How the guitarist from Incubus ended up writing one of the biggest riffs of the 21st century… with Avicii

Mike Einziger and Avicii performing live
(Image credit: C Brandon/Redferns via Getty Images / Mike Pont/WireImage)

This month, Avicii’s Wake Me Up became the highest-performing dance single in history, selling over 10 million certified units. It was a near-instant hit when it was released on June 17 2013, as its genre-smashing marriage of bluegrass acoustic strums, EDM beats and infectious country hooks set it apart from everything else on the charts.

But the track’s success is also significant from a guitar perspective, thanks to the involvement of one of the brightest guitar talents from the late-’90s/early-’00s alt-rock movement.

Wake Me Up co-writer and Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger not only plays acoustic guitar on the track, but also lends the song its infectious riff, which bears all the hallmarks of his angular playing style. The lick appears briefly at the 1:11 mark, before a hyped-up synth takes over the melody.

Einziger is hugely prolific outside of his day job with Incubus. He has collaborated with the likes of Hans Zimmer, Skrillex and Pharrell Williams, but it was his hip-hop-leaning work with The Internet and Tyler, The Creator that first drew Avicii’s attention.

The guitarist confesses that he “didn’t really know who he [Avicii] was” when the late Swedish producer sought his input, but quickly saw the potential in a collaboration, as he told this writer in 2017 for MusicRadar.

“I was just open to trying different things,” Einziger recalled of his mindset at the time. “Once I found out that Avicii wanted to work on music with me, I researched some of his stuff, and I really liked Levels; of course I recognized that song immediately.”

Sounding out their potential working relationship, Einziger began chatting with the Swedish producer and hit it off immediately.

“When we got together and started talking about music, it was really clear early on that we would be able to write together,” he says. “He's a really prolific writer, and it's really crazy looking back on it now, because we got together and talked for an hour or two, and then we made a plan. Like, ‘We're going to get together next week and write a song.’”

The pair worked fast, quickly drawing up the track’s acoustic progression, and the earworm guitar hook that became the song’s signature.

It wasn't the genre of music that I would necessarily be working in… but I could appreciate the power and how well-produced that song is

Mike Einziger

Einziger’s style is instantly recognizable in the pentatonic guitar riff, which recalls the quirky phrasing of his hair-raising Incubus solos, but the bluegrass acoustic strums are a world away from his typically arpeggiated playing style.

“It wasn’t the genre of music that I would necessarily be working in – at least people wouldn't think that,” he admits. “But I could appreciate the power and how well-produced that song is.”

Avicii initially leaned into the track’s country credentials by enlisting Elvis songwriter Mac Davis to record a vocal demo, but realized he’d need someone to not only sing the track but also write a set of lyrics that could resonate on the same level as the song’s wistful energy.

“None of us sing and we really needed to get that demo down, and the only person I knew that lived in LA was Aloe [Blacc], so I called him and he was free,” Avicii told the Daily Star in 2013. “Lyrics come really easy to him so he wrote them in a couple of hours and we finished the track.”

Wake Me Up received its official debut at the Ultra Music Festival in Miami in 2013, where Avicii and Blacc performed an abridged version of the song alongside Einziger and his Incubus bandmates Ben Kenney and José Pasillas. Played using a Thinline Telecaster, Einziger’s guitar riff is far more prominent in the mix during the live performance.

The song’s unveiling was met with considerable backlash online, however, with Spin dubbing it “aesthetically bewildering” and suggesting it was cashing in on the Mumford & Sons mania dominating the charts at the time.

Yet the song went on to be a global smash, spending 54 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, and 26 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Dance/Electronic Songs. It currently has a staggering 2.2 billion views on YouTube and 1.9 billion on Spotify.

10 years on from its release, Wake Me Up has become the highest-certified dance/electronic song in RIAA history. In terms of sheer exposure alone, that makes its riff one of the biggest of the 21st century. Pretty remarkable for an EDM song written on guitar by an alt-rock luminary.

Wake Me Up became a song that connected with people all over the world, which is crazy,” Einziger reflects of its success. “I never would have predicted that. I thought it was a really cool song when we wrote it, but I had no idea it would do what it did.”

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Michael Astley-Brown

Mike is Editor-in-Chief of GuitarWorld.com, in addition to being an offset fiend and recovering pedal addict. He has a master's degree in journalism from Cardiff University, and over a decade's experience writing and editing for guitar publications including MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitarist, as well as 20 years of recording and live experience in original and function bands. During his career, he has interviewed the likes of John Frusciante, Chris Cornell, Tom Morello, Matt Bellamy, Kirk Hammett, Jerry Cantrell, Joe Satriani, Tom DeLonge, Ed O'Brien, Polyphia, Tosin Abasi, Yvette Young and many more. In his free time, you'll find him making progressive instrumental rock under the nom de plume Maebe.