“Smoke on the Water” is a song by the English rock band Deep Purple. It was first released on their 1972 album Machine Head. In 2004, the song was ranked number 434 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, ranked number 4 in Total Guitar magazine’s Greatest Guitar Riffs Ever, and in March 2005, Q magazine placed “Smoke on the Water” at number 12 in its list of the 100 greatest guitar tracks.
“Smoke on the Water” is known for and recognizable by its central theme, developed by guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. It is a four-note blues scale melody in G minor, harmonised in parallel fourths. The riff, played on a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar by Blackmore, is later joined by hi-hat and distorted organ, then the rest of the drums, then electric bass parts before the start of Ian Gillan’s vocal. The opening lyrics are:
We all came out to Montreux, on the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile, we didn’t have much time
Jon Lord doubles the guitar part on a Hammond C3 organ played through a distorted Marshall amp, creating a tone very similar to that of the guitar. Blackmore usually plays the main riff using a finger pluck or occasionally a plectrum upstroke (to accentuate the tonic).
There are two solos in the song; the first was performed on guitar by Ritchie Blackmore, and the second was performed on an organ by Jon Lord until the song fades out.
The lyrics tell a true story: on 4 December 1971, Purple were in Montreux, Switzerland, to record an album using a mobile recording studio (rented from the Rolling Stones and known as the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio—referred to as the “Rolling truck Stones thing” and “a mobile” in the lyrics) at the entertainment complex that was part of the Montreux Casino (referred to as “the gambling house” in the song lyric). On the eve of the recording session, a Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention concert was held in the casino’s theatre. This was to be the theatre’s final concert before the casino complex closed down for its annual winter renovations, which would allow Deep Purple to record there. At the beginning of Don Preston’s synthesizer solo on “King Kong”, the place suddenly caught fire when somebody in the audience fired a flare gun toward the rattan covered ceiling, as mentioned in the “some stupid with a flare gun” line. Although there were no major injuries, the resulting fire destroyed the entire casino complex, along with all the Mothers’ equipment. The “smoke on the water” that became the title of the song (credited to bass guitarist Roger Glover, who related how the title occurred to him when he woke from a dream a few days later) referred to the smoke from the fire spreading over Lake Geneva from the burning casino as the members of Purple watched from their hotel. “It was probably the biggest fire I’d ever seen up to that point and probably ever seen in my life” said Glover, “It was a huge building. I remember there was very little panic getting out, because it didn’t seem like much of a fire at first. But, when it caught, it went up like a fireworks display”. The “Funky Claude” running in and out is referring to Claude Nobs, the director of the Montreux Jazz Festival who helped some of the audience escape the fire.
“Smoke on the Water” was included on Machine Head, which was released in early 1972, but was not released as a single until a year later, in May 1973. (“Never Before” and “Space Truckin'” were the first singles issued from the album.) The band members have said that they did not expect the song to be a hit, but the single reached number 4 on the Billboard pop singles chart in the United States during the summer of 1973, number 2 on the Canadian RPM charts, and it propelled the album to the top 10. Live performances of the tune, featuring extended interplay between Blackmore’s guitar and Jon Lord’s Hammond organ would become a centrepiece of Deep Purple’s live shows, and a version of the song from the live album Made in Japan became a minor hit on its own later on in 1973.
The principal songwriters included the song within their subsequent solo ventures after Deep Purple had split up. Ian Gillan in particular performed a jazz-influenced version in early solo concerts. The band Gillan adopted a feedback-soaked approach, courtesy of Gillan guitarist Bernie Torme. This song was also featured live by Ritchie Blackmore’s post-Deep Purple band Rainbow during their tours 1981–83, and again after Rainbow was resurrected briefly in the mid-1990s and for three European concerts in June 2016.
During Ian Gillan’s stint with Black Sabbath in 1983, they performed “Smoke on the Water” as a regular repertoire number on encores during their only tour together. It remains one of the few cover songs that Black Sabbath has ever played live.
The song is popular among beginner guitarists, but Blackmore himself has demonstrated that most who attempt to play it do so improperly. Actually played using “all fourths” (or double stops) as specified by Blackmore, a power chord-driven variation on the main recognizable riff is not difficult, and is consequently often played by learners.