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(Credit: John Mathew Smith)

Music

What's That Sound? The main riff in the War song 'Low Rider'

@TylerGolsen

War were one of the most quietly revolutionary bands of the 1970s. Musically and ethnically diverse, the California band roped in influences from all different genres, including rock, funk, soul, jazz, folk, blues, and Latin American music. Although psychedelic odes like ‘Spill the Wine’ and goofy singalongs like ‘Why Can’t We Be Friends’ are what they’re best remembered for today, War kept a strong political mindset throughout their career, most notably on 1972’s The World is a Ghetto.

But if there is one song that will outlive the band themselves, it’s probably ‘Low Rider’. With an infectious bassline and easy earworm quality to it, ‘Low Rider’ is War at their most effortlessly groovy. Thanks to the likes of Cheech and Chong or George Lopez, ‘Low Rider’ continues to permeate throughout pop culture, often strongly tied to Chicano culture and car fandoms. 

For a song so well-known and frequently played, the central riff that makes ‘Low Rider’ an absolute hook machine is a bit of a mystery. It’s certainly not a guitar, with the tonality of the riff being far from the pluck of a string. But it also doesn’t quite have the same sound as a typical horn instrument like a trumpet. It’s almost like the riff descended from outer space, unique in its construction and impossible to decipher in its execution.

Thankfully, we do know what made that legendary riff so iconic, and it turns out that one instrument isn’t enough to properly replicate the sound. The central riff to ‘Low Rider’ is actually a combination of alto saxophone and harmonica played by band members Charles Miller and Lee Oskar, respectively. There’s also some debate as to whether the riff is accentuated with some mallet percussion, like a marimba or a xylophone. 

It sounds as though the riff includes mallets, but War had no dedicated mallet player, and keyboardist Lonnie Jordan is preoccupied with a piano line throughout the song. It’s conceivable that the band later overdubbed some mallets into the song, but neither of the likely candidates, either the marimba or xylophone, are listed in the song’s credits. Instead, all members of War are simply credited with playing “percussion”.

Check out the central riff in ‘Low Rider’ down below.