They’re important. They’re the first thing people hear. But Intros – aka the part before the singing starts – are often taken for granted.
When they work, they get the listener intrigued, involved, curious… Like with any good story, you want them thinking, ‘What’s going to happen next?’
What makes good intros is harder to define. But I can make some suggestions, based on my own experience, about how to find them.
The key is ‘find’. When I start arranging a song, I don’t worry about the Intro. Then, as the arrangement grows, I’m on the lookout for ideas that come organically out of the song’s arrangement that might work.
And when I say, ‘As the arrangement grows’ I don’t necessarily mean a full band or a full production. It can be a guitar lick or even just a chord progression from the song that catches the ear. Or even just a sound…
Some ideas of what to look for/listen for in your song:
A Counter-Melody. This can be something like ‘Baker Street’ – a hooky melody that’s as catchy as the Chorus (or more so), played over the rhythm and chords of the song. Other unforgettable examples are Al Kooper’s organ melody that opens ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, Al Gorgoni’s guitar lick for ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’, Steve Cropper’s 6ths for ‘Soul Man’.
And why not include Chuck Berry’s immortal ‘Chuck Berry Intro’, which set the table for so many songs of his (and others)?
These licks and grooves are integrally connected to the song but aren’t replicated in other sections (unless the Intro is repeated). They add another hook to the song.
Some Intros use a specific counter-melody that’s comes from a section of the song (usually the Chorus) but also stands on its own, as with the harmonized guitars of ‘Layla’.
Using the main Instrumental riff of the song is one of the most common approaches. Often it’s a guitar riff – ‘Rolling In The Deep’, Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘Start Me Up’, ‘My Girl’, ‘Highway To Hell’, ‘Lose Yourself’, and yes… ‘Smoke On The Water’. Or a Bass line – ‘I Want You Back’, ‘Living On A Prayer’, ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’. Or Drums – ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Straight Outta Compton’. And Piano/Keyboard – ‘King Of Pain’, ‘Jump’, ‘Bennie And The Jets’, ‘Watermelon Man’.
Or just start with the unembellished rhythm track itself, if it’s grabby, like ‘Family Affair’ (MJ Blige version).
One of the most interesting ways to go is to take part of the arrangement that’s already there and develop it further, just as an Intro, to create a mood. Some examples include ‘Come Together’, ‘Vogue’, and what may be my nominee for best Intro ever, ‘Gimme Shelter’ (the mood of menace, par excellence).
The Beatles were great at Intros, as they were at most things to do with making pop music. There are outliers like ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. One chord, played once… How did they think of that?
Did I mention using a sound? How about ‘I Feel Fine’?
And sometimes No Intro is a good idea. Jump right in with the Chorus, like in ‘She Loves You’…
These categories are very broad and fluid, and they overlap. The idea is to keep one’s ears open, as the song unfolds, for something that will work. Sometimes the coolest thing in the song is not the most important in the song itself, but can be repurposed as an Intro.
What are some Intros you love and where, if anywhere, do they come from in the song? Or how have you found them in your own songs?
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