Our riff for today’s lesson comes from one the finest traditional metal bands to every come out of the U.S., and almost certainly the best thing to ever come out of Kansas: Manilla Road.
Manilla Road took a few years — and a few albums — to get its sound together, but by 1983’s Crystal Logic, their metallic brilliance had… crystallized (sorry). While bearing the unmistakable Manilla Road stamp, Crystal Logic fell in line stylistically with much of the traditional metal of its time: Uptempo tracks composed of fairly simple riffs with strong choruses. On one track, however, Manilla Road took a different approach, slowing the tempo significantly and putting the focus on a monstrous riff that would have made Black Sabbath proud. That track is “The Riddle Master.”
The main riff begins at the twelve second mark, but the brief intro that precedes it plays a crucial part getting the listener in the groove. The intro is a quick E power chord followed by a ringing F-sharp power chord. The first E chord in the intro riff is an anacrusis (now you know where that band got its name), or a pick-up note, as it comes before the first downbeat. The F-sharp is actually played “on the one”. This becomes clearer once the drums enter. The F-sharp chord rings for eight beats, begging for some sort of resolution, until the second guitar enters and repeats the phrase, again unanswered. All the while, a lone bass drum beats out an insistent quarter-note pulse virtually commanding the listener to tap a foot or bang his/her head in anticipation. Finally, dueling pick scrapes herald the entry of the main riff, and the head-banging can begin in earnest. Incidentally, while I doubt like hell that John Sykes or David Coverdale ever listened to Manilla Road, the intro to “The Riddle Master” is strikingly similar to the intro to Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night”.
The main riff of “The Riddle Master” is a two-bar phrase that begins with an F-sharp power chord, much like the intro but quickly moves up to an A power chord and then grinds its way down, sliding to G#5, then all the way down to E5, whereupon the E to F-sharp movement of the intro is repeated to begin the second bar. In the second bar, the riff is duplicated save for a slight variation at the end, where, following the descent to E5, there are quick eighth-note stabs at B5 and A5.
Precisely what makes “The Riddle Master” so awesome is difficult to quantify. The fact that the track is a stylistic departure certainly helps it stand out, but novelty only goes so far. The track’s groove is unquestionably strong and deep, and perhaps that groove is its major source of power. In the end, though, I suppose it does not really matter why “The Riddle Master” is great. What matters is that when those opening chords sound, they never fail to send a lightning bolt through me. The hair stands up on my arms; I clench a fist around the neck of my air guitar, put on my war face, and get ready for self-induced whiplash. In these moments, it is no wonder to me that Fenriz sold his soul to Manilla Road.
Post an instance where a band made a temporary stylistic detour and struck gold.
Manilla Road – Crystal Logic
Learn to play “The Riddle Master” by ear. Hint: Standard tuning, key of F# minor.