Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and the Unlikely Musical Icon Who Deserved Credit For It

The opening riff of Deep Purple’s 1972 hit “Smoke on the Water” is one of the most iconic musical sequences in classic rock history, but according to the musician who wrote it, the riff’s origins can be traced back even further to 1808. 

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Rock aficionado or not, most listeners can identify “Smoke on the Water” within the first few seconds of hearing the track. As guitarist Ritchie Blackmore would later explain in a 2007 interview, he drew inspiration from another legendary piece of music that was just as readily identifiable.

From Classical Music To Classic Rock

As iconic as Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” riff became, the composition itself was surprisingly simple. The musical motif features four syncopated intervals in G minor, combining contemporary blues elements with the antiquated feeling of parallel fourths. The song starts with Blackmore playing the riff on electric guitar before Jon Lord and Roger Glover join in on a Hammond C3 organ and bass guitar, respectively.

In a 2007 interview with CNN’s Richard Quest, Blackmore admitted that he came up with the “Smoke on the Water” riff by experimenting with Ludwig Van Beethoven’s fifth symphony. “I thought [I’d] play [Beethoven’s fifth] backwards, put something to it,” Blackmore said (via London, Reign Over Me: How England’s Capital Built Classic Rock). “That’s how I came up with it. It’s an interpretation of inversion. You turn it back, and play it back and forth, it’s actually Beethoven’s fifth. So, I owe him a lot of money.” 

Blackmore’s reputation for having an eccentric sense of humor has caused some Deep Purple fans to wonder if he was being tongue-in-cheek during his 2007 interview. Nevertheless, the 1972 smash hit does bear a passing resemblance to the Beethoven symphony from 1808. Considering Deep Purple’s reverence for artists decades (and even centuries) older than them, it would make sense that they might draw inspiration from the likes of Beethoven.

The Members Of Deep Purple Had Multiple Musical Muses

Beethoven’s role (or lack thereof) in creating the “Smoke on the Water” riff will likely always be a contested truth of the classic rock canon. However, one would find it much more difficult to dispute these early European composers’ influence on the English rock band. Deep Purple was no stranger to orchestral performances, thanks in no small part to the band’s pianist, Jon Lord.

Two years after they released “Smoke on the Water,” Deep Purple performed two original compositions with the Munich Chamber Opera: “Continuo on B.A.C.H.” and “Windows,” both written by Lord. The keyboardist later described the struggles of combining the classical and classic rock worlds in Dave Thompson’s Smoke on the Water: The Deep Purple Story

“I did a couple of pieces where I had no chance to hear anything until the first rehearsal,” Lord said. “I think all you can do, or what I do, and still do, is if I hear a sound in my head and I can’t feel how to make it work—this combination or that combination—I will go back to the masters. I’ll read a Tchaikovsky score or Beethoven to find out how they did it. I find that absolutely essential. That’s how they did it. That’s the process. One generation takes from the previous one, builds on it, and passes it on to the next.”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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