The Secrets Behind the Guitar Tone on Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper"

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon/Classic Rock Magazine)

Although Blue Öyster Cult was already filling arenas as a headlining concert act before the band entered New York’s Record Plant to make its fourth studio album, Agents of Fortune, released in May 1976, the band had little radio airplay, no hits and no Gold records. That all changed when Blue Öyster Cult chose “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” as the first single from Agents of Fortune. The song’s unusual blend of smooth vocal harmonies and dark, foreboding guitar riffs and solos was a stark contrast to most of the other material that rock radio favored at the time, but the combination was perfect for the song to appeal to popular music and hard rock fans alike.

“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” was written by lead guitarist Buck Dharma, who presented a demo of the song to the album’s producers, Murray Krugman, David Lucas and Sandy Pearlman. Everyone who heard the demo was drawn to the main guitar riff — a tension-filled Am, G and F chord progression played as an arpeggio pattern on the bottom four strings, with the open G string ringing out like a tolling funeral bell on each quarter note. This overall effect was like the “House of the Rising Sun” meets the House of Usher.

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Chris Gill

Chris is the co-author of Eruption - Conversations with Eddie Van Halen. He is a 40-year music industry veteran who started at Boardwalk Entertainment (Joan Jett, Night Ranger) and Roland US before becoming a guitar journalist in 1991. He has interviewed more than 600 artists, written more than 1,400 product reviews and contributed to Jeff Beck’s Beck 01: Hot Rods and Rock & Roll and Eric Clapton’s Six String Stories.