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.

Contributor

Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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