By: Brady Lavin
Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” has, along with Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” the most famous riff in hard rock. That “duh, duh, duh…. duh, duh, duhduh… duh, duh, duh… duh, duh…” is one of the first riffs learned by almost every budding guitar player, and for good reason. Just try to get it out of your head. Go ahead, try. Yeah, that’s right, it’s still in there. And you didn’t even hear the riff; you just read some idiot’s text interpretation of it.
The song is such a classic that guitar stores have been forced to put up signs that say “No ‘Smoke on the Water’,” because of so many goddamn kids coming in and playing all sorts of wrong interpretations of the opening riff. That distinction is one shared with only Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” another classic song beaten to death by people who think they can play it. And of course there are plenty of people who can play both of those songs very skillfully, but they probably aren’t going to try to impress their friends with “Smoke on the Water” when they are trying out guitars at the local guitar shop.
The thing is, unless you had a real hip teacher or you are an ardent Ritchie Blackmore fan, you might be playing it wrong even if you play it well. Many guitarists know that Ritchie isn’t playing power chords for the riff, but to the untrained ear, it does sound like he’s playing 5ths. Blackmore is actually playing 4ths in G, starting on D and G (3rd and 4th strings open) and moving up the neck from there with these inverted power chords. They are the same notes as the incorrect power chords, but the 5th of the chord (D) is on the bottom instead of G, the root. The heaviness of the riff fools a lot of people, who think he’s playing on the lower strings to get that heavy sound, but the fatness comes from his gear and the way Blackmore plays those simple notes.
Another common mistake is that people strum the inverted power chords (or power chords if they still haven’t watched a live video of Deep Purple playing the song or read this article). Ritchie Blackmore, who wrote the iconic riff, has noticed this as well.
In an interview with HP Newquist, Blackmore sets us straight: “The thing is, I’ve seen people play it, and they always seem to strum it. I actually pick the notes with two fingers at the same time, the thumb and the first finger. Just the two notes.” Plucking the strings like that gives the riff a slight but important differentiation from strumming. Removing the delay between the two notes sounding that occurs when strummed, however small it may be, really cleans the riff up.
And while other guitarists, especially John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame, have made careers out of purposefully hitting muted strings, this technique isn’t ideal for “Smoke on the Water.” “As soon as a guitar player starts playing with a plectrum, they tend to hit other strings, too, so it all sounds a bit odd,” Blackmore explained. “But they should be pulled and not picked.”
So that’s something really interesting; the most famous and iconic hard rock guitar parts of all time is a fingerstyle riff!