Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – ‘Spread Your Love’.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – ‘Spread Your Love’. Swaggering in like Link Wray’s ‘Rumble’ hopped up on steroids, this is a riff that simply demands you stop whatever you’re doing, don dark shades and black leather and head out into the night.
Credit: Pamela Littky
Black Sabbath – ‘Paranoid’.
Black Sabbath – ‘Paranoid’. Proto-metal fretworkery from Tony Iommi, pulling on the strings like he’s starting a petrol-driven lawnmower. Iommi famously plays lefthanded after sawing off the tops of two fingers of his right hand in an industrial accident, but there’s no discernible diminishing of raw rock power.
The Kinks – ‘You Really Got Me’.
The Kinks – ‘You Really Got Me’. Kinks guitarist Dave Davis slashed the speaker cone of his amp to create this riff’s distinctive distorted guitar sound. The band had been told they needed to have a hit within their first three singles, and with this riff behind, on their third attempt, they got it.
Manic Street Preachers – ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’.
Manic Street Preachers – ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. Still sounding ridiculously anthemic twenty years on, James Dean Bradfield’s melodic riffing, plus a few Slash-influenced guitar wails, announced the Manics as chart-conquering guitar heroes.
Credit: Andy Willsher/NME
Nirvana – ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
Nirvana – ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Is the most remarkable thing about this riff that it killed hair metal or that it made Nirvana superstars against their will? No, the most remarkable thing about this riff is that even after hearing it 87 million times it still sounds so visceral, so purely exciting, when you hear it kick in.
Prince – ‘Alphabet Street’.
Prince – ‘Alphabet Street’. In the 1980s, Prince usually bathed his greatest riffs in oceans of synths, overpowering the guitar lines of ‘1999’ and ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, but here the Purple Pixie’s at his most funkily sparse, his jangling riff driving all the way to Tennessee.
Prodigy – ‘Firestarter’.
Prodigy – ‘Firestarter’. An electronic loony-eyed howl of a riff fed through a berserker to set up shop in your nightmares. And that’s before you’ve seen Keith Flint. It’s actually a sample of the ringing guitar squall from The Breeders’ ‘S.O.S.’ but looped and twisted beyond comfortable recognition.
Credit: Guy Eppel/NME
Queens Of The Stone Age – ‘No One Knows’.
Queens Of The Stone Age – ‘No One Knows’. Homme originally wrote this monstrous guitar riff for ‘Cold Sore Superstars’, a track from his long running Desert Sessions side-project, but it building this song around it gave the Queens their biggest hit.
Credit: Danny North
Rage Against The Machine – ‘Killing In The Name’.
Rage Against The Machine – ‘Killing In The Name’. Tom Morello’s finest moment, one thing that everyone forgets about this riff is that as well as rocking hard it’s got a little touch of funk in it too. Maybe that’s why it’s scientifically impossible to remain static while listening to it.
The Rolling Stones – ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’.
The Rolling Stones – ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’. Keith Richards spent most of the Sixties and Seventies plucking all the great guitar riffs out of the air and turning them into timeless songs, but this might just be the Human Riff’s greatest three chords, made no less impressive by the fact he literally wrote it in his sleep.
The Stone Roses – ‘Love Spreads’.
The Stone Roses – ‘Love Spreads’. The first thing we heard after The Stone Roses’ millennium off was a thunderous great Led Zep growl, one great big far cry from ‘She Bangs The Drums’ jangle and ‘Fools Gold’ wah-wah. John Squire might’ve discovered new spheres of fretwankery on the album, but ‘Love Spreads’ was swaggering and sharp.
Television – ‘Marquee Moon’.
Television – ‘Marquee Moon’. It’s a dual guitar part and – hey, wordplay – a duel too, as Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd trade licks in an epic piece of music that still manages to sound stark despite its interminable length. ‘Marquee Moon’ scrapes the skies but always comes back to Verlaine and Lloyd’s multilayered riff.
The White Stripes – ‘Seven Nation Army’.
The White Stripes – ‘Seven Nation Army’. It’s still a little baffling how, after 50 years of rock’n’roll history. Jack White somehow managed to stumble across such a simple, memorable riff that nobody else had found. By transforming a bass riff into a snarling mutant he created a tune that brings together rock kids and chanting football fans everywhere.
Neil Young – ‘Cinnamon Girl’.
Neil Young – ‘Cinnamon Girl’. This crunching one-note riff is a masterpiece over 3-minutes from a guitar player probably better known for his epic solos. It’s proto-grunge from 1969, and David Byrne of Talking Heads once said that ‘Cinnamon Girl’ inspired the one note machine-gun riff that closes ‘Psycho Killer’.