Some of the great songs of modern times – such as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction)” or “Smoke On The Water” – strike you as much for their distinctive guitar licks as their powerful lyrics. The guitar riff, which often opens a song and forms the main repetitive melodic anchor, has been a core part of blues, rock’n’roll, and even punk songs for decades, and the best guitar riffs have changed the shape of music. Some of the early jazz guitarists (such as Charlie Christian, in Benny Goodman’s pre-war sextet) were pioneers of the riff, paving the way for greats who followed – everybody from Chet Atkins, T. Bone Walker and Jimi Hendrix to Van Halen, U2’s The Edge, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi and Rush’s Alex Lifeson.
Hundreds of other superb guitarists have laid down classics that deserve to be placed among the best guitar riffs of all time, and the ones we’ve chosen include masterpieces by Chuck Berry and Eric Clapton.
While you’re reading, listen to our Best Bass Guitar Riffs playlist here.
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And now, here are some of the best guitar riffs of all time.
40: Kristin Hersh: Your Dirty Answer (2001)
American singer-songwriter Kristin Hersh says she studied classical guitar for many years as a youngster and her intricate fingerpicking and ability to play striking distorted riffs are all evident on “Your Dirty Answer,” a track on her fifth solo album Sunny Border Blue. Her own raw husky vocals, the pulsating main guitar riff, and the consistent bass line makes the song a good representation of her work.
39: Grant Green: Idle Moments (1963)
Blue Note star Grant Green was a master of creative ingenuity and his beautifully subtle descending riff at the start of “Idle Moments” (accompanied by the deft piano playing of composer Duke Pearson) provides the perfect start to one of the most serene instrumentals ever put on record. Green repeats the riff later in the 15-minute masterpiece and also plays gorgeous solos (along with those from tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson and vibes great Bobby Hutcherson) in a track recorded at the iconic Rudy Van Gelder Studio, in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. There have been plenty of wonderful jazz guitar riffs by artists such as Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery, but Green’s dreamlike, mellow riff and track is something special.
Idle Moments (Rudy Van Gelder Edition / Remastered 1999)
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38: Poison Ivy: What’s Inside a Girl (2006)
A Date with Elvis was the third studio album by the American garage band The Cramps. The tongue-in-cheek song “What’s Inside a Girl,” co-written by guitarist Poison Ivy and singer Lux Interior, contained a smashing psychobilly riff. Poison Ivy Rorschach, who was born Kirsty Marlana Wallace in San Bernardino, California, said that the most identifiable influences on her distinctive style of playing are Link Wray and Duane Eddy. “I love their simplicity…the stark chords of Link Wray and the stark single-note thing of Duane Eddy.”
37: Free: All Right Now (1970)
The stirring riff that opens “All Right Now,” a global hit for English band Free in 1970, was written after a dispiriting gig at the University of Durham in front of handful of students, when the band, in the words of drummer Simon Kirke, “walked off stage to the sound of our own footsteps.” They decided they needed an up-tempo number to finish sets and bass guitarist Andy Fraser started singing “It’s All Right now” when the inspiration for the opening chords struck. “The riff was basically me trying to do my Pete Townshend impression,” Fraser recalled. “I actually wrote the riff on piano and then Paul Kossoff transposed the chords to guitar, and he did a helluva job, because that’s not always easy.” Paul Rodgers wrote the lyrics and when Island Records boss Chris Blackwell heard the demo, he insisted he wanted to put it out as a single. It has since been purchased or streamed more than 200 million times.
36: The Who: I Can’t Explain (1971)
Pete Townshend was just 18 when he came up with the love song “I Can’t Explain” about a boy who can’t articulate his love for a girl because he has taken too many amphetamines. There is some debate over who actually played the recognisable riff at the start. Jimmy Page said that it was down to Townshend (“it was all Pete… he was roaring, man”), whereas singer Roger Daltrey said in his 2018 autobiography that it was Page on lead guitar. The two-minute hit song was a favorite of David Bowie, who came up with his own brilliant riff three years later for “Rebel Rebel.”
35: John Lee Hooker: Boogie Chillen’ (1948)
John Lee Hooker, the blues master whose introduction and hook on 1962’s “Boom Boom” is so mesmerizing, had 13 years earlier come up with the ringing amplified guitar riff for “Boogie Chillen’.” He later said: “I wrote that song in Detroit when I was sitting around strumming my guitar. When I was a little kid I heard my stepfather Will Moore do it years and years before. It had that beat, and I just kept that beat up and I called it “Boogie Chillen’.” The song had a powerful influence on BB King as he was starting out in his career as a radio DJ.
John Lee Hooker - "Boogie Chillun"
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34: Hole: Celebrity Skin (1998)
The song “Celebrity Skin,” which opens the album of the same name, starts with a pounding riff played by guitarist Eric Erlandson. The track was a hit single for Hole, the band formed in Los Angeles in 1989, reaching No. 1 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart in 1998. Singer Courtney Love said that she wrote the song with Erlandson and Smashing Pumpkins star Bill Corgan, who played bass on two tracks of the album Celebrity Skin. Love told the VH1 program Behind the Music that the main riff was written solely by Corgan. Producer Michael Beinhorn was also responsible for the amplified sound of the guitar work on the track.
33: Joan Armatrading: Steppin’ Out (1976)
Joan Armatrading, who moved to England at the age of three from the colony of Saint Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla, was a self-taught guitarist who said that she often composed her songs starting with the piano section first or writing on the guitar and sometimes starting with a riff. Many of her riffs were subtle and catchy, such as “Willow,” and one of the best is on “Steppin’ Out,” which became one of her signature live songs after it appeared on the 1976 Back to the Night, where she played 12-string guitar on the track, alongside lead guitarists Bernie Holland and Andy Summers of the Police.
32: Bonnie Raitt: Something To Talk About (1991)
Blues maestro B.B. King once said that he believed Bonnie Raitt was the “best damn slide player working today” and her gorgeous melodic slide riff opens the hit song “Something To Talk About,” a song which also has a lovely hook. The Grammy-winning song, which was written by Canadian singer-songwriter Shirley Eikhard and included on Raitt’s 1991 album Luck of the Draw, has become one of the singer’s trademark songs. “I’m not a schooled guitar player,” she once said, “but I love taking risks.”
31: The Smashing Pumpkins: Today (1993)
“Like a great frontman, a really good rock riff should have a hypnotic, star quality,” said Billy Corgan, vocalist and lead guitarist of The Smashing Pumpkins. The one he came up with for the song “Today,” which appeared on their 1993 album Siamese Dream, fits the bill. Corgan said the opening lick came to him, “note-for-note in my head,” in a sudden moment of inspiration and that it completely changed the character of the song. “Suddenly, I had a song that was starting out quiet and then got very loud. I could start to hear the shifts in the song as it progressed. I knew that I was going to bring that riff back in for emphasis, and I knew where I could do that,” he told Guitar World. Jimmy Chamberlin played drums on the track and Corgan recorded all of the guitar and bass guitar parts himself, as well as singing the lyrics to a dark, unsettling song.
The Smashing Pumpkins - Today
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30: Judas Priest: Breaking The Law (1980)
Guitarist Glenn Tipton came up with the idea for the song “Breaking the Law” while he and his fellow Judas Priest musicians were staying at Tittenhurst Park in Staffordshire and working on their album British Steel. The country home, which belonged to Ringo Starr, was where John Lennon recorded “Imagine,” and it proved an inspiring setting for British band Judas Priest. “Breaking the Law,” co-written by Tipton, singer Rob Halford and guitarist K.K. Downing, became one of the band’s most celebrated singles, easily identifiable by its opening guitar riff. “It turned out to be one of the all-time classic metal riffs,” Halford said. When the main riff is repeated in the middle of the song, the band used the sound effect of a police car’s siren to add to the drama of the song.
29: Howlin’ Wolf: Smokestack Lightnin’ (1956)
Chester Arthur Burnett (named after the 21st President of the United States) took the name Howlin’ Wolf when he became a professional singer. When he recorded for Chess Records in 1956, he returned to “Smokestack Lightnin’” – it was listed as “Smoke Stack Lightning” on the original pressing – a song Wolf used to sing as a boy watching the trains go by in the Mississippi town, White Station, where he was born in 1910. Although Wolf’s growling, howling vocals are a key to the song’s popularity, it also contained one of the finest riffs in blues. The credit for that bending, hypnotic riff goes to guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who told journalist Ted Drozdowski, “Wolf made my ass come up with that come up with that part.”
28: Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Above My Head (I Hear Music In The Air) (1947)
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a cultural trailblazer and her 1947 Decca Records hit “Above My Head (I Hear Music In The Air)” contains all the elements that made her so popular: inspired gospel singing and rousing guitar playing. Arkansas-born Tharpe is often referred to as “the godmother of rock and roll” for her pioneering guitar technique and her ability to write a searing guitar hook. Elvis Presley loved Tharpe’s singing, and particularly admired her guitar playing.
27: The Sex Pistols: Pretty Vacant (1977)
Billboard magazine said in a contemporary review of “Pretty Vacant” that the “bombastic guitar riffs make the lyrics difficult to hear.” They might have been surprised to learn that this angry punk rock anthem owed its opening riff to the inspiration of “SOS” by Swedish pop band ABBA. “Pretty Vacant” was written by bass player Glen Matlock (replaced soon after the release of the album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols by Sid Vicious) and singer John Lydon, although they followed convention and credited the song to the entire band. Matlock had written all the chord pieces but was still looking for a riff flourish to improve the song. “I knew it needed a melodic thing, and I heard something on a record by a band called ABBA and it inspired the riff I needed, and I said, ‘Guys, I’ve got it.’” Joey Ramone later used the lead riff on his cover of “What a Wonderful World.”
26: Heart: Barracuda (1977)
Nancy Wilson told The Music Experience that one of her favourite riffs for the band Heart was on the 1977 track “Barracuda,” because it “felt really big. It felt so rock… it’s one of the guitar tones where I’m still trying to figure out what we did, cause it’s hard to recreate. It’s very analogue.” “Barracuda,” which was co-written with Wilson’s vocalist sister Ann, guitarist Roger Fisher and drummer Michael DeRosier, went to No. 11 on the Billboard charts after being released as the lead single from the album Little Queen. Nancy Wilson also said that the riff for “Barracuda” owed a lot to the band called Nazareth, whom Heart had supported on a tour of Europe. “Nazareth had a hit with this Joni Mitchell song they covered called ‘This Flight Tonight’ that kind of had that riff, so we kind of borrowed that and we made it into ‘Barracuda.’”
25: Van Halen: Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love (1978)
It seems incredible to think that Eddie Van Halen was initially reluctant to show his bandmates his song “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” fearing that his satirical commentary on the punk rock scene of the late 1970s was too simple. “It was a stupid thing to us, just two chords. It didn’t end up sounding punk, but that was the intention,” he recalled. The song became one of Van Halen’s signature songs and the opening riff, which requires careful picking to ensure you always strike the right string, was later the subject of a lawsuit between Van Halen and rap group The 2 Live Crew over alleged unauthorized imitation.
24: The Smiths: This Charming Man (1983)
Fans of The Smiths would probably differ on which song constitutes guitarist Johnny Marr’s best riff. While many might favor his playing on “How Soon Is Now?” or “What Difference Does It Make?,” our vote goes to “This Charming Man.” Marr originally wrote one of modern pop music’s most instantly recognizable opening riffs for a BBC radio session with John Peel. The guitarist’s fluid and infectious playing perfectly complements Morrissey’s morose lyrics and mournful singing.
The Smiths - This Charming Man (Official Music Video)
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23: Dire Straits: Money For Nothing (1985)
This classic from Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms album contains one of the most instantly recognisable opening riffs in rock history. Mark Knopfler talked to ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons to get some ideas before recording the track. He changed his usual guitar model to use a 1958 Gibson Les Paul so he could get just the right percussive fingerstyle-infused riff. The video was an MTV classic, too.
Dire Straits - Money For Nothing
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22: Queens Of The Stone Age: No One Knows (2002)
In 2001, Queens Of The Stone Age guitarist Josh Homme had come up with a riff he liked for a song called “Cold Sore Superstars,” part of his side-project The Desert Sessions. A year later, when he came to record “No One Knows,” a song he had co-written with Nick Oliveri and Mark Lanegan, for the band’s album Songs for the Deaf, he took the riff and used it on what became a commercially successful and critically acclaimed single. “No One Knows” earned a nomination for Best Hard Rock Performance at the 2003 Grammy Awards. The song was also famous for the memorably surreal video, in which a deer that a group of hunters had struck while driving bounces back to life and exacts revenge.
Queens Of The Stone Age - No One Knows (Official Music Video)
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21: Muddy Waters: Mannish Boy (1955)
Muddy Waters embodied a sound that was all his own, and his classic blues song “Mannish Boy,” recorded on a Telecaster in 1955, inspired a generation of musicians, including The Rolling Stones. An answer to Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” the repetitive guitar line on “Mannish Boy” is stirring electric blues at its best, and has been replicated by countless musicians since, ensuring it will live on as one of the best guitar riffs in history. Waters gave a memorable performance of the song with The Band in 1976 for the concert movie The Last Waltz.
Muddy Waters - Mannish Boy (Audio)
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20: The Beatles: Day Tripper (1965)
John Lennon created the sensational guitar riff that opens “Day Tripper,” a song “written under complete pressure” when the band needed a new single to go out as the double a-side release to “We Can Work It Out,” in December 1965. Lennon said it was the final version of “an old folk song” he had been working on. The opening ostinato riff, repeated five times, was played by George Harrison, with tambourine accompaniment from Ringo Starr. In his 2001 book The Beatles as Musicians, musicologist Walter Everett said the iconic riff drew on lots of their musical influences, from blues to Motown to rockabilly. At the time, Lennon said that “Day Tripper” “wasn’t a serious message song… I just liked the word,” while years later co-writer Paul McCartney admitted it was a drug song about an “acid trip.”
19: Derek And The Dominoes: Layla (1970)
“Layla” was one of the high-water marks for 70s rock. Eric Clapton was inspired to write the first part of the song after being given a copy of the Persian classical poet Nizami Ganjavi’s book The Story Of Layla And Majnun. As we now know, it is Clapton’s love song to Pattie Boyd, who at that time was married to George Harrison. (She later married Clapton.) Also an inspiration? Duane Allman’s guitar work on the tune. Indeed, Clapton’s multi-layered guitars play off Allman to create a riff that is timeless and distinctive. Clapton was, of course, also behind the riff for Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love,” during a period in which acolytes called him “God.”
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18: Queen: Killer Queen (1974)
Lots of Queen songs have beautiful chord progressions and potent solos by guitarist Brian May, and a number of their hits have great riffs, including “Stone Cold Crazy.” Perhaps their finest riff, though, can be heard on “Killer Queen.” “I was in hospital and almost dying when I heard that. They brought me in the harmonies and waited for me to finish the song,” said May. He used his trademark Red Special guitar for a solo that was multitracked to get the distinctive cascading effect.
Queen - Killer Queen (Top Of The Pops, 1974)
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17: Aerosmith: Walk This Way (1975)
Joe Perry’s riff for “Walk This Way” is still frequently imitated by young guitarists hoping to master the instrument. Perry came up with it during a soundcheck in Honolulu when he decided to do something more adventurous than a “normal boring chord progression”. One of the best guitar riffs in rock (later sampled by Run-DMC for their rock/hip-hop crossover classic) had to wait a while for lyrics, however, but when Aerosmith band members watched the Mel Brooks movie Young Frankenstein, which includes a line where a limping Marty Feldman tells Gene Wilder to “walk this way”, singer Steven Tyler began composing the words to one of the guitar world’s most iconic tunes.
Aerosmith - Walk This Way (Audio)
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16: AC/DC: Back In Black (1980)
AC/DC’s tribute to former singer Bon Scott, who had died in February 1980, aged 33, is the stirring “Back In Black,” with Angus Young’s guitar riff a masterclass in using the E minor pentatonic scale. The sizzling riff has helped make the song a fixture in modern culture, appearing in dozens of blockbuster movies, including Iron Man, Black Hawk Down and School Of Rock.
AC/DC - Back In Black (Official Video)
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15: Ozzy Osbourne: Crazy Train (1980)
“Crazy Train” was the first single from heavy metal singer Ozzy Osbourne’s debut solo album Blizzard of Oz. It is famous for the sensational riff and solo from the late guitarist Randy Rhoads, who was only 25 when he died in a plane crash in 1982. His opening F-sharp minor riff on “Crazy Train” was a defining moment in heavy metal music. “If you listen to ‘Crazy Train’ real close,” engineer Max Norman said, “You’ll hear there’s one main guitar around the center, and two others playing exactly the same thing, panned to the left and right. What happens is you don’t hear them; you just hear it as one guitar. Randy was the best guy at overdubbing guitar solos and tracking them that I’ve ever seen. I mean, he used to blow me away.”
14: Metallica: Enter Sandman (1991)
“Enter Sandman” was the lead single from Metallica’s self-titled album of 1991, which went on to sell 16 million copies, and is noted for the iconic music video for the song directed by Wayne Isham. The memorable main bluesy riff was written by guitarist Kirk Hammett, who said he was inspired to create his own two-bar lick in the early hours at home one time after listening to the Soundgarden album Louder Than Love. “I was trying to capture their attitude toward big, heavy riffs. I put my riff on tape and didn’t think about it. When [drummer] Lars Ulrich heard the riff, he said, ‘That’s really great. But repeat the first part four times.’ It was that suggestion that made it even more hooky,” Hammett later told Rolling Stone magazine.
13: U2: With Or Without You (1987)
U2 guitarist The Edge believes that one of his own finest riffs was the minimalist ending one to “With or Without You,” partly because of its deliberate simplicity. “The end of ‘With Or Without You’ could have been so much bigger, so much more of a climax, but there’s this power to it which I think is even more potent because it’s held back,” he said. The song was the first single from The Joshua Tree, the band’s breakthrough album. The single went to No.1 in America and spent 18 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Producer Daniel Lanois said that part of the reason the song was so successful on the track was that “it was not labored over.” and it was the first great riff that came to The Edge when putting the song together.
12: Tom Petty: Free Fallin’ (1981)
The first song Tom Petty ever wrote with Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra was “Free Fallin’,” and it came about by accident. Petty was playing around with a small electric keyboard, when he hit upon a chord pattern. The singer-songwriter later told Billboard what happened next. “Jeff said something like, ‘That’s a really good riff but there’s one chord too many,’ so I think I cut it back a chord and then, really just to amuse Jeff, honestly, I just sang that first verse.” Petty played the riff on a 12-string acoustic guitar on a track for his debut solo album Full Moon Fever. The single went to No. 7 on the charts. “It turned out to be probably the most famous song I ever wrote,” added Petty.
11: Rush: Tom Sawyer (1981)
Alex Lifeson said that his favorite riff of all time was “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction)” from the Rolling Stones. The Rush guitarist created many of his own superb riffs, including on “YYZ” and “Tom Sawyer.” Rush, who were made up of three Canadians – guitarist Lifeson, bassist Geddy Lee, and drummer Neil Peart – became one of the best-selling bands in the world. Lifeson, who started off playing Jimmy Page-inspired blues riffs, used a PRS Singlecut guitar for the distinctive distortion tone sound on the smash hit “Tom Sawyer,” a song from the Moving Pictures album, about a modern-day rebel. The song featured lyric contributions from Pye Dubois of the band Max Webster. “We played that song a lot and it’s a difficult song to play because it’s not a traditional arrangement and has a weird opening note,” admitted Lifeson.
10: The Kinks: You Really Got Me (1964)
After a couple of unsuccessful singles, young London rock band The Kinks were under pressure to deliver a hit, and they did so in spectacular style in August 1964 with “You Really Got Me.” The arrangement was written by Ray Davies when he was messing around on the piano at home; guitarist Dave Davis came up with the distinctive riff by tearing the speaker cone of his amp to create this distorted guitar sound.
9: ZZ Top: La Grange (1973)
ZZ Top founder and guitarist Billy Gibbons described their song “La Grange,” taken from the 1973 album Tres Hombres as “the perfect introduction of ZZ Top to the world.” The song is a sweeping boogie-blues romp featuring an iconic riff that Gibbons played on his famous 1959 Gibson “Pearly Gates” Les Paul guitar, and which grew out of a jam session. The heart of the song was the boogie backbeat. The lyrics, co-written by singer Gibbons, drummer Frank Beard and bass player Dusty Hill, were inspired by the Chicken Ranch brothel that existed from 1905-1973 outside of La Grange, Texas, and which was the subject of the 1982 Dolly Parton film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
8: The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Purple Haze (1967)
There are dozens of fantastic riffs by Jimi Hendrix, including “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and “Little Wing.” The most famous is his 1967 hit “Purple Haze.” As a boy in Seattle, Hendrix taught himself to play by listening to blues stars Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf but later defined his own inimitable style with a fast blend of blues and R&B. All his skills and imagination came together on the minor pentatonic riff for “Purple Haze,” a song he said came to him in a dream after he had read a science fiction novel. Hendrix enjoyed improvising the riff when he played it live.
7: Led Zeppelin: Whole Lotta Love (1969)
Some might vouch for “Stairway to Heaven,” but it seems like history has chosen “Whole Lotta Love” as the greatest guitar riff from Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page said he came up with the “Whole Lotta Love” guitar riff – partly inspired by Chess Records legend Willie Dixon – while strumming a guitar on his houseboat on the River Thames in England during the summer of 1968. The single was a massive hit in the US and the riff was voted the greatest of all time by BBC Radio 2 listeners in 2014. “I wanted a riff that really moved, that people would really get, and would bring a smile to their faces, but when I played it with the band, it really went into overdrive,” Page said. “There was this intent to have this riff and the movement of it, so it was menacing as well as quite sort of caressing.” Many of Page’s fellow-musicians have hailed it as one of the best guitar riffs of all time. Dave Grohl and Prince once jammed together playing the song, the former recalling, “It was, I swear to God, the most amazing experience of my entire life, and there was nobody there.”
Led Zeppelin - Whole Lotta Love (Official Music Video)
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6: Link Wray: Rumble (1958)
Bob Dylan described “Rumble,” a 1958 hit for Link Wray and His Ray Men, as “the best instrumental ever.” Fred Lincoln ‘Link’ Wray Jr. was 29 when he cut “Rumble” and he had a fascinating past. His mother was a Native American and the family were persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan. Wray made the record after returning from fighting in the Korean War and it firmly established Wray’s influence in guitar mythology. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin said there was a “profound attitude” bleeding out of “Rumble.” The descending pentatonic catches the ear from the first chord. The song’s title and link to street violence meant that, unusually for instrumental, the song was banned by radio across America, but its popularity caught on nevertheless and “Rumble” sold four million copies.
5: Guns N’ Roses: Sweet Child O’ Mine (1988)
London-born Slash delivered an amazing solo and one of his most epic guitar intros on 1988’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine” for Guns N’ Roses. During a rehearsal session, Slash said he was fooling around with a riff and singer Axl Rose cried out: “Hold the f__king phones! That’s amazing!” A hit was born. “Within an hour, my guitar exercise had become something else,” Slash explained in his autobiography.
Guns N' Roses - Sweet Child O' Mine (Official Music Video)
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4: Deep Purple: Smoke On The Water (1972)
Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore insists that to play “Smoke On The Water” properly, a guitarist must always pluck and never use a pick. One of guitar music’s most recognizable riffs was written during a jam session in Switzerland when Deep Purple were recording the album Machine Head. Blackmore, who worked out the riff with drummer Ian Paice, later recalled that they were just trying to create “something straightforward” to play. He said, “We were in this big ballroom in Montreux and the police arrived to tell us to stop, because we were playing so loud that there were complaints. We kept the door locked so that we could keep recording that particular take. The police were hammering on the door during the final take in the last three minutes of the recording session. Had the Montreux police had their way, we never would’ve recorded “Smoke On The Water.’”
3: The Rolling Stones: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction) (1965)
On 12 June 1965, The Rolling Stones hit the charts with the all-time classic that became their first US No.1. With a riff famously composed by Keith Richards in a hotel room just before he fell asleep, the first version of the song, featuring harmonica by Brian Jones, was recorded at their spiritual home of Chess Studios in Chicago. Two days later, at RCA in Hollywood, they cut the version we all know, and rock history was made. “I’m the riff master,” wrote Richards in his autobiography, Life. Indeed, there are no shortage of Stones songs vying for their place among the best guitar riffs in history. Though the power of “Satisfaction” is undeniable, Richards believes he laid down a better riff with the acoustic one that opens “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” “When you get a riff like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ you get a great feeling of elation, a wicked glee,” said Richards. “Flash is basically “Satisfaction’ in reverse. Nearly all of these riffs are closely related. But if someone said, “You can play only one of your riffs ever again,’ I’d say “OK, give me “Flash.””
The Rolling Stones - (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction (Official Lyric Video)
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2: Chuck Berry: Johnny B Goode (1958)
Chuck Berry’s popular song about a country boy who can play the guitar “just like ringing a bell” sizzles from the opening note, and it is no surprise that it has been played on Spotify almost 100 million times. Credit where it’s due, though, because Berry acknowledged he was imitating the opening guitar riff on Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman (They’ll Do It Every Time),” which was played by Carl Hogan in 1946. However, Berry’s inventive genius, as a singer, songwriter and performer, was transforming the rolling rhythms of Jordan and T-Bone Walker into the rhythmic foundation of rock’n’roll.
Johnny B. Goode
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1: Nirvana: Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)
Nearly three decades after it was recorded, Nirvana’s signature single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” still sounds raw and exciting. Kurt Cobain was attempting to write the “ultimate pop song” when he came up with the guitar riff. He also wanted to pen something in the style of Pixies, telling Rolling Stone magazine in 1994, “I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it.” The four-chord pattern of the riff is unoriginal but the quiet-loud dynamic contrasts of the song, and Cobain’s visceral delivery, add to the potency of one of the best guitar riffs of the 90s.
Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit (Official Music Video)
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The best of the rest
“Who’s That Lady?” (The Isley Brothers)
“Seven Nation Army” (The White Stripes)
“Should I Stay or Should I Go?” (The Clash)
“There She Goes” (The La’s)
“Mr Tambourine Man” (The Byrds)
“September” (Earth, Wind & Fire)
“Sweet Home Alabama” (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
“Shaft” (Isaac Hayes)
“Hotel California” (Eagles)
Looking for more? Discover the best guitarists of all time.