Deep Purple – Smoke On The Water

Go to any music store basement right now and some beginner will be playing this riff on guitar. I’ve heard it murdered many times and I contributed to the count also. It’s one of the most popular guitar riffs in rock. I’m not saying best but maybe the most famous….it’s simple for a beginner and sounds great when played right. It was one of the first ones I learned.

This song was based on a true story that happened to the band. Smoke On The Water took inspiration from a fire in the Casino at Montreux, Switzerland on December 4, 1971. The band was going to start recording their Machine Head album there right after a Frank Zappa concert, but someone fired a flare gun at the ceiling during Zappa’s show, which set the place on fire when Deep Purple was watching.

Smoke on the Water peaked at #4 in the Billboard 100 and  #2 in Canada in 1973. The song was credited to Deep Purple…Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Gillan, Roger Glover, Jon Lord, and Ian Paice.

Ritchie Blackmore: “Ian Paice (Deep Purple drummer) and I often used to jam, just the two of us. It was a natural riff to play at the time. It was the first thing that came into my head during that jam.”


From Songfacts

Deep Purple was in the audience for the show, and lead singer Ian Gillan recalls two flares being shot by someone sitting behind him which landed in the top corner of the building and quickly set it ablaze. Zappa stopped the show and helped ensure an orderly exit. Deep Purple watched the blaze from a nearby restaurant, and when the fire died down, a layer of smoke had covered Lake Geneva, which the casino overlooked. This image gave bass player Roger Glover the idea for a song title: “Smoke On The Water,” and Gillan wrote the lyric about their saga recording the Machine Head album.

The band was relocated to the Grand Hotel in Montreux, where they recorded the album using the Rolling Stones mobile studio. They needed one more song, so they put together “Smoke On The Water” using Gillan’s lyric and riff the guitarist Ritchie Blackmore came up with. The result was a song telling the story of these strange events just days after they happened – the recording sessions took place from December 6-21.

Frank Zappa, who is mentioned in the lyrics, lost all his equipment in the fire. He then broke his leg a few days later when a fan pulled him into the crowd at a show in England. This prompted Ian Gillan to say “Break a leg, Frank,” into the microphone after recording this for a BBC special in 1972.

Deep Purple bass player Roger Glover had some doubts about the title: he knew it was great but was reluctant to use it because it sounded like a drug song.

Ritchie Blackmore has an affinity for renaissance music, which he writes and performs in his duo Blackmore’s Night. He says that he first took an interest in the form in 1971 when he saw a BBC program called Wives of Henry VIII, and that there is indeed a trace of Renaissance in “Smoke On The Water.” “The riff is done in fourths and fifths – a medieval modal scale,” he explained on MySpace Music. “It makes it appear more dark and foreboding. Not like today’s pop music thirds.”

The band did not think this would be a hit and rarely played it live. It took off when they released it as a US single over a year after the album came out. Talking about the song’s merits as live material, Roger Glover said in Metal Hammer, “I think ‘Smoke On The Water’ is the biggest song that Purple will ever have and there’s always a pressure to play it, and it’s not the greatest live song, it’s a good song but you sorta plod through it. The excitement comes from the audience. And there’s always the apprehension that Ritchie (Blackmore) isn’t gonna want to do it, ’cause he’s probably fed up with doing it.”

When we spoke with Steve Morse, who became Deep Purple’s guitarist in 1994, he talked about performing this song live. “On a tune that I didn’t write like ‘Smoke On The Water,’ I try to tread a line between homage and respect and originality,” he said. “So, say, on the solo, I take it a out a little bit and do it my way for a little bit, and then bring it back to more like the original, and wrap it up with a lick that everybody would recognize. That’s about as much as I can suggest somebody do because there’s ingrained memories of the song in peoples’ minds.”

“Funky Claude,” as in the lyrics “Funky Claude was running in and out pulling kids out the ground,” is Claude Nobs, a man who helped rescue some people in the fire and found another hotel for the band to stay. He is the co-founder of the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival.

Nobs explained to how this song arose out of the ashes: “Deep Purple were watching the whole fire from their hotel window, and they said, ‘Oh my God, look what happened. Poor Claude and there’s no casino anymore!’ They were supposed to do a live gig [at the casino] and record the new album there. Finally I found a place in a little abandoned hotel next to my house and we made a temporary studio for them. One day they were coming up for dinner at my house and they said, ‘Claude we did a little surprise for you, but it’s not going to be on the album. It’s a tune called “Smoke On The Water.'” So I listened to it. I said, ‘You’re crazy. It’s going to be a huge thing.’ Now there’s no guitar player in the world who doesn’t know [he hums the riff]. They said, ‘Oh if you believe so we’ll put it on the album.’ It’s actually the very precise description of the fire in the casino, of Frank Zappa getting the kids out of the casino, and every detail in the song is true. It’s what really happened. In the middle of the song, it says ‘Funky Claude was getting people out of the building,’ and actually when I meet a lot of rock musicians, they still say, ‘Oh here comes Funky Claude.'”

The B-side of the single was another version of the song, recorded live in Japan.

In 1989, Former members Ritchie Blackmore and Ian Gillan released a new version of this with Robert Plant, Brian May, and Bruce Dickinson. They called the project “Rock Aid Armenia,” with proceeds going to victims of the Armenian earthquake.

IN the 2002 “Weekend at Burnsie’s” episode of The Simpsons, Homer is heard crooning to this song after he uses medicinal marijuana. >>

Pat Boone covered this on In a Metal Mood. On the album, he performed heavy metal songs with string instruments and pianos, but in this case kept the famous guitar riff and even allowed a solo. Otherwise, it’s a very jazzy cover.

In a Songfacts interview with Boone, he said: “Ritchie Blackmore played some guitar on my recording – of his song. He had to do it to a track we sent him in Germany where he was recording in some castle. He played part of the guitar licks on ‘Smoke on the Water,’ but the other part is Dweezil Zappa, on a Hendrix Stratocaster. It was very authentic. I was very serious about treating these songs as good music – with big band jazz arrangements.

The famous guitar riff is performed in the 2003 Jack Black film School Of Rock. 

On June 3, 2007 in Kansas City, Kansas, 1,721 guitarists gathered to play this song together and break the record for most guitarists playing at one time. The entire song was played, though only the one lead guitar played the solo. Guitarists from as far as Scotland came out for the event. The event was organized by radio station KYYS.

It’s hard to compete with outsourcing, however, and the record was beaten on October 26, 2007 when 1,730 guitarists gathered in Shillong, India to perform “Knocking On Heaven’s Door.”

This was used in commercials for Dodge trucks. The song plays on a jukebox that a guy is eyeing in an antique store. His wife gets her way and they take home a piece of furniture instead – the point being the large payload capacity of the truck. >>

According to an interview with Ian Gillian on VH1’s Classic Albums: Machine Head, the band did not have much money when recording this album and were renting a recording studio. They stayed past when they were supposed to get out. As they were recording this song, the police were knocking on the door of the studio to kick them out. >>

In a 2008 survey of students from music schools across London, this topped a poll to find the best ever guitar riff. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came second and Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” third.

According to the London Times newspaper, Ritchie Blackmore was embarrassed to present this song to his fellow members of Deep Purple because it was such a Neanderthal tune for a guitarist of his caliber to come up with.

The lyrics, “Swiss time was running out” meant that their visas were going to expire soon. They wrote the songs and recorded them in a matter of weeks. 

Many beginners try to play this when they pick up a guitar, and they usually play it wrong. Here’s how: Use the open G and D strings as the starting point and you pluck the strings with a finger each, not a pick. Lots of people play this from the 5th fret of the A and D string, which is wrong. 

In Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher (2001), a character recalls losing his virginity to this song at a fraternity party.

Smoke On The Water

We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn’t have much time
Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

They burned down the gambling house
It died with an awful sound
Funky Claude was running in and out
Pulling kids out the ground
When it all was over
We had to find another place
But Swiss time was running out
It seemed that we would lose the race

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

We ended up at the Grand Hotel
It was empty, cold and bare
But with the Rolling truck Stones thing just outside
Making our music there
With a few red lights and a few old beds
We made a place to sweat
No matter what we get out of this
I know, I know we’ll never forget

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

21 thoughts on “Deep Purple – Smoke On The Water”

  1. When Teddy Meier, at that time working for the Swiss EMI, went through the ruin of the casino the day after the fire with Claude Nobs, the tables were still set for the night diner. Meier grabbed the completely molten synthesizer from Ian Underwood and bequeathed it to my friend Urban Gwerder, who ran then the “ZappArchiv”.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Obbverse said something about “Peter Gunn” being a song that was ruined to him because of it being played by his bro while learning guitar, and my first thought was this song. Not in it being ruined, but in that it was the one that seemed like everyone who tried to play guitar started with.
    A good song, for years the only thing I knew about Deep Purple… like “Stairway to Heaven” in one way, that for years it was over-played to death on radio, then somehow just seemed to basically disappear. guess a lot of people got tired of hearing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many people know the riff but haven’t listened to the song. It is a great song…but it’s a requirment for guitar players to try this one. It’s funny we would play the riff bars for the fun of it before a song…I said the hell with this…lets play it…so we learned it.
      It’s an epic song it really is…I prefer Woman from Tokyo by them though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pretty damn iconic riff!
    I recall my buddy playing the bars in town here a few decades back and a bar owner told him ‘Play any tune but if you play Smoke On The Water I’m pulling the plug!” lol

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is at the beginning. It’s a good song that…hasn’t been wore out but the riff has by everyone who picks up a guitar, piano, or tuba…anything that plays notes.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. In Jr High band, the sax players taught themselves this riff and would practice it during every break. I sat in the seat directly in front of them, so even today this song takes me back to jr high band. 🙂 I had no idea the story behind it. That could have been a huge tragedy.

    It’s hard to reconcile this music with the pretty songs of Blackmore’s Night, which I occasionally hear on Radio Caroline.

    Liked by 1 person

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