Is there anything better than a good song intro? Well, yeah. I can think of a few things, and some of them even have something to do with music. But still, there’s just something magical about a great song intro. Whether it’s an unaccompanied slab of guitar wizardry, some kind of unexpected time signature, a chunk of mysteriously atmospheric ambience or even just some kind of silly bit if dialog recorded in the studio, a good intro can set the scene and build anticipation for the song proper. So in celebration of the glories of the intro, here are a few of my favourites, divided in to guitar and bass examples. What are yours?
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Van Halen – “Man On A Mission”
“What the hell? Why isn’t he choosing “Mean Streets” or “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” or “Hear About It Later”? …wasn’t “Eruption” an intro to “You Really Got Me?”” Yup. And all of those are obvious, legendary and brilliant. “Man On A Mission” (from 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge) deserves a mention though because it’s relatively obscure and a little different to a typical Van Halen ‘featured intro.’ On this one, Eddie Van Halen uses his right hand to tap a root/flatted fifth/octave pattern, then adds a descending figure by ‘hammering on from nowhere’ with his left hand. Bass player Michael Anthony joins in halfway through. It’s a weird pattern which has a slight Primus feel to it thanks to that flatted fifth, but that same note also ties in with the Minor Blues scale used in the main riff. The same lick is used again in the song to build tension before the solo. So there are three things you can ‘borrow’ from this intro: the ear-catching weirdness, the way it ties in with the main riff, and the idea of calling back to it to build tension during the body of the song. Thanks Ed.
Jimi Hendrix – “Little Wing”
Jimi’s “Little Wing” intro takes up a good portion of the whole song, and it’s so damn tasty that he could have left it there and ended up with a classic without singing a word. Stevie Ray Vaughan took this song and really ran with it too, re-casting it as an instrumental. But what’s especially great about this iconic intro is that Jimi plays around with the chord progression that you’ll hear later during the vocal parts of the song. He does this by throwing in little wiggly notes, hammer-ons, slides, harmonics… he basically throws a whole bunch of guitar at what would be an otherwise pretty but straightforward chord progression. The result is that when the band joins in and the vocals start, you’re already familiar with the chord progression, having just heard Jimi outlining and suggesting it rather than blatantly playing it.
Steve Vai – “Bad Horsie”
This intro started life as something Vai played during his cameo in the film Crossroads (not the Britney Spears one…). He extrapolated upon it to come up with Bad Horsie, but the intro itself is kept relatively intact, just recast in a different tuning. Vai mimics a chugging choo-choo train, complete with whistle, by combining whammied harmonics for the whistle with varied levels of palm-muting for the engine sounds. Then the main riff of the song is based on the engine pattern. This one teaches us that we can mimic real-world sounds and use them as inspiration for a more abstract song. Of course, Vai has plenty of other great intros, like the talking guitar in “The Audience Is Listening” or the Devin Townsend scream at the start of “Survive.”
Extreme – “Our Father”
On this intro, Nuno Bettencourt’s guitar is panned hard left with a delay repeat panned hard right. He’s effectively only playing half of what you hear, letting the delay fill in the other half. If you listen to it in mono (say, on a phone speaker – I’m not expecting anyone to have a mono hi-fi at this point in time…) it loses its effect. If you listen to it with one headphone or speaker busted it really loses its effect. If you listen to it in headphones or on a stereo with simulated surround sound… whoa. You’ll probably need two amps or a unit like the AxeFX or a POD to pull this idea off convincingly on stage – even a stereo amp won’t quite do it because the speakers are too close together. I’ve always found this kind of intro to be a bit of a brain-exploder, because we as the guitarists perfuming it will probably never be able to fully separate the performed part from the heard part in the way that a non-playing listener will hear it.
Living Colour – “Wall”
Doug Wimbish’s intro to this cut from the album the Stain album uses a few effects: delay and a DigiTech Whammy pedal. Wimbish uses the Whammy to emphasise certain notes by jamming them up by two whole octaves, while the delay carries on the basic pulse of the riff underneath. Then at the end of the intro, before the band comes in, he smoothly increases pressure on the Whammy pedal, shifting the whole riff up in pitch across the duration of the final bar before dropping back down to the original register once the guitar and drums kick in.
Tool – “Sober”
Okay, so there’s a bit of guitar feedback happening over the top, but the intro to “Sober” is still very much bass-driven. Paul D’Amour attacks his bass with a pick, performing muted, percussive chunky ‘chk-chk’ in between strums. This riff consists of power chords and distortion, making it relatively guitaristic. It’s an interesting choice because Adam Jones’ guitar tone is dry and almost bass-like, so it’s almost like they’ve switched roles to a certain extent.
Led Zeppelin – “Dazed And Confused”
There’s something utterly creepy about this song, and a big part of that is due to this huge, doomy, descending bassline by John Paul Jones. Roll back the tone knob, play with your fingers right up close to the neck, and hang behind the beat a little bit to get a similar vibe. Interestingly, during the solo section Jones plays ahead of the beat instead. As commanding as Jimmy Page’s guitar is, Jones is essentially playing ‘lead bass’ on this song.
Black Sabbath – “N.I.B”
The blueprint for this one is simple: give Geezer Butler a bass and a wah wah pedal and just let him go. Geezer dwells mostly within the minor pentatonic scale and he throws in a few well-placed bends which are emphasised by the wah, before finally launching into an unaccompanied version of the song’s main riff. There are a few different approaches you can take to wah: one is to tap your foot rhythmically on each beat of the bar, and that’s a real good way to create a funky, charging vibe. Another method is the one Geezer employs here: to use the wah to shape the envelope of the note, drawing out the bends by sweeping the pedal. A third way is the Frank Zappa method of using the pedal to zero in on a particularly resonant frequency like a tone filter, and maybe moving the pedal slightly here and there to either sharpen up the focus on particular notes and phrases, or to blend them into the background a little more. There’s also the ‘leave the wah completely stationary’ method, which can give you a great high-end clatter at the pedal’s highest reaches, or a honky, gronky sound at other settings.
Alice In Chains – “Rotten Apple”
This track is the opening song on Alice In Chains’ EP Sap, and it serves as an intro for Mike Inez, who joined the band following the departure of Mike Starr. Inez plays this opening riff with a pick and a very direct, up-front tone, and he continues to carry the whole song. It’s also a deceptively difficult riff to play, because it incorporates chords, hammer-ons and open strings, so you have to continually adjust your sense of timing to account for the different note attack times of each technique. Inez also wrote the iconic intro to Ozzy Osbourne’s “No More Tears,” which is a particularly clever intro because it starts on the ‘four-and’ of a one-bar count-in. Since there’s no other instrumentation to put the riff in musical context until the rest of the band kicks in, the ear hears the two notes of the count-in as the first notes of the actual riff, creating a jarring effect when the band comes in at the real ‘one.’