Way back in May last year, Brian May shared behind-the-scenes footage and images of a then-unannounced guitar riffs documentary, which saw him share a sofa – and swap electric guitars – with fellow six-string royal, Tony Iommi.
That documentary turned out to be Greatest Guitar Riffs – a three-part series by UK’s Sky Arts channel that aired back in November, and which sought to explore the greatest feats of riffery with the help of a few famous faces.
Iommi was one such famous face involved in the series, with the heavy metal godfather at one point calling upon his close friend May for a brief chat about all things riffs – as well as an impromptu, long-overdue jam.
Armed with their respective guitars of choice – the Red Special for May, and an SG-style replica of his famed ‘Monkey’ SG special for Iommi – the pair locked fretboards for an improvised run-through over Black Sabbath's Paranoid.
In Guitar World-exclusive footage, Iommi, the mastermind of the riff itself, can be found firmly rooted in the rhythm pocket for the jam, giving his guitar-playing peer an opportunity to let loose for a series of none-more-May lead lines.
“I’m going to commit sacrilege by joining in!” May prefaced before diving into his lick arsenal, pulling out a string of full-throttle double stop punches and searing pentatonic bends. The Bohemian Rhapsody icon then dutifully gave Iommi the final word, hopping to the main riff and allowing the Black Sabbath founder free rein to bring the jam to a close.
“It is a good riff,” May joked after the dust had settled. “It will go far.”
The jam was preceded by a discussion of Iommi’s riff philosophy, with the Queen legend quizzing his close friend over his seemingly effortless and evergreen ability to compose top notch riffs.
“I don’t know. I think it’s within,” Iommi responded when asked where he gets his riffs from. “Normally, we jam around and play something, and it just feels right.”
As for Paranoid, the birth of that riff was equally nonchalant: “We didn’t have enough songs to fill the album, so the producer said, ‘We need another song.’
“We went, ‘We don’t have another song!’ [The producer said], ‘Well, can you come up with one? It can’t be any more than two-and-a-half minutes.’ We’ve never written anything less than bloody five minutes.
“The others had gone out to have something to eat. I came up with this riff, so when they got back I played them this idea of Paranoid. It’s basic. It’s not technical by any means. What I’ve always done is, not try and play anything that’s flash. I play things that I think is right for the song.”
The clip above is lifted from Greatest Guitar Riffs, which was released alongside an accompanying survey that polled “UK music aficionados” in order to discover and rank the nation’s “favourite six-string riff of all time”.
The survey itself was filled with intriguing and debate-provoking findings, though one stood out above all others: namely, according the results gathered, 53% of those asked in the poll thought the guitar riff was dying.
Greatest Guitar Riffs is available to stream on NOW.