Did Michael Jackson’s Hit “Beat It” Borrow From Another Popular ’80s Band?

Written by Shane Whalen

Videos by American Songwriter

In a recent American Songwriter article, we compared the similarities of Jason Aldean’s controversial single “Try That In A Small Town” to one of pop music’s most celebrated songs in history—Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” What we discovered was that a legendary guitar riff that sounded a lot like Eddie Van Halen’s work in “Beat It” in 1982, also appeared in Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town.”  (See related article)

[RELATED: Did Jason Aldean’s Single “Try That in a Small Town” Borrow from Pop Music History?]

As noted in the previous article, it’s common for artists to draw inspiration from one another and sometimes weave it into their own work. Whether conscious or not, it’s a common practice that can be found across all types of music…and sometimes in court.  

[RELATED: Ed Sheeran Speaks Out Following Lawsuit Win—”You Just Can’t Copyright a Chord Sequence”]

With that in mind, we continued our journey down the rabbit hole with one obvious question, “Did EVH repurpose his legendary riff in ‘Beat It’ from another artist?”

In 1979, the band REO Speedwagon released a track from their album Nine Lives, titled “Back on the Road Again,” three years before the release of Jackson’s “Beat It.” Now, eight seconds into a fresh listen, all you can say is…“There’s that guitar riff again.”

Jun Junka Junenow

Jun Junka Junenow 

At this point, the riff is simply legendary with no limit on influence. We’ve linked it to three No. 1 artists, three influential songwriting lead guitarists, and two No. 1 songs in pop and country, all spanning over four decades of music. 

But who actually should get the props for this iconic riff?

Listen for yourself:

“BACK ON THE ROAD AGAIN” — :08 second mark

“BEAT IT” :  2:57 mark 

Try That In A Small Town” — 1:55 mark


REO’s longtime guitarist Gary Richrath is credited with lead duties on their 1979 release. Is he the true source of this inspirational guitar genius? Or did he find inspiration from another artist dating even further back? 

Only time will tell the true source of this repurposed riff. But one thing is for certain. It has proven to have quite a track record in the history of music.

Jun Junka Junenow

Jun Junka Junenow 

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  1. Eddie Van Halen only did the solo for “Beat It”. All the other guitar parts (including the main riff and that rhythm section) were done by Toto guitarist and premier session wizard Steve Lukather.

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