As you might expect from a blog called Monster Riff, we’ve spent at least a few thousand words talking about riffs.
We love riffs.
But what we haven’t acknowledged yet is a painful truth: The riff is a double-edged sword. It is simultaneously Stoner Rock’s saving grace and its greatest weakness. Like James Harden stepping back for another three-pointer after going 1/17, sometimes Stoner Rock bands don’t know when to stop.
Today, we explore the riff for all of its complexities. We’ll explain the science behind repetition, why Stoner Rock is similar to Pop music, and the pros and cons behind exploiting a single riff through an entire Stoner Rock song.
The Science of Repetition in Music
Here’s the overarching rule to this section: We like repetition. It’s pleasing. It creates stability and security in our lives.
If you don’t agree, think back to some of your earliest childhood memories. Repetition in music is paramount.
“Clean up, clean up, everybody clean up,” encouraged children to pick up after themselves en masse.
“Row, row, row your boat,” was a pleasing nursery rhyme.
In more recent years, “Baby Shark” has ruined the lives of parents while exciting every child within earshot.
We like repetition.
Pushing things a little further: We remember the notes we hear. When we rehear something that’s pleasing, we feel calm.
But deviation from what’s expected can also create pleasure and excitement—like a solo.
Repetition is proven to make songs more popular. A study out of the University of Southern California found a correlation between the number of times a pop song repeated the chorus and its popularity among the masses.
The results were pretty crazy. Every time a song repeated its chorus, its chances of reaching the Top 40 went up 17% and its chances of reaching the No. 1 spot went up 14.5%.
Repetition also gives us the opportunity to appreciate the music on a different level. Once we realize an instrument is going to repeat the same phrase or lick over and over, we can shift out attention to other nuances in the song.
That’s one of the reasons albums like Siamese Dream shot into the mainstream consciousness. Although Billy Corgan wrote radio-friendly Alternative Rock, he also recorded layers and layers of guitars that constantly reward relistening.
Pop Music and Stoner Rock
All of this is to say that Stoner Rock, with all of its repetition and common focus on a singular riff, isn’t so different from Pop music.
In fact, some of the most popular songs in Rock are criminally repetitive. Think “Hey Jude” (the “Na na na na” lasts for half of the song), “Born in the USA” (that keyboard continues well after The Boss is done saying “Born in the USA!”) and “Give it Away” (both the lyrics and the bass line are repetitive—but pleasing).
It’s curious, then, that Stoner Rock rarely crosses over onto Pop radio airwaves. The Stoner Rock bands that do eventually see mainstream air time, like Queens of the Stone Age, typically enter the common vernacular after shedding their Stoner Rock roots and adopting a Pop/Rock blend.
But Stoner Rock and Pop music have more in common than meets the eye.
Both genres subsist off the hook and repetition. When Walk the Moon released “Anna Sun” in 2011, Esquire quickly named it the song of the summer. The song was well-received by critics, but Brian Benton of MVRemix.com had an interesting response: “It’s five and a half minutes long, when it could be just as effective in three.”
Isn’t that the case with every Stoner Rock song? There’s a certain self-indulgence when a band finds that awesome riff. It’s the reason we all love “Desert Cruiser” (The Truckfighters) and it’s the same reason “Vidage” (1000mods) goes on for eight minutes.
The blueprint is the same: When you find an awesome riff, exploit it.
But there lies the problem.
If you never change it up—if you never add any flair or write a verse or an interlude—a song becomes stale.
The Curse of Repetition
Emily Burton of Fireball Ministry gave an insightful quote in an interview with Rough Edge:
To me, “stoner rock” probably implies a certain amount of “jamming” which usually turns out to be a bad thing. I think what’s awesome about stoner rock is the emphasis on great tone, but I also think a lot of stoner rock bands forget to write songs. A 10-minute song should not have only one riff.
Ms. Burton hit the nail on the head with a perfect assessment.
There are very few instances where a band plays the same riff over and over again for five minutes and produces a worth-while experience.
Some songs that pull it off:
Unida – Wet Pussy Cat (Same riff for 4 minutes of a 6-minute song)
Red Fang – Prehistoric Dog (A single riff connected by solos)
Freedom Hawk – Stand Back (Same riff for most of the song)
But for every song that pulls off the trick of playing the same few notes on repeat for minutes on end, there’s a Stoner Rock band struggling to breakout because they can’t find that secret formula of keeping a riff fresh over an extended period of time.
So, where does that leave us? Stoner Rock may never receive the airplay that Ariana Grande and Justin Beiber enjoy, but it lives by many of the same principles. But, more importantly, it doesn’t matter what the radio says. Stoner Rock can be pleasing all the same.