Excerpt for Number One with an Axe! A Look at the Guitar’s Role in America’s #1 Hits, Volume 5, 1975-79 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

­­­Number One with an AXE!
A Look at the Guitar’s Role in America’s #1 Hits

Volume Five: 1975-79

By Michael Rays

Published by Michael Rays at Smashwords

Copyright 2019 Michael Rays

Also by Michael Rays, published at Smashwords:

Number One with an AXE! The Fifties

Number One with an AXE! Volume 2: 1960-64

Number One with an AXE! Volume 3: 1965-69

Number One with an AXE! Volume 4: 1970-74

Guitar Odyssey: A Journal of Musical Growth

Guitar Odyssey 2: Talkin’ Dirty

Six-String Sleuth: A Guitar Player’s Guide to Figuring Out Song Chords

Headers: Scores & Headlines from Brazil 2014

Number One with an AXE! is a look at the role of the guitar in America’s #1 Billboard hits. Guitar gadfly Michael Rays listens to, comments on and scores each #1 hit in terms of four guitar-centric criteria: riffage, rhythm, fills and solos. The result is an exploratory history of the guitar at the pinnacle of American pop music.

The Disco Era is upon us... forward we boogie!

Table of Contents

Riffs on “Guitar Odyssey”

Ode to Guitar Players

Methodology Used






Facts & Statistics

About the Author

Riffs on Guitar Odyssey

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“…you quickly get into the spirit of the project and it becomes great fun to read.”

- (Deep Purple blog)

“Rays creates a chronicle of growth that will immerse and inspire fellow guitar players who have their own 'impossible' playing goals and aspirations…”

- D. Donovan, Senior eBook Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

“…a surprisingly entertaining read.”

- Last Best News

“…Michael Rays has crafted a literate, interesting, funny and, oddly, moving account of his six-string journey…”

- Missoula Independent

“You learn, as Rays did in real time, that the journey towards achieving something, even if it seems simple at first blush, can be trying, surprising, and fulfilling with ample happy accidents in between.”


Ode to Guitar Players by Michael Rays

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What meaneth one who says ‘I play guitar’?
A batch of basic chords strummed ‘round the fire
An introverted teen who’d be a star
endless blues licks on a Squier?
A young gal voicing jazz chords warm and pure
An old man finger-picking on the porch
A classicist, with tones that long endure
or metal shredders carrying the torch?
A drunken punker, fast and out of tune
an aging rocker holding onto youth
a bold flamenco player ‘neath the moon
a studious composer seeking truth?
Thus meaneth one who says ‘I play guitar’:
‘I’ve joined the journey infinitely far.’

Methodology Used (aka “Are my methods unsound?”)

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My methodology was pretty straightforward: I got a list of all the #1 songs on the Billboard pop charts and I listened to each one. Some songs entered the #1 spot, fell out and then re-entered; for those songs, I only list the date of the song’s first entry at #1.

I scored each song, using a scale of 0-10, on the following four criteria: Riffage, Rhythm Playing, Fills and Solos. A score of zero indicates that the element didn’t exist (as far as I could tell). A score of 5 indicates an average effort, and a score of 10 indicates a supreme musical accomplishment. The ultimate guitar #1 song would score 10 in all four categories for a total of 40 points.

Scores are based solely on my judgment and are therefore subjective. The mixing on some of the songs made it difficult or impossible for me to tell if there was any guitar on the track. When such doubts arose, I gave a score of 1 or 2 for rhythm playing—I couldn’t bear the thought of giving four zeros to a song that actually contains some guitar!

Where possible, each song title has a YouTube link to the song. My apologies if the links have died. If your device won’t follow the links, I recommend you go to YouTube and watch/listen to the songs as you read about them—especially the ones you haven’t heard of, and of those especially the ones that score well (say, 10 or more) on total points. There are many pleasant surprises if you really listen!

Here we go; let’s see what the disco era has to offer!



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Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Elton John, 1/4/75, 2 weeks at #1

Riffage 6, Rhythm 6, Fills 7, Solo 0; Total 19

Elton John’s cover of this Lennon-McCartney composition features none other than John Lennon himself on guitar. The opening riff is played on both piano and guitar, and Lennon continues this motif by occasionally doubling Elton’s vocal melody with a clean-toned electric. There’s a trippy, almost-reggae-sounding section in the middle with some playful fill work.

Mandy, Barry Manilow, 1/18/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 0, Fills 0, Solo 0; Total 0

Guitar lovers need not dwell here long, or at all. But give Barry his due: the guy could spin a melody, and his piano work here has some nice voicings. The arrangement is lush and orchestral to the point where the drums seem almost out of place.

Please Mr. Postman, The Carpenters, 1/25/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 3, Fills 8, Solo 8; Total 19

Be sure to listen all the way through to this breezy remake of the first Motown hit ever to reach #1 (1961, Marvelettes). You have to listen for them, but there are excellent guitar fills sprinkled here and there, and just when you think the sax solo is all there is, BAM! A rather terrific guitar solo (with an ultra-smooth jazz tone) on the outro!

(Also be sure to check out the song’s video. Does the combo work? You decide.)

Laughter in the Rain, Neil Sedaka, 2/1/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 3, Fills 0, Solo 0; Total 3

Like teammates on a soft pop relay team, the Carpenters take the baton handed to them by Barry Manilow and smoothly pass to Neil Sedaka. Neil sings about the joys of being caught in the rain with the one you love. Not surprisingly, the arrangement is filled with piano and strings. Ah! But listen closely and you’ll hear a nod to the early 70s zeitgeist: a chunking, wokka-type electric falling squarely on each beat.

Fire, Ohio Players, 2/8/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 7, Rhythm 7, Fills 6, Solo 0; Total 20

If Americans were excited about soft pop in the early 70s, they were also jazzed about funk, as evidenced by “Fire” making it to #1. The bedrock groove is heavy and simple, with rhythmic layers of varying complexity coming and going seemingly at will. The meaty-toned electric guitar part serves as riff, rhythm and fill. Hypnotic and terrific!

You’re No Good, Linda Rondstadt, 2/15/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 4, Rhythm 9, Fills 0, Solo 7; Total 20

A house of mirrors for tasty guitar work: everywhere you turn something cool is going on, and it’s all understated. Masterful arranging and producing.

Pick Up the Pieces, Average White Band, 2/22/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 6, Rhythm 7, Fills 7, Solo 0; Total 20

Disciplined funk! On first listen this glorious head-nodder is a saxophone showcase, but don your headphones; your reward is a fantastic, guitar-driven groove. When you hear the subtle, single-note rhythm/fill guitar line, you’re going to want to pick up your own axe and figure out how to play it. Enjoy!

That makes three songs in a row with scores of at least 20... a first! Can we keep the mojo going? Considering the next group and the next song, I like our chances.

Best of My Love, The Eagles, 3/1/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 7, Rhythm 7, Fills 9, Solo 0; Total 23

Oh baby, four in a row! One of the biggest bands of all-time announces their presence atop the charts with a gorgeous mix of Glen Frey’s 12-string strumming and Bernie Leadon’s wistful steel guitar fills. Learn this tune and you’ll make friends at any campfire.

Have You Never Been Mellow, Olivia Newton-John, 3/8/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 6, Fills 6, Solo 0; Total 12

ONJ and crew give it the old college try, but alas, our 20-plus streak is at an end. The riff might be a flute, or perhaps a synth of some sort. The rhythm and fill parts are clean and pleasant.

(Oh, and way to reach those high notes, Olivia!)

Black Water, The Doobie Brothers, 3/15/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 7, Rhythm 9, Fills 0, Solo 9; Total 25

Acoustic ecstasy! This Patrick Simmons-penned tune is one of those songs that improves your frame of mind whenever you hear it. Pleasant, laid-back, unconventional, and wholly satisfying. The solo features some terrific back and forth between guitar and fiddle.

My Eyes Adored You, Frankie Valli, 3/22/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 3, Rhythm 9, Fills 9, Solo 0; Total 21

A player named Demetri Callas fills this excellent Franki Valli (formerly of the Four Seasons) song with fantastic guitar work. He opens with a somewhat underwhelming riff, but from there on it’s awesomeness all the way. Demetri darts here and there on his fretboard, now filling, now playing rhythm, now doing both with the same lines, and it’s all fresh and tasteful. Great stuff!

Lady Marmalade, LaBelle, 3/29/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 7, Rhythm 2, Fills 6, Solo 0; Total 15

Has there ever been a #1 hit with such a mix of energy and attitude? Awesome vocals abound (Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash). The guitar work is solid, but it’s way down in the mix below the horns, piano and vocals.

Lovin’ You, Minnie Riperton, 4/5/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 9, Fills 0, Solo 0; Total 9

Not many singers can follow Patti LaBelle and look competent, but Minnie Riperton pulls it off nicely. This tune is interesting in that it opens with birds chirping, then KEEPS them chirping throughout the entire song! Stevie Wonder plays keyboards, and an unknown guitar player supplies a beautiful rhythm line.

NOTE: At song’s end, Minnie sing-repeats the name “Maya.” This was for her daughter, Maya Rudolph, who would go on to be a comedic actress, including as a cast member on Saturday Night Live.

Philadelphia Freedom, Elton John, 4/12/75, 2 weeks at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 4, Fills 7, Solo 0; Total 11

This Elton John-Bernie Taupin song was inspired by tennis legend Billie Jean King, who played on a team called the Philadelphia Freedoms in the mid-70s. The orchestration has a bit of everything; Davey Johnstone’s contributions are some standard rhythm playing and a mix of syrupy and clean electric fills.

(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song, B.J. Thomas, 4/26/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 5, Fills 7, Solo 0; Total 12

The man who kicked off the 1970s with “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” is back with an AWFULLY SIMILAR CHORD PROGRESSION. Listen to the chorus (“Hey, won’t you play another...”) and you can easily hear “Raindrops” in your mind’s ear. Fair enough, though: it’s not like lots of other artists don’t mine the same chord progressions on multiple songs. (The Kinks come to mind.) At any rate, this song is a pleasant toe-tapper with steady strumming throughout, plus some nice subtle fills on the slide guitar.

He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You), 5/3/75, 3 weeks at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 10, Fills 6, Solo 0; Total 16

Sometimes great guitar songs are hiding in plain sight. This run-of-the-mill 70s pop song pleasantly and unexpectedly reaches guitar nirvana for 20 glorious seconds during the second verse. From 1:53 to 2:13 we are treated to a triple-axe delight: acoustic picking, wispy electric fills and country-flavored steel guitar lines. Axe-tastic!

Shining Star, Earth Wind & Fire, 5/24/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 10, Rhythm 9, Fills 10, Solo 0; Total 29

Is it possible to put good feelings into a bottle? Earth Wind & Fire come amazingly close with this glorious musical pep-talk. Guitars, horns and voices all add to a spellbinding arrangement. The riff grabs your entire body, and the fill lines under the rhythm (played, I’m guessing, on a Telecaster) are to be sought out and admired.

At the 1:01 mark, an awesome five-bar run of guitar takes place, kicking the song into a higher gear and begging the question: is it a solo? After wrestling with this question for several days, I decided to call it a fill versus a solo. My reasoning: 1) a typical solo lasts at least eight bars; five is very murky territory for being called a solo; 2) a solo typically has a beginning, a middle and an end—this passage serves more as a transition back to the song’s verse than as a solo; it ends with a feeling of tension, and, importantly, the resolution comes not from the guitar itself but from start of the song’s second verse.

As it turns out, calling that passage a fill was a momentous decision—this song could have been our champion-to-date with a score of, say, 38. But I will stand by it.

Before the Next Teardrop Falls, Freddy Fender, 5/31/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 3, Fills 0, Solo 0; Total 3

Did someone build a time machine and raid this song from the 1961 Billboard country charts? Don’t get me wrong; it’s a nice little love song, and a verse sung in Spanish is always a winner, but coming after Shining Star—WOW, what a contrast.

Thank God I’m a Country Boy, John Denver, 6/7/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 6, Fills 6, Solo 7; Total 19

Tap them toes and have some fun! If memory serves, this is just the second live song to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (after Chuck Berry’s “My ding-a-ling” in 1972). Call me a rube, but I cannot tell if the solo is played on a guitar or a banjo.

Sister Golden Hair, America, 6/14/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 7, Rhythm 9, Fills 8, Solo 7; Total 31

In the mid- to late-70s, America enjoyed the production wizardry of one George Martin, he of Beatles fame. Let us count the good things in this song: Not one but THREE guitar tracks, and that’s just in the intro; the awesome drum entrance 45 seconds in; the doo-wop vocals; and the George Harrison-esque guitar fills and solo.

The solo. Sister Golden Hair seems to once again raise the question: what is a solo? The song does indeed feature a guitar solo, but it’s a bit unusual for two reasons: 1) It occurs at the very end of the song (not freakish by any means, but a bit unorthodox); 2) It’s pretty far down in the mix! Concurrently with the solo we have strumming and doo-wop singing going on, all getting equal or even slightly higher levels than the lead guitar.

Love Will Keep Us Together, Captain & Tenille, 6/21/75, 4 weeks at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 0, Fills 0, Solo 0; Total 0

“Sedaka is back!” So go the lyrics at the very end, and so it is true as this Neil Sedaka-penned (along with Howard Greenfield) tune tops the charts. It’s a zero for guitars, but a smorgasbord for keyboard lovers! Daryl Dragon (do you really need to be nicknamed “The Captain” when your actual name is Dragon?) fairly goes bananas with all the keyboard technology of the day, as well as some rinky-tink tones from the wooden-planked saloons of yesteryear.

Bonus video: get out your mandolin and play along with Neil’s original from 1973!

Listen to What the Man Said, Paul McCartney and Wings, 7/19/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 7, Rhythm 3, Fills 0, Solo 0; Total 10

From the “songs to trot your horse to” file comes this amiable tune from melody maestro Paul McCartney. The song has some nice vocals, but nothing earth-shattering guitar-wise.

The Hustle, Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony, 7/26/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 8, Rhythm 10, Fills 7, Solo 0; Total 25

YESSSS! Get out your headphones for this one.

Readers of the “Number One With an Axe!” series may remember the name Eric Gale. He’s one of the all-time prolific guitar session men, and he first appeared in this series on Bobby Lewis’s 1961 chart-topper “Tossin’ and Turnin.’” 14 years later he’s back, along with fellow session veteran John Tropea; the pair lay down some terrific rhythm work on one of the short-list songs responsible for sending the disco phenomenon into the stratosphere.

The opening riff is perhaps better known as a vocal riff, but there IS a guitar playing, too. Later in the song, during the trumpet solos, listen to the two-note guitar part in the background. It’s almost impossibly simple, but it works great!

One of These Nights, The Eagles, 8/2/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 7, Rhythm 10, Fills 7, Solo 10; Total 34

The link above (if it still works) is to the radio edited version of this Eagles classic. We are hit right off the bat with great interplay between the bass (Randy Meisner) and two riff/rhythm guitars (Don Felder and Bernie Leadon). Felder’s tone is syrupy and fuzzed out, even on his searing solo; the sound is distinct and very memorable.

Listen to the outro: beneath those soaring vocals you’ll hear a TON of cool guitar playing!

Jive Talkin’, The Bee Gees, 8/9/75, 2 weeks at #1

Riffage 6, Rhythm 9, Fills 0, Solo 0; Total 15

Scratch my back! What to make of the opening riff on this sick-but-smooth-grooved marriage of guitars and synths? Is it even a riff? I’m saying yes: that syncopated scratching makes the song instantly identifiable, and that’s what a riff does. The multi-layered rhythm playing that follows is outstanding.

Fallin’ In Love; Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds, 8/23/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 3, Rhythm 7, Fills 0, Solo 0; Total 10

Less is more! WAY down in the mix is the electric rhythm guitar (flanged?) on this breezy head-nodder... yet it’s right where it needs to be, contributing to the opening riff and anchoring the groove.

Get Down Tonight, KC and the Sunshine Band, 8/30/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 8, Fills 8, Solo 8; Total 24

Is that a guitar soloing at the beginning and peppering cool fills and rhythm throughout the song? Yes! They recorded the solo and played it back at double-speed. A gimmick? Not in my view; I think it works quite well.

Rhinestone Cowboy, Glen Campbell, 9/6/75, 2 weeks at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 5, Fills 5, Solo 0; Total 10

Listening to this song is like watching Michael Jordan dribbling a basketball in a gym by himself: you can’t help but think, “This is nice, but he can do SO much more!”

Glen was a great entertainer as well as a great guitar player; this song showcases his talents as the former.

Bonus video: for the latter (and the former too!) try this.

Fame, David Bowie, 9/20/75, 2 weeks at #1

Riffage 8, Rhythm 10, Fills 6, Solo 0; Total 24

This one sure doesn’t sound like the others—but obviously the young Americans loved it! Multiple guitars create the sonic canvas on this vamp-based adventure. They strum, they pluck, they bend, they flange, they attack. A typical day at the office for David Bowie!

I’m Sorry, John Denver, 9/27/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 3, Rhythm 6, Fills 6, Solo 0; Total 15

John Denver is always good for some guitar. This ballad of self-pity starts out guitar-centered and is gradually overtaken by a small orchestra. Listen for a couple of nice fills in the first minute.

Bad Blood, Neil Sedaka, 10/11/75, 3 weeks at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 7, Fills 0, Solo 0; Total 7

Take a Bo Diddley rhythm, slow it down to glacial speed, add Elton John on backing vocals, and presto—you’ve got yourself a #1 hit! There’s a little guitar on rhythm, and a whole lotta flute everywhere else.

Island Girl, Elton John, 11/1/75, 3 weeks at #1

Riffage 7, Rhythm 7, Fills 0, Solo 0; Total 14

Sir Elton makes the transition from backup singer to front man with ease (of course). The key word for this song is slide. The guitar riff is a slide, and the rhythm behind the marimba solo is Davey Johnstone sliding all over the place, island-style.

Thought experiment: check out the lyrics and ask yourself, would this song get made today?

That’s the Way (I Like It), 11/22/75, 2 weeks at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 7, Fills 0, Solo 0; Total 7

Listen closely and you’ll hear a wokka-guitar helping build the groove.

Fly, Robin, Fly; Silver Convention, 11/29/75, 3 weeks at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 3, Fills 4, Solo 0; Total 7

The groove is as sick as you could wish for, but it’s all thanks to bass and piano. Once again we have a bit of wokka-guitar in the background, plus a few flanged and delayed fills.

Let’s Do It Again, The Staple Singers, 12/27/75, 1 week at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 6, Fills 7, Solo 0; Total 13

We finish 1975 with this criminally smooth soul jam. Two extremely subtle electric guitars swoop in and out, dropping wah-rhythm and sighing fill lines.

That was a very pleasant way to end the year. Let’s see what America’s Bicentennial has in store!


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Saturday Night, Bay City Rollers, 1/3/76, 1 week at #1

Riffage 3, Rhythm 7, Fills 0, Solo 0; Total 10

We kick off 1976 with this pop band from Edinburgh, Scotland. There’s a riff, sort of, underneath the song’s signature chant, and the rhythm work is a rather solid triple-attack of fuzz, strumming and clean electric double-stops.

Convoy, C. W. McCall, 1/10/76, 1 week at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 6, Fills 0, Solo 0; Total 6

The mid-70s CB (citizens’ band) radio craze is neatly distilled into this spoken/sung homage to truckers evading cops and smashing through toll gates. The restrained, almost cartoonish female chorus vocals seem oddly out of place, and there’s not much going on guitar-wise until the midway point, when some strumming and banjo join the convoy.

I Write the Songs, Barry Manilow, 1/17/76, 1 week at #1

Riffage 0, Rhythm 0, Fills 0, Solo 0; Total 0

Barry’s back, and he brought his orchestra, including a harp, but no guitars that I could discern. You’d think he’d throw in a little lick when he sings “And I wrote some rock ‘n’ roll, so you can move.” Instead, it’s a short duet consisting of violin and piccolo trumpet. Oh, Barry...

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