Blondie's New York … and the Making of Parallel Lines – TV review
Blondie's hit album was broken down for the viewer in this show about the group's rise from out the grime of New York, writes Lucy Mangan

Lucy Mangan

30, Aug, 2014 @6:59 AM

Article image
Gregory Porter’s Popular Voices review – glorious survey of powerful pipes
From Prince and Whitney Houston to Mahalia Jackson, the first episode of the jazz star’s three-part series is a languid, loving celebration of vocal showstoppers

Lucy Mangan

18, Nov, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
People's History of Pop review – 'We’re on the cusp of something terrifying!'
No noodling musicans, no massive mixing desks, no show-off journos … this romp through recent pop was all about the fans – and they were an absolute treat

Sam Wollaston

11, Mar, 2017 @6:20 AM

Article image
Play It Loud: The Story of the Marshall Amp review
Guitar geeks, you owe it all to a tap-dancing boy, writes Sam Wollaston

Sam Wollaston

29, Nov, 2014 @7:02 AM

The Ballad of Mott the Hoople – TV review
Mott the Spinal Tap? Almost, says Tim Dowling of a wonderful Hoople rockumentary

Tim Dowling

09, Mar, 2013 @8:00 AM

Article image
When Pop Ruled My Life review – diaries, screams and wee in the story of fandom
Siouxsie Sioux and Alan Johnson, former Beatlemaniac and mod, contribute to an entertaining documentary about pop obsession

Sam Wollaston

30, May, 2015 @6:00 AM

Article image
Girl in a Band: Tales from the Rock'n'Roll Front Line review – alas, how strange to see women play guitars
A glittering parade of female musicians stepped up to bear witness in this shaming history of sexism in the music business

Lucy Mangan

31, Oct, 2015 @7:00 AM

Article image
Roy Orbison: Love Hurts review – enough tragedy to fill several lifetimes
This Friday-night music documentary by Orbison’s sons tells the story of a songwriter haunted by the loss of his children and wife – and the heartache of a son left behind

Michael Hann

16, Dec, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America review – all hail Kanye
A series of deep dives into six hip-hop masterpieces, by artists including Run DMC and Kendrick Lamar, begins with industry legends deconstructing West’s gospel-rap hit Jesus Walks

Ellen E Jones

29, Jan, 2021 @10:40 PM

Article image
60 Years of Eurovision review – ghastly songs but good value
The songs are ghastly, but 90 minutes on the ‘most nerve-racking and trouser-cacking’ moments of Eurovision is laced with history and flashbacks – from Norton to Bardot to Gainsbourg

Sam Wollaston

23, May, 2015 @5:59 AM