June 12, 2021

Break It Down: "Barracuda" by Heart

The best guitar riffs transcend the artists who write them. Larger than life, they are iconic entities unto themselves. Although classic hard-rock band Heart weren't inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 2013, the opening riff to their 1977 smash hit "Barracuda" should warrant their induction alone. From the rise of their commercial success in the 1970s through the 80s and beyond, Heart deftly fused elements of heavy metal, folk, and pop with the hair-raising vocals and rhythm guitar grooves of sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson at its core.

RS+ News - Hearts Barracuda - Nancy and Ann

Ann and Nancy Wilson in 2002

What makes the opening riff so memorable? There is so much going on: gallops, harmonics, whammy bar dives, a classic 70s flanger effect – together, it all packs a punch. The riff opens with a traditional heavy metal gallop, a rhythm technique comprised of one eighth note followed by two sixteenth notes:

RS+ News - Hearts Barracuda - Gallop

The gallop starts on an E power chord, a simple two-note chord with no major or minor quality; it's simply the root note (E) played with the fifth note (B). The E power chord gallops several times before riding up the neck to F#, then to G. The standout part of the riff comes next: harmonics on the three high strings at the 12th fret, followed by a quick trill on the whammy bar. The second time the riff repeats, it ends on an open chord followed by a dive bomb.

The disco-esque drum beat comes in and soon Ann graces us with her voice, soaring up effortlessly into jaw-dropping high registers ("So this ain't the end, I saw you again today"). The meter does some gymnastics at this point. After the 4/4 guitar intro, the first measure is in 3/4 time, then changes to 2/4 in the very next measure, followed by five measures of 4/4.

RS+ News - Hearts Barracuda - Verse Rhythm

This pattern repeats in each verse section, until the chorus climaxes with the lyric, "You'll have me down, down, down, down on my knees...now wouldn't you…" before the music comes to an abrupt stop to make way for the song title ("...Barracuda?"). The anger in Ann's voice peaks here and forces the listener to pay attention. And the anger is no coincidence: Ann wrote the lyrics after a man came up to her after a concert asking her how her "lover" was, later finding out he was referring to her sister Nancy and not her boyfriend/band manager Michael Fisher. The lyrics are also an expression of outrage towards their record label at the time, Mushroom Records, and towards the record industry in general.

"Barracuda" has all the ingredients of a rock-and-roll masterpiece – an iconic guitar intro, galloping groove, and vocal fury. But Heart took it beyond, adding unusual meter shifts to capture our attention and created something one of a kind.

Leila Abdul-Rauf is a multi-instrumentalist and composer based in Oakland, CA. Leila is guitarist and vocalist for metal bands Vastum, Hammers of Misfortune, and ethereal post-punk band Terebellum. She also composes and produces ambient music under her own name, with electronic trio Ionophore and synth-folk duo Fyrhtu. Leila has toured internationally and is a private guitar and voice teacher in her spare time.

"Nancy Wilson and Roger Fisher - Heart - 1978" by Jim Summaria is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

“Nancy and Ann Wilson” by John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0.

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