You Still Can't Copyright a Riff — and That's a Good Thing

Robert Plant, left, and Jimmy Page: creators and stealers of riffs
Robert Plant, left, and Jimmy Page: creators and stealers of riffs
By Jim Summaria, jimsummariaphoto.com via Wikimedia Commons

This is a story about a guitar riff. For the sake of clarity, and because it's one of my favorite riffs of all time, I shall hereafter refer to it as The Riff.

As a little kid, I was first exposed to The Riff by way of Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4," which was by far the coolest song in my dad's record collection. I loved everything about it: the horns, the way Peter Cetera's voice somehow managed to sound both angelic and badass, the epic Terry Kath solo, which I air-guitared to all over our living room, flailing my limbs around the way I imagined soloing guitarists must do.

Above all, I loved The Riff, that descending five-chord guitar part that opened the track and held the whole thing together. More than any other element, I decided, The Riff was what made the song great — and to this day, I think little-kid-me was right on this point. Because of The Riff, "25 or 6 to 4" will still be played at sporting events and in guitar showrooms 100 years from now.

Years later, when I had my own radio and could finally start listening to things my dad didn't own, I heard The Riff again 2½ minutes into Led Zeppelin's "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You." Initially I was appalled; Zep had clearly ripped off my beloved Chicago! How could they get away with such a thing?

Before I could burn my copy of Led Zeppelin IV (yes, before the internet, you could own one album by an artist and remain largely ignorant of the rest of their catalog), I figured out that "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" (January 1969) had been released a year before "25 or 6 to 4" (January 1970). If anyone here was the ripoff artist, I realized, it was Chicago. But for some reason, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant had never sued Chicago for stealing one of their greatest riffs. Why not?

The short answer is an old rock & roll truism, which a jury in Los Angeles this week upheld when it rejected an infringement claim against Zep's "Stairway to Heaven": You can't copyright a riff. Not even when it's The Riff. (And really, the intro to "Stairway to Heaven" has a better claim for being known to all as "The Riff," which is why this scene from Wayne's World still rings true for anyone who's ever worked in a Guitar Center.)

The long answer gets a little more complicated. But it's worth exploring, both to understand why it's virtually impossible to protect riffs and basic chord progressions under copyright law, and why this is ultimately a good thing not just for rock & roll but for all of recorded music.

Page and Plant didn't actually write "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You." When they recorded it for Led Zeppelin's debut album in the fall of 1968, they thought it was a traditional folk song in the public domain, an assumption based on the fact that Joan Baez, who released the first popular version of the song in 1962, credited it as "traditional." But The Riff doesn't appear in the Baez version, so it was clearly an invention of Page's — even though he initially credited himself only as the song's arranger, not its composer.

Many years later, when the song's actual author, Bay Area singer-songwriter Anne Bredon, discovered Zeppelin's version, she petitioned for and was eventually given a co-songwriting credit with Page and Plant. (In many such cases, the original author is awarded full songwriting credit. That Bredon didn't receive this is probably a testament more to Led Zeppelin's lawyers — who have gotten pretty good at this sort of thing over the years, thanks to their clients' infamous penchant for nicking lyrics and melodies — than to the original elements in the Page/Plant version.) Technically, changing the songwriting credit on the Zep version of "Babe" from "traditional" to "Bredon/Page/Plant" — which finally happened in 1990 — did open up the possibility that Page, now listed as a songwriter and not just an arranger, could sue Chicago for stealing The Riff. But if anyone is a believer in the adage that you can't copyright a riff, it's probably Page. (Lucky for you, Chicago.)

Besides, it turns out Page isn't the first guy to put The Riff on record. That honor (as far as I know) goes to George Harrison, who used the same chord progression to subtler but no less powerful effect on The Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," released on The White Album in November 1968. "Aha!" I hear you cry. "So Page is yet again exposed as a ripoff artist. Someone needs to update the 'List of Led Zeppelin songs written or inspired by others' Wikipedia page tout suite."

But it's not that simple — and here's where things get a little weird. The Beatles recorded "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" at EMI Studios (later Abbey Road Studios) in London that September. Across town, at the exact same time, Led Zeppelin were recording their debut album at Olympic Studios, including "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You." This was long after The Beatles had stopped playing live, and Zeppelin (then still called The New Yardbirds) wouldn't play their first gig in the U.K. until October, about a month after "While My Guitar" was already in the can. Harrison and Page knew each other but weren't especially friendly, so it's highly unlikely either man ever heard the other's version of The Riff before it was released. Yet both recorded it virtually simultaneously. How is that possible?

Page later claimed he began developing his arrangement of "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" as far back as 1964, when he worked on it as a session guitarist with Marianne Faithfull. But if Faithfull recorded a Page-arranged version of the song, she never released it, so it seems unlikely Harrison could have ever heard it. The far likelier and much less satisfying explanation is simply this — The Riff was probably already floating around the London music scene in late '60s, used but never actually recorded by any number of blues and rock bands. Harrison and Page had likely both heard some variant of The Riff and filed it away in the bag of half-formed ideas for future songs that every musician carries around in his or her head.

As rock riffs go, The Riff is not particularly complicated. It's a descending five-chord pattern, typically played as power chords over four bars, with the last two chords sharing the last bar. The most common variant of it goes from A minor to G to F sharp to F to E, although it can also be played as Am-G-D-F-E or even Am-G-D9-F#-F-E if you want to spice it up a little, as Harrison did. Over the years, it's also turned up in countless other rock compositions, often as a bass line but occasionally as a foreground riff, perhaps most famously on Green Day's 1996 hit "Brain Stew." And as you can see from this "Brain Stew" instructional video, it's almost absurdly easy to play.

In late '60s rock & roll, relatively recent inventions like wah pedals and Marshall amps helped give such simple power chords a sense of grandeur and heft they'd never previously had — and the progression of The Riff, in particular, could take on all the melodrama of a Holst suite in the hands of a guitarist like Page or Kath. (Harrison's version is more anchored by Paul McCartney's bass line, although Harrison himself does play the chords on an acoustic under Eric Clapton's searing lead.) So it's not that surprising that relatively straightforward chord progressions such as The Riff suddenly started showing up in popular rock songs from both sides of the Atlantic — although the near-simultaneous arrival of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" is still a striking coincidence.

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So not only is it virtually impossible to prove who originally invented The Riff — it's also difficult, when you see The Riff broken down into its component parts, to care. Once power chords entered the lexicon of the electric guitar, The Riff became as inevitable as the 1-4-5 chord structures of the blues, or the drum patterns of rock. It's practically built into the guitar's very architecture, the way the instrument invites the player's fingers to move up and down the frets. That, on some level, even to the listener, is probably why there's something so emotionally satisfying about The Riff. Just as certain dance steps are a logical extension of human anatomy, so is The Riff a logical extension of the way a rock musician's hand wraps around a guitar neck. It just feels right, both to play and to hear.

Obviously the intro of "Stairway to Heaven" is more complicated; in fact, some would argue that it's more than just a riff. But it's also, as Led Zeppelin's lawyers argued, based on a set of chords and finger-picking patterns that may have been around for at least 400 years — and in that regard, it's the very definition of a riff. There's a reason why the word "riff" also means "a distinct variation," and "to riff on" can mean to approach a given subject from many different angles. In music, this is the function riffs serve. They anchor something new in something familiar — and the best songs often succeed because of how well they play those new and familiar elements against one another.

And that's why, over the years, I've stopped worrying about who did The Riff first, or even who did it best. Instead, I've come to appreciate The Riff in all its forms — even "Brain Stew," which is admittedly a pretty derivative track. But that's what I love so much about The Riff — even at its most derivative, it's still pretty great.

Now imagine a world in which someone could copyright The Riff, thereby ensuring that no one else could ever write a rhythm guitar part using those particular five chords in that particular pattern ever again. I don't know about you, but that's not a world I want to live in.

So thank you, "Stairway to Heaven" jurors, for preserving the sanctity of all riffs, including The Riff. And now, if you'll excuse me, I must crank "25 or 6 to 4" in victory and air-guitar along to Terry Kath like a 6-year-old.


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