Best Guitar Riffs: 20 Licks That Changed The Course Of Rock Music - Dig! (2023)

Alan York

04 September 2021

A guitar riff is essentially a repeated sequence of notes or chords, but a really great one can elevate a good song into something that transcends time. It’s not always about virtuosity, either; a great riff can be very simple, but if it’s catchy and accessible enough it can speak volumes and truly stir the soul. So, in tribute to the six-string heroes who have changed the course of rock and pop music, we throw some shapes to the 20 best guitar riffs of all time.

Listen to our Rock Classics playlist here, and check out our pick of the best guitar riffs, below.

20: Green Day: When I Come Around (1994)

Green Day’s breakthrough album, Dookie, was chock-full of radio-friendly punk-pop anthems, and frontman Billie Joe Armstrong’s neat guitar riffs played a major role in the record’s success. One of its numerous highlights, When I Come Around, followed the group’s previous US No.1s, Longview and Basket Case, to the top of the US charts, and it arguably featured Armstrong’s sharpest, hookiest riff of all. Indeed, the idea that the song is powered by one of rock’s best guitar riffs is further reinforced when you discover that When I Come Around remained Green Day’s highest-charting radio single until Boulevard Of Broken Dreams finally swiped its crown a whole decade later.

19: Van Halen: Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love (1978)

Remarkably, Eddie Van Halen wrote Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love as a pastiche. Indeed, he didn’t even consider it good enough to show his bandmates until a year after the wrote it, and confessed that it was supposed to be a punk-rock parody – “a stupid thing to us, just two chords. It didn’t end up sounding punk, but that was the intention.”

Appearing on Van Halen’s debut album, the song’s famous riff inspired wannabe guitar shredders the world over, as it had a harder, punkier edge than anything most other mainstream rock acts were making at the time. The fact that hip-hop artists such as Tone Lōc and 2 Live Crew have since sampled it, while bands as diverse as The Minutemen and Mighty Mighty Bosstones have covered the song, reinforces the fact Eddie Van Halen did something truly revolutionary with Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love – even if it was more by accident than design.

18: Cream: Sunshine Of Your Love (1967)

Arguably Cream’s signature hit, Sunshine Of Your Love provided the brilliant but short-lived rock supergroup with a significant breakthrough in the US when it climbed to No.5 on the Billboard Hot 100. The band discovered the inspiration for the song’s famously sinewy lead line much closer to home, however, as it derived from a bass riff Jack Bruce worked up after being blown away by a Jimi Hendrix Experience show at London’s Saville Theatre in January 1967. Ginger Baker then came up with his distinctive tom-tom rhythm and Eric Clapton added the song’s legendary riff, which uses a pentatonic scale with an added flattened fifth note – or a common blues scale, in layman’s terms.

17: New Order: Ceremony (1980)

Though written by Joy Division and featuring lyrics penned by Ian Curtis, Ceremony wasn’t recorded properly until the band had morphed into New Order following Curtis’ death, in May 1980. Musically, this melancholic anthem was something of a tour de force, with Stephen Morris’ spinning drums and a classic Peter Hook bassline underpinning Bernard Sumner’s strident chording as the track kicked into gear. However, it’s the majestic guitar figure Sumner pulls out during the song’s dropdown, and then returns to during its fade ,which sounds right at home among the best guitar riffs of all time.

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16: The Stooges: I Wanna Be Your Dog (1969)

Harnessing the power of repetition a good decade or so before it became Mark E Smith’s musical manifesto, The Stooges’ self-titled debut album and its visceral follow-up, Fun House, were liberally stuffed with brilliantly bludgeoning rock songs, most of which zoned in on caning a single riff to within millimetres of its life for the duration of four minutes. Effectively drawing up the template for punk, The Stooges’ apogee, I Wanna Be Your Dog, was fashioned around guitarist Ron Asheton’s three-chord riff (G, F#, E – repeat ad infinitum), and its primal power still startles today.

15: Blur: Song 2 (1997)

Blur’s Britpop trilogy – Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife and The Great Escape – enshrined their legend at home in the UK, but they achieved more significant success in the US when they pursued a harder, alt-rock sound on their self-titled fifth album. One of its landmark tracks, Song 2, was intended as an exercise in disposability, yet ironically it’s endured as one of the best Blur songs of the era, and still sounds fresh today. One of the reasons for that is guitarist Graham Coxon’s contribution, with his monster riffing proving essential to the track’s success. “The original chant was actually a wolf whistle,” Coxon told Record Collector in 2012. “But obviously we made such a fucking row you couldn’t hear it, so we ‘wah-hooed’ it instead. We thrashed it out and I put loads of [guitar] pedals on it.”

14: Television: See No Evil (1977)

Along with David Bowie’s Low, Television’s majestic debut album, Marquee Moon, helped establish post-punk even while punk itself was still in the ascendency. Though angular and otherworldly, it flaunted a virtuosity that went against the grain of the times, with twin lead guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd playing off each other with spectacular results. As the likes of See No Evil, Friction and Prove It revealed, Television were also riff-masters par excellence, with See No Evil’s churning, cyclical figure enthusiastically nominating itself for a spot among rock’s best guitar riffs.

13: Nirvana: Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)

In effect the riff that launched a generation, Kurt Cobain’s famous intro to Nirvana’s signature hit reflected his love of influential US alt-rock outfit Pixies and their use of dynamics. “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song,” Cobain told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke. “I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band – or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”

In the same February 1994 interview, Cobain also noted that the song’s main riff resembled that of Boston’s 1976 hit, More Than A Feeling, though it wasn’t identical – or intentional. Cobain said: “It was such a clichéd riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or The Kingsmen’s Louie Louie.”

12: AC/DC: Back In Black (1980)

If there’s one hard-rock band that’s specialised in classic riffs for half a century, surely it’s AC/DC, who have been named “the riffiest of the lot” by Classic Rock magazine. However, if we have to choose just one monolithic moment to stand among the best guitar riffs of all time, then it simply has to be the one powering their 1980 hit Back In Black. Magnificent in its sheer simplicity, it’s become part of the very fabric of rock music and, as Louder said in 2020, “It’s a metal song that appeals to everybody, from dads to dudes, to little old ladies beating noisy kids over the heads with their sticks – and it all hangs on that monumental, no-nonsense, three-chord monster of a riff.”

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11: Black Sabbath: Iron Man (1970)

Rather like AC/DC, Black Sabbath demand inclusion in any self-respecting list of the best guitar riffs. In the same way that AC/DC’s Young brothers devised countless classic-rock standouts, Black Sabbath guitarist Tommy Iommi is responsible for numerous metal motifs, among them War Pigs, Paranoid and Sweet Leaf. At a push, though, his most epochal riff remains the Paranoid album’s magnificently doomy Iron Man.

Originally named so because Ozzy Osbourne thought it sounded like “a big iron bloke walking around”, Iommi’s riff emerged when he began playing off a beat that Sabbath drummer Bill Ward hit upon in rehearsals.

“Most of the riffs I’ve done I’ve come up with on the spot, and that was one of them – it just came up,” Iommi later told Far Out magazine. “It went with the drum, what Bill was playing. I just saw this thing in my mind of someone creeping up on you, and it just sounded like the riff. In my head I could hear it as a monster, so I came up with that riff there and then.”

10: The Beatles: Day Tripper (1965)

John Lennon based Day Tripper’s nagging guitar riff on US R&B artist Bobby Parker’s snappy 1961 single Watch Your Step, which had already provided the inspiration for The Beatles’ 1964 hit, I Feel Fine. A two-bar, single-chord affair, Lennon’s cyclical riff was crucial to Day Tripper’s overall shape, as its catchy motif opens and closes the song, and forms the basis of the verses. Day Tripper was written during the initial sessions for The Beatles’ sixth album, Rubber Soul, but while it came out bearing the usual Lennon-McCartney credit, Lennon later told writer David Sheff, “That’s mine. Including the lick, the guitar break and the whole bit.”

9: Chic: Good Times (1979)

Arguably Chic’s signature song, Good Times is a landmark track for a whole host of reasons. A US chart-topping sensation at the height of disco mania, it was named as Billboard’s No.1 soul single of 1979 and, with sales of over five million copies, is believed to be the biggest-selling single in Atlantic Records’ history. Nile Rodgers’ super-cool, funky riff is one of the key elements of this sophisticated and irresistibly positive dancefloor anthem which has since enjoyed a remarkable afterlife by becoming one of the most-sampled tunes in music history.

8: The Rolling Stones: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (1965)

These days, it’s impossible to envisage (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction without Keith Richards’ legendary fuzzbox-enhanced opening. However, when he wrote the music, Richards imagined the introductory figure would be played by a horn section. As he later told journalist Ian MacPherson, “This was just a little sketch, because, to my mind, the fuzz tone was really there to denote what the horns would be doing.”

Nonetheless, when The Rolling Stones recorded the song’s definitive take, at RCA Studios in Hollywood, in May 1965, Richards’ riff – enhanced by his Gibson Maestro fuzzbox guitar pedal – took pride of place and provided the song’s vital hook, securing itself as one of the best guitar riffs of all time in the process. Indeed, not only was Satisfaction a monster smash, but its success gave sales of the Gibson fuzzbox such a boost that the company’s entire stock reputedly sold out by the end of 1965.

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7: The Smiths: This Charming Man (1983)

After The Smiths’ Rough Trade labelmates Aztec Camera secured daytime airplay on BBC Radio 1, guitarist Johnny Marr believed his group needed an upbeat song in a major key to introduce them to the singles chart. Accordingly, he wrote the music for This Charming Man in time for the band’s next John Peel session, and, as soon as Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis heard it, the label head was convinced it was a single. Marr, however, wasn’t finished yet, and with help from producer John Porter, he added the song’s chiming introductory riff, forever enshrining its place among the best Smiths songs in the process. A beautiful five-second burst of bliss, Marr’s little riff helped This Charming Man crack the UK Top 30. As Smiths biographer Tony Fletcher later wrote, “It demonstrated that a good guitar intro could sell a whole song.”

6: The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Voodoo Child (Slight Return) (1968)

Voodoo Child (Slight Return) is unquestionably one of Jimi Hendrix’s keynote songs, yet it was literally learned on the hoof. With help from guest musicians Steve Winwood and Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady, Hendrix had already laid down a lengthy, bluesy song called Voodoo Chile during the Electric Ladyland sessions, but he returned to the same theme when he reunited with his regular rhythm section, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, when US TV’s ABC network dropped by the studio to film the band for a documentary.

Redding later revealed, “We learned that song in the studio… They had the cameras rolling on us as we played it,” but the Experience really dug into the dark, portentous vibe of Voodoo Child (Slight Return) and eventually recorded eight takes of it – with the final performance becoming the one captured for posterity. The whole thing’s a tour de force, but Hendrix’s stunning introductory riff (author Charles Shaar Murray described it as the “West African even-before-Bo-Diddley beat he percussively scratches from his guitar and wah-wah pedal”) really is as iconic as electric guitar playing gets.

5: The Kinks: You Really Got Me (1964)

Arguably the first song written around power chords (perfect fifths and octaves), the ballsy riff Dave Davies devised to kickstart The Kinks’ first major hit, You Really Got Me, is about as revolutionary as the best guitar riffs get. However, it wasn’t so much what Dave played as it was the distorted sound he obtained, which he created by slicing the speaker cone of his guitar amplifier with a razor blade and poking it with a pin.

The amplifier was affectionately called “Little Green”, after the brand of equipment made by the Elpico company, and it was purchased in Davies’ neighbourhood music shop. The wonderfully dirty sound it created resonated far and wide, too, for You Really Got Me’s main riff has since been hailed as the starting point for garage-rock, metal and proto-punk. However, one story which has shadowed the song down the years – that the riff was really performed by Jimmy Page rather than Dave Davies – is entirely apocryphal.

4: David Bowie: Rebel Rebel (1974)

David Bowie’s career was, of course, significantly enhanced by godlike guitarists such as Mick Ronson and Earl Slick, but the legendary riff which powers his classic 1974 hit, Rebel Rebel, from the Diamond Dogs album, was all his own work, even if he did get guitarist Alan Parker to play it for the final recording. The chords are D, E and A, and, as journalist Kris Needs later wrote, the riff is “a classic stick-in-the-head like the Stones’ Satisfaction”. With such a magnificent hook in the bag, Rebel Rebel immediately sounded like a smash hit and, sure enough, it peaked at No.5, before lending itself to covers by artists as disparate as Rickie Lee Jones, Dead Or Alive and Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

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3: Neil Young And Crazy Horse: Cinnamon Girl (1969)

NME have described Cinnamon Girl as “an example of proto-grunge from 1969”, and the song’s main riff does have a fantastically dirty, grungey sound, partly deriving from the fact it was written in double drop-D tuning (DADGBD). This allowed Neil Young and his Crazy Horse guitar foil Danny Whitten to play heavy-sounding one-finger power chords on their guitars’ bass strings, along with a droning high-D note, giving a lot of extra colour to the open chords in the song.

Apart from featuring one of the best guitar riffs of them all, Cinnamon Girl also famously included a “one note guitar solo”, consisting largely of a repeating, sharply played jangling D note. According to Neil Young, however, “People say that it is a solo with only one note but, in my head, each one of those notes is different. The more you get into it, the more you can hear the differences.”

2: Led Zeppelin: Whole Lotta Love (1969)

Led Zeppelin’s entire catalogue is, of course, littered with fantastic Jimmy Page riffs, and the likes of Immigrant Song and Kashmir could easily have made this list of the best guitar riffs, too. However, when push comes to shove, that slinky, stuttering motif he devised to kickstart Whole Lotta Love is still Page’s peak as a riffmeister. Its popularity has never waned, either. For years, British pop fans knew Whole Lotta Love as the theme tune for Top Of The Pops, and, in 2014, it was even voted the greatest riff of all time in a BBC poll.

Elaborating on how he devised the song’s iconic opening, Page told the BBC, “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. There was this intent to have this riff and the movement of it, so it was menacing as well as quite sort of caressing.”

1: Deep Purple: Smoke On The Water (1972)

Not only does it top our list of the best guitar riffs, but Deep Purple’s legendary Smoke On The Water is arguably the most important rock guitar riff of them all – the one that every self-respecting rock guitarist has to master in order to get off the blocks.

Performed by Ritchie Blackmore, Smoke On The Water’s riff is easily identified by its central theme: a four-note blues scale melody in G minor, harmonised in parallel fourths. It sounds complicated on paper, but it is dramatic, scene-setting and actually relatively simple for a budding guitarist to master. Still holding its own among the best Deep Purple songs, Smoke On The Water was also partly inspired by an unlikely source: Beethoven’s Symphony No.5. “I owe him a lot of money,” Blackmore, who inverted the German composer’s famous theme, later quipped to Purps biographer Dave Thomson.

They’ve topped our list of the best guitar riffs of all time, now find out where Deep Purple rank among the best rock bands ever.


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