The five greatest drum, bass, guitar, and keyboard intros in the history of rock ’n’ roll.
The greatest rock 'n' roll intros....sort of.
"Let me please introduce myself I'm a man of wealth and taste," so sayeth Mick Jagger in one of the many great first…
“Let me please introduce myself I’m a man of wealth and taste,” so sayeth Mick Jagger in one of the many great first lines in rock ’n’ roll history. Mick Jagger was a man who never needed an introduction, but that’s not to say he didn’t know how to introduce a song. The Rolling Stones perhaps more than any other band in rock ’n’ roll history understood how important a song’s opening riff, drum beat, or lyric could be, and they could produce them better than almost anybody in that genre. All great bands understand that a powerful opening hook gets the audience interested right from the get-go.
With our political system a bloody mess, a pandemic still raging, and the Jets facing the worst season of their nearly pointless existence, we as a people are forced to dig even deeper into our exhausted supply of pleasant distractions. For example, let’s say you were interested in hearing what you consider to be the greatest instrumental openings in the history of rock ’n’ roll, you can poke around YouTube and find little known professional musicians of high quality demonstrating what they consider to be the best opening guitar, drum, bass, keyboard, and lyrical openings in popular music over the past 60 odd years. List making has always held a magical sway on our species, and there’s nothing really we’d rather do than compile lists of things, and then argue its merits and credibility. Thanks to the internet, we don’t even need another person to discuss it with, we can simply listen to somebody pontificate on any given website, and then write in the comment section what fools they are and how worthless their opinions have turned out to be. This is unique to us as a species. How do I know? Tell me the last time you saw a seal or a wildebeest try that. They just don’t have our moxie. (Wait, idea for another list that can be debated. “Five animals uglier than the wildebeest.” I’ll save that for another blog)
Please allow me to introduce this individual, a man of wealth and taste. (Getty Images)
The four great instruments that one can utilize for an intro are of course; guitar, drums, bass, and keyboards. I think if you’re a musical purist, then this is where you have to draw the line. I suppose I could discuss greatest flute intros, but Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull would dominate that category, so what’s the point? I’m sure I could get into something like greatest fiddle opening, or even best “Jew’s Harp” intro (Yes, that’s an instrument and I’d wager that it has some sort of anti-semitic roots to it), but that all seems a bit eclectic to me. Therefore, just like any discussion of best fried chicken parts would only encompass; drumstick, breast, thigh, and wings, we are going to stay with the basics. This is no time to abandon the “KISS” method. (“Keep It Simple Stupid,” and no, you won’t find anything from the actual group “KISS” below)
I thought it best if we were to begin by delving into the rhythm section when looking at the greatest musical intros in rock ’n’ roll history just as they would if they were laying down tracks in a studio. Since I played the drums way back when, I felt that percussion openings would be the way to start. Therefore, here are the five greatest drum intros in rock ’n’ roll history.
- Rock ’n’ Roll/Led Zeppelin — John “Bonzo” Bonham — It’s fast, it’s furious, there’s no mistaking what song it’s introducing, and it’s typically the one song that every kid who has ever attempted to learn how to play the drums dedicates themselves to learning.
- When the Levee Breaks/Led Zeppelin — John “Bonzo” Bonham — Again, another must for every aspiring drummer to learn. It’s deceptively difficult, and you can’t physically stop yourself from “air-drumming” when you hear it come on. Bonham used a relatively small kit compared to the other legendary drummers in rock history such as Keith Moon and Neil Peart, but his intricate beats set him apart from the others in this genre who may have been faster when it came to performing long fills and rolls.
- Honky Tonk Woman/Rolling Stones — Charlie Watts — When the request came for “more cowbell,” somebody was listening. Few drummers in rock ’n’ roll history immersed themselves in the role of “timekeeper” quite like the venerable Watts, whose opening beat in this Stones’ classic is as unmistakable as Mick’s lips or Keith Richards’ big boney, crooked fingers.
- 50 Ways to Leave your Lover/Paul Simon — Steve Gadd — Gadd is one of the more innovative session drummers in rock ’n’ roll. For Paul Simon, an artist who has always been enamoured with intricate rhythms, Gadd gave him the ability to expand beyond the folk-rock sound of Simon and Garfunkel.
- Sunday Bloody Sunday/U2 — Larry Mullen Jr. — The drum roll at the beginning announces that something serious is about to follow. The song, a paean to the long ago massacre that occurred in Ireland at the hands of the British army has the feel of an oncoming battle, complete with Bono’s signature wales of pain.
The late John Bonham is generally regarded as the greatest rock drummer of all time, so two mentions in the top five of greatest drum intros shouldn’t surprise too many. (Getty Images)
Somebody named Meghan Trainor recently proclaimed in song, “It’s all about the bass.” (And by recently, I mean sometime in the past 10 years.) Drums without the bass is like cake without frosting. Sure you can eat it, but at what price? The funny thing about many bass players is that often they are frustrated guitarists who for the good of the band have been asked to take on the vital but far less glamorous slot in the band. Ironically, instead of being the star, bass players tend to exist in obscurity, but if you listen closely to your favorite bands, the heart and soul of the band is found within it’s bass players powerful fingers. However, does that mean that the all-important opening hook can be left in their hands? Well, try these well-worn bass openings on for size.
- One of these Days/Pink Floyd — Roger Waters — While Waters has certainly achieved the highest level of fame and critical success as a songwriter for his legendary band, his bass playing is nothing to sneeze at. The pounding bass opening of this sinister sounding predominantly instrumental number is unmistakable.
- Another One Bites the Dust/Queen — John Deacon — Often overlooked due to the fact that nobody could really compete with Freddie Mercury’s charisma, or Brian May’s guitar stylings, Deacon’s beat made this ode to disco an immediate smash hit. Personally I always saw this song as a turning point for Queen, but in a bad way.
- Under Pressure/Queen — John Deacon — This collaboration with David Bowie is one of the highlights of both artists’ careers. The beginning was copied by Vanilla Ice for his huge hit, Ice Ice Baby, proof that if an opening bass line is good enough, anybody, even somebody completely devoid of talent can have a hit with it.
- How Many More Times/Led Zeppelin — John Paul Jones — Perhaps even more overlooked than John Deacon, John Paul Jones was the bridge between Jimmy Page on guitar and John “Bonzo” Bonham on the drums. Jones kept the whole Zep train chugging along. The song features some of Bonham’s best work, as well as Page’s, but it all begins with Jones’ bass line.
- Psycho Killer/Talking Heads — Tina Weymouth — If you’re the bass player, and you’re married to the drummer, you had better know what you’re doing, and Talking Heads’ bassist Tina Weymouth could always hold her own. As Abigail Adams famously wrote to John Adams while he was away trying to help hammer out the Declaration of Independence, “Remember the ladies.”
A “Punk” and “New Wave” icon who could hold her own with anybody, Weymouth’s sound provided the bedrock for two bands, Talking Heads, as well as the band she formed with her husband, drummer Chris Frantz, Tom Tom Club. So what’s more impressive, her bass work in “Once in a Lifetime,” or the fact that she and Frantz have been married for 43 years? (Getty Images)
Yes, an interesting or compelling rhythm opening makes for a great listen, but a guitar intro will bring the crowd to their feet every time. There are almost too many to mention, and everybody who’s ever turned on a rock ’n’ roll radio station will most certainly have their personal favorites, so the task of carving out the so-called five greatest opening guitar riffs is an unenviable task, although not as unenviable as let’s say cleaning a port ‘a’ potty, but it’s damn close. So here, for the purpose of aggravating everybody, here’s the five “greatest” guitar intros in rock ’n’ roll history:
- Layla/Derek and the Dominos — Duane Allman — The late and legendary lead guitarist and founder of one of the all-time “jam-bands,” Duane Allman is credited with setting the stage for one of the greatest songs in rock ’n’ roll history. The pain and the words may have been Eric Clapton’s, but Allman, whom Clapton had seen play in concert and decided that he needed to have him play on his album, was one of the great slide guitarists of all-time during his too short career.
- Sweet Child o’ Mine/Guns and Roses — Slash — The opening chords of one of the greatest debut songs and debut albums in the annals of rock, performed by Slash, (A man so distinctive, he doesn’t need a first name or a last name, just a nickname) is every bit as recognizable as the opening chords of Layla. In fact, the opening is so distinctive and incredible, that even though the rest of the song is quite good, it pales in comparison to the opening, so much so that you can almost turn it off after the opening.
- Money for Nothing/Dire Straits — Mark Knopfler — Because he wasn’t showy, or looked like the prototypical “rock star,” Knopfler is often overlooked when music fans are discussing the great guitarists of the past 60 years, but make no mistake, the opening chords of Money for Nothing was not only distinctive, but it influenced much of the music of the rest of the 1980s. Also, keep in mind that Knopfler played without a pick, producing sounds that few guitarists could reproduce.
- You Really got Me/The Kinks — Dave Davies/Eddie Van Halen — Most people won’t mention Kinks’ lead guitarist Dave Davies when the debate regarding great or influential guitar players is being waged, but Davies has a signature and recognizable style, and his guitar riffs, including some of the greatest intros in rock ’n’ roll make his contributions hard to ignore. Is there a more recognizable and more copied riff than the beginning of You Really got Me? Eddie’s intro tears into your soul in a way that had to at least impress Davies.
- Smoke on the Water/Deep Purple — Ritchie Blackmore — For me, Deep Purple has always been the poor man’s Led Zeppelin. (The way John Mellencamp has always been the poor man’s Bruce Springsteen, and “Hamilton, Joe Frank, and Reynolds have always been the poor man’s “Starlight Vocal Band,” and Ronnie Milsap has always been the poor man’s Jose Feliciano etc… Also, in deference to Bernie Sanders and AOC, why does the poor man have to settle for inferior rock ’n’ roll? Will we ever have equity in our society?) Blackmore is in many ways the guitarist’s guitar player. Page gets most of the adornment from the crowds at large, but much the way comedians loved Bill Hicks more than the public, other rock ’n’ roll guitarists tended to swoon over Blackmore than the listening public. Blackmore could be loud, irritable, flamboyant in his performances, and of course distinctive in his sound, but never boring, and the opening chords of Smoke on the Water are probably the 2nd most copied opening guitar licks in history right after You Really got me.”
- There are so many great opening guitar riffs that five hardly seems sufficient, so just for good measure.
- Walk this Way/Aerosmith — Joe Perry
- Motherless Children/Eric Clapton — Eric Clapton
- Sweet Home Alabama/Lynyrd Skynyrd — Ed King
- Johnny B. Goode/Chuck Berry — Chuck Berry
- Heartbreaker/Led Zeppelin — Jimmy Page
And on and on and on…..
There was a lot of music left in this Allman when he died in a motorcycle crash in 1971. Fortunately, he not only created one of the greatest “jam bands” of all time in the Allman Brothers, but he hung around long enough to perform perhaps the most memorable guitar intro ever in “Layla.” (Getty Images)
Finally, we can’t overlook the great keyboard intros that have distinguished themselves over the past 60 years of rock history. The keyboardist always seems to have that chip on their shoulders. You know, the kind that says, “Hey, I’m just as talented as the guitar player, but I have to stand behind all of this equipment, and nobody can see me do my thing.” You can’t “duck walk” playing the keyboards. You can’t do a windmill, and you can’t play with your teeth, although you can set your keyboards on fire, so there’s always that.
- Angry Young Man/Billy Joel — Billy Joel — Whenever he’s been interviewed regarding the intro to Angry Young Man, Billy always claims that it’s really a lot like playing the drums. He always says that any drummer could do it. Well I play the drums, and trust me, I can’t do it.
- Thunder Road/Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band — Roy Bittan — Much of Springsteen’s sound is beholden to this talented keyboardist who looks more like a music teacher than a rock star, but his opening to Thunder Road, as well as Jungleland will bring Springsteen fanatics to their feet and running for the Kleenex. (Yes I know there’s a double meaning there.)
- The Way it is/Bruce Hornsby and the Range — Bruce Hornsby — This is one of the most underrated songs of the 1980s, mainly because it didn’t have any of the synthesized fake computerized sounds that had become so popular at that time. It came across as a modern day folk song pointing out the inequities of the “Big 80s,” in a way that wasn’t preachy, while providing a great piano opening to boot.
- The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway/Genesis — Tony Banks — Progressive rock took keyboard playing to another level in the 1970s, and Genesis featured one of the greats in Tony Banks. Even as the band became painfully commercial in the 1980s, Banks continued to provide an interesting layer of sound. The keyboard intro in Lamb almost sounds as if it’s being played on a harp.
- Jump/Van Halen — Eddie Van Halen — Who knew he could play keyboards? Who knew he could play them so well? The late and talented Eddie Van Halen proved there was little he couldn’t do musically with this memorable intro. If only he could have jump-kicked as well as David Lee Roth, then you’d have the complete Renaissance man. RIP Eddie.
From a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island. Billy’s intro or prelude to Angry Young Man is the Long Island Pizza of keyboard intros. (Getty Images)
As I peruse my list, I can’t believe I didn’t include a single song by my favorite band, The Who, or The Beatles, or even the Doodletown Pipers. There are so many great songs and so many memorable intros that sadly, somebody of merit is going to be left off. It simply can’t be helped. I sometimes wonder if young people today groove to the opening riffs in today’s music. I wonder if that’s even a thing. Then I remember that all new music sucks and I don’t care. Remember, a closed mind is an uncluttered mind.