What makes a great guitar riff? Does it come down to the technical brilliance that goes into playing it, or the ease by which a simple but effective riff can be played by beginners? Similarly, what riffs act as useful indicators of changing periods in music, and how have they transcended their status within songs to almost stand in for a whole band’s career? The following list represents an effort to put together some of the best guitar riffs, which are presented in rough order of influence through to some personal favourites at the top of the list.
10. Johnny B. Goode, Chuck Berry
Included on this list almost solely due to its iconic appearance in Back to the Future, ‘Johnny B. Goode’s’ electric riff arguably stands in for early rock and roll as much as Elvis Presley’s hip jigging on the Ed Sullivan Show. Simple, but invested with considerable power, Berry helped inspire a new generation of performers.
9. Start Me Up, Keith Richards
Reflecting The Rolling Stone’s powerful, pop-edged take on the blues, the open G tuning and percussive opening to Start Me Up by Keith Richards says all you need to know about the band’s swaggering sound. Originally Recorded in the mid 1970s, ‘Start Me Up’ appeared on the 1981 album Tattoo You.
8. Paperback Writer, George Harrison/John Lennon
Signalling the rock power that underpinned The Beatles’ melodies and harmonies, George Harrison’s overdriven mono riff on Paperback Writer demonstrated a band making a crucial turn towards more complex albums in the mid 1960s.
7. Smells Like Teen Spirit, Kurt Cobain
Perhaps the first riff that everyone tries when they get their first distortion pedal, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’s stripped down appeal and instinctive use of a few chords still sounds as powerful today as in 1991.
6. Sweet Child O’Mine, Slash
If ‘Teen Spirit’ marked the breakaway of Seattle grunge from the excesses of West Coast hair metal, ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’ remains the key example of how the pomp and swagger of the LA scene could be boiled down to Slash’s virtuoso opening riff.
5. Smoke On The Water, Ritchie Blackmore
Perhaps the most imitated riff for beginners, Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke On The Water’ is simple but highly effective, and represents a rare riff that can be picked up by a new player on the first day of owning a guitar.
4. Enter Sandman, Kirk Hammett
For heavier riffs, look no further than Kirk Hammett’s building intro and main riff for Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’. Pure, pulse pounding guitar playing at its best.
3. Sweet Home Alabama/Free Bird. Ed King/Lynyrd Skynyrd
A tie for third place, Lynyrd Skynyrd can be criticised for turning every rock encore into a crowd chant for ‘Free Bird’, the band’s oftentimes 14 minute closure to their shows. ‘Sweet Home Alabama’s’ infectious riff, however, remains one of the most memorable, and oft imitated examples of its kind.
2. Stairway to Heaven, Jimmy Page
The perfect embodiment of Jimmy Page’s technical mastery during Led Zeppelin’s peak, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ gradually builds around an opening riff that most just about manage to learn before taking on the rest of the song.
1. Walk This Way, Joe Perry
Just edging out ‘Stairway’ is Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way,’ if only for the fact that it fused rock and rap music around a central riff that has been much imitated, but rarely bettered.
Rob James, guitar enthusiast, rocker, and fan of the Lick Library
10 thoughts on “Top 10 Greatest Guitar Riffs”
Bullshit!!!! Chuck Berry must be number one, if it wasnt for his riffs none of the other ones in the list would exist.
Interesting list! These things are totally subjective, of course. (I smile sadly when I read posts from people who say, essentially, “If you don’t like what I like, you’re a moron!”)
Anyway, I think of some of the riffs you’ve cited more as distinctive chord voicings–but still effective. I think I would include a few other riffs. For example, the repeating riff from Purple Haze is unforgettable. I love the riff from Blind Faith’s Had to Cry Today (an overlooked gem, I think). That riff from Whipping Post by the Allman Brothers (in 11/4, no less) is pretty cool. Joe Walsh’s Rocky Mountain Way is instantly recognizable–and I think his slide solo near the end is about as good as it gets. Oh let’s not forget Voodoo Child (Jimi and Stevie). I like the riff on Come as You Are better than the one on Smells Like Teen Spirit (great growling tone). Jimmy Page on Whole Lotta Love. Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild. I could go on, of course.
I appears to me that most of the great riffs come from older tunes. I don’t think this is mere nostalgia on my part. More recent music tends to be more groove-oriented, and less specifically guitar-oriented. That’s not good or bad, just different.
My two cents! 🙂
Day Tripper (The Beatles) tops all of those. But their really great also.
“Johnny B. Goode” at the bottom of the list?!? That’s an atrocity. Chuck Berry is the epicenter of Rock ‘n’ Roll; everything before him leads up to him, and everything after him comes from him.
Ummm, no way # 1 ‘whole lotta love’,# 2 ‘no satisfaction’,,arrowsmith .not even on the list.
# 3 back in black
“Johnny B. Goode” included because it was in a movie thirty-plus years after it was recorded? S’cuse me; that riff was solid gold back in 1958, being played by the composer and artist Chuck Berry. Do not be fooled by that Marcus Berry malarkey calling Chuck to have him listen to Marty playing. Those of us who play guitar and appreciate the work of early r’n’r/blues artists such as Chuck know whence the riff came. Many guitars skip the opening riff and go right to the solo intro. Sacrilege!! I may not have it note-perfect myself but it is darn closer than some folks play it
I can’t say that I agree with the selection but props for trying to narrow the list to only 10.
Seven Nation Army???
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