The 25 Greatest Guitar Riffs of All Time

Kerry Livgren, Eric Clapton and Ritchie Blackmore (pictured above left to right) all made the cut on our list of the Top 25 guitar riffs of all time.

Kansas’ Kerry Livgren, Cream’s Eric Clapton and Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore (pictured above left to right) all made the cut on our list of the Top 25 guitar riffs of all time.

sir-rocknuts-500The greatest guitar riffs are typically characterized, in my mind, by as few notes as possible and typically also by crunching the first few notes of a classic song. Our top few are exactly that. How many different notes in the riff for “Satisfaction” or “Whole Lotta Love”? Maybe three? How many in “You Really Got Me” or “Should I Stay or Should I Go”? Maybe two? Riff-Rock guitar perfection…

There are artists and groups that throw off so many riffs that they are almost countless, counting amongst those artists such luminaries as Joe Bonamassa and Eddie Van Halen and Jack White and Jeff Beck as examples. So what stands out for the list? It has to “feel” classic and – for the most part – has had to impress millions. Which is not meant to marginalize favorites like Taj Mahal, Ben Harper or Dan Auerbach of Black Keys fame.

Then there are songs where the first chords are instantly recognizable and the song has all-over great guitar (“The Boys Are Back in Town”) but no start-up riff. Some, like that Thin Lizzy example, has the riff in the middle and I guess that should count, but I didn’t. Or Joe Walsh’s guitar steamer, “Life’s Been Good to Me”. Is that a riff or just an intro? Dunno. I went with the latter but gave him two huge thumbs up for “Funk 49”.

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On and on it goes without splitting too many more hairs. There are the giant riffs, for instance, that don’t dent a lot of our listening imagination because the music is either obscure to a lot of rock nuts or simple part of sub-genres that a portion of our audience doesn’t embrace. I am thinking: Motorhead, Judas Priest, Pantera, Soundgarden, Slayer, or Muse.

Finally, I am biased to the roots riff-rock stuff once again. The oldies are the goodies, as many of the newer riffs were, well, derivative of the old 2-3 note guys!

I am sure you will agree with me on virtually every song on this list but – if not – feel free to play me some of your own examples. We demo each song on this list as a sample of evidence.

And here it is in very approximate order from the “best”:

1) You Really Got Me

The mother of all great guitar riffs and widely thought of as the birth of both hard rock and metal. Ray Davies’ song and Dave Davies’ feedback-fuzzed guitar was the simplest of the three-note monster riffs and stands alone in what it created. The Kinks re-created the sound on another riff-rock tune, “All Day and All of the Night”.

2) Satisfaction

A riff that came to Keith Richards (allegedly) in a dream, it was pumped through a fuzz box and birthed perhaps the Rolling Stones’ greatest song. Like all monster riff songs, the riff supports the song throughout.

3) Layla

A lyrical Clapton riff that is instantly recognizable although some say that Duane Allman created or co-created it. The harmonics are from a 7-note “signature” riff doubled in two octaves but that sound goes on forever.

4) Purple Haze

The guitar grunting and lead work here introduced the world to Jimi Hendrix and his boundless guitar mysticism. “Voodoo Chile” and “Foxy Lady” also deserve to be on the list but I arbitrarily made it one song per artist. This is the godfather of Hendrix licks.

5) Smoke on the Water

You can’t avoid this tune on a list like this one although it is far from Deep Purple’s best or most pleasing work. Ritchie Blackmore blasted out four notes that changed more kids’ lives in more bands than perhaps any other four.

6) Sunshine of Your Love

Exceptions make the rule and my rule bent about one artist as Cream simply has to be included. Jack Bruce wrote the song but Clapton is again credited by playing the riff.

7) Day Tripper

No music list works properly without the Beatles on it somewhere and this might be their truest riff song; this was a John Lennon lick although perhaps played by George Harrison as lead.

8) Whole Lotta Love

I picked the great two note cruncher over other Led Zeppelin riff masterworks (“Heartbreaker”, “Living Loving” and etc.) because it just drove this song.

9) Aqualung

Dark and dirty and vintage Jethro Tull with an on-going mutation of the original note run, slipping to acoustic and back to monster guitar licks.

10) Highway to Hell

“Highway to Hell”, “Back in Black and so many others – how to choose amongst the treasure chest of AC/DC muscle riffs? I chose “Highway” as fans go nuts with just the first notes of this unbelievably simple stomper.

11) Crazy Train

Associated with Ozzy Osbourne, “Crazy Train” is a Randy Rhoads rock guitar masterpiece and from riff to rhythm crunch to solo is as good as this stuff gets…

12) My My, Hey Hey (Into the Black)

You want simple and you want a crusher riff? Neil Young delivers in this classic punk guitar stomper that was influenced by Devo.

13) Bad to the Bone

George Thorogood’s blues blaster has likely been done before and after, like a vintage ZZ Top piece but it represents all those songs for the list here.

14) Wild Thing

The primal Troggs’ song that helped create the genre of – what? – metal or rock itself. The song and chords have been covered by countless others (likely best by Hendrix) but done first to commercial recognition in 1965 by the Troggs.

15) American Woman

Almost too “clean” to be a classic, the rhythm lick is a primal intro to a longer guitar intro. A ‘tweener…

16) Smells Like Teen Spirit

Nirvana’s perfect rocker, it could be Cobain’s plaintive riff or could have inspired Dave Grohl – likely both!

17) Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The Clash at its basic best and at the top of their game – simple sounds perfect.

18) Whiskey Train

It’s documented that I believe Procol Harum is the greatest group of them all. That’s right. They played multiple genres of rock and here they are at their hard rock best with a classic Robin Trower riff: simple and carrying the entire tune.

19) Funk 49

Primitive and inimitable Joe Walsh creating a unique sound that defies you to remove it from your head.

20) Up Around the Bend

How many John Fogerty guitar licks could I include in here? Likely a dozen or more. But this is the riff I chose.

21) Hope You’re Feeling Better

As just mentioned, there are dozens of Carlos Santana riffs that qualify so you might question why I am picking this relatively obscure one. The song (organ riff moving to guitar) speaks for itself and there are other great guitar chunks in here as you move through the tune…

22) Seven Nation Army

It takes a while to get there but the bass riff became a national craze at sports events and other marching events.

23) Hi-Speed Soul

This great guitar puncher from Nada Surf is actually two riffs; one rhythm guitar “riff” but that counts!

24) Enter Sandman

Acoustic guitar riff that turns nasty as James Hetfield and Metallica develop it.

25) Carry On My Wayward Son

Overplayed and possibly under-appreciated at the same time, this Kansas riff-heavy piece gets extra credit for the guitar break in the middle.

Check out my list of the Top 100 rock bands of all time here. Photo Credits: Matt Gibbons and Helge Øverås.

12 comments to “The 25 Greatest Guitar Riffs of All Time”
    • Maybe it’s because the early Rockers claimed all the simple, obvious riffs, leaving harder ones for those that followed.

  1. Great list, I gotta agree with most of it, but I think The Who is an obvious omission. They weren’t real riffy but “Baba O’Reilly”, for one, belongs here. Of course that Who riff drew inspiration from Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” which should also qualify.

  2. I would also argue that “I Feel Fine” has a more iconic opening riff than “Day Tripper”, and if it constitutes too many notes i’d be tempted to go with “Revolution”.

  3. Pingback: Great rock lyrics I have known and some pretty awful ones, too… | Rocknuts

  4. Well, I thought I’d better straighten myself out here, Sir Rocknuts. *lol*, as it appears you prefer the ‘original’ songs to later versions.

    While the above rendition was recorded ‘live’ in 2014 (in Atlanta) with Gregg, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Oteil Burbridge, Butch Trucks, etc etc. (sorry, I can’t remember all the names of the band members), here is the ‘live’ version from Filmore East 1971 with the original band, Gregg, Duane, Dickey Betts, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks, and Jai Johanson.

    And here is the original version on the Allman Bros. first album (1969)… only 5-minutes long.

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