Easy Guitar Riffs of the 80s
Some things get better with age. Old sneakers, a well worn pair of jeans, classic cars, art, cheese, and sometimes even music. Oldies, retro, classic rock – whatever you call the music that you are nostalgic for – it is likely to be a perennial favourite. Whatever can be recycled and resold eventually will be. And history will always repeat itself.
After my first lesson on easy guitar riffs I felt like I had left something unfinished. It seemed as if I had written something more about music history than playing guitar. References to contemporary music had been neglected. And while there have been a lot of great and memorable rock riffs in the past decade, it only seems right that I should address the question how did we get where we are. So before we explore some contemporary guitar riffs I want to go back to the eighties.
When I started to search for memorable riffs from the eighties not many came to mind. Not at first anyway. But once I managed to forget about Culture Club, Duran Duran, Phil Collins, Lionel Ritchie and all the pop music that seemed to dominate, the rock riffs came back to me. And I only needed my guitar in hand for a few minutes before I was able to figure out the following selection of riffs.
Any look at the music of the eighties is probably going to dwell on bands that didn’t survive. It was a decade where pop music and fashion thrived. Nowhere is the excess of this culture captured better than the album Kick by INXS. The catchy pop songs they produced included some simple riffs such as New Sensation and Devil Inside.
Also notable is the four note riff that follows the chorus in Never Tear Us Apart. It is so simple, yet anyone who has heard the album, or better yet, INXS’ live album from Wembley Stadium knows the power and resonance these simple notes hold.
The 80s could very well be the decade of the sell-out. Groups like Genesis and Yes, once known for writing long progressive rock epics, began turning out radio friendly 3 or 4 minute songs. In 1983 Yes released the album 90125 and earned a new fan base thanks to the riff driven hit Owner of A Lonely Heart.
Ever seen the Sean Penn movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High? It was before he married Madonna. If you don’t know what I’m talking about read on. In this movie they have a few jokes about Pat Benatar look alikes. If you don’t know what Pat Benatar looks like forget about it. But, she is famous for a song I can only describe as ultimate eighties. In 1980 she became an overnight star thanks to her album Crimes of Passion and the song Hit Me With Your Best Shot, a basic song with a riff comprised entirely of power chords.
While Sting was still a member of The Police he consistently turned out good hit songs. Perhaps his biggest hit of the 80s was Every Breath You Take. This song was given a new life a few years ago thanks to a cover by Puff Daddy. It is a rather difficult song to master for physical reasons alone. You are required to stretch your left hand across 5 frets. To sound like the recording you should also subtly apply some palm muting.
Are you ready for something a little heavier? One of many formerly-famous heavy metal groups is the German band Scorpions. While many may remember them for their emotional ballad Wind of Change, you may want to take a look at some of their older material. Check out their live album World Wide Live. On it you will find, The Zoo.
Here’s a song you may wish you didn’t know. It is My Sharona by The Knack. The opening riff simply consists of G octaves. It’s a little embarrassing actually.
OK, here is another ultimate eighties hit. Not at all a rock riff but I couldn’t resist including it. It comes from the album Thriller by Michael Jackson. While Beat It may not be your cup of tea it does have a pretty decent guitar solo. Can you guess who played it? I’ll give you a clue, it is someone else mentioned in this lesson.
Remember Bryan Adams? Of course you do. He is one of the few people here that is still making music that people know about. He was a bit more of a rocker back in 1984 when he released Reckless. Run To You is an example of another simple yet effective riff.
I can not talk about 80s guitar without mentioning Van Halen. While any one of their David Lee Roth era songs could contain a memorable riff (DLR another 80s icon), let’s look at something from his last album with the band 1984. As one reviewer wrote, this is where the band really reached their highest potential. Though Van Halen riffs are usually more than a handful for the beginner, I thought I’d include at least one.
It was 1987 when Guns n Roses came out with Appetite for Destruction, an album which popularized hard rock riffs again. The band was a musical sign of the times, symbolizing a lot of what was to follow. Sweet Child ‘O Mine is another rather simple riff. To play like the original you will need to tune all your strings down a half step.
If you would like me to teach some specific riffs in a future lesson you can email requests to me.
On February 11, 2010 we received a letter from lawyers representing the NMPA and the MPA instructing us to remove guitar tab and lyrics from this page. You can read more about their complaint here. Alternatively, you can still find this complete article with tab and lyrics archived here.