50 Greatest Guitar Riffs Of All Time

AC/DC – ‘Back In Black’.

AC/DC – ‘Back In Black’. No strangers to the instant classic scorching riff, even AC/DC excelled themselves with this economical monster, the perfect confirmation they were back in the game after the death of original singer Bon Scott. No finer tribute.

Arctic Monkeys – ‘Brianstorm’.

Arctic Monkeys – ‘Brianstorm’. The moment the Monkeys got heavy. The opening track of second album ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ saw the band make their intentions clear with a ferocious machine gun riff.

Chuck Berry – ‘Johnny B Goode’.

Chuck Berry – ‘Johnny B Goode’.

Chuck Berry – ‘Johnny B Goode’. This firecracker riff still sounds mind-blowing today, so it’s difficult to imagine what it must have felt like to hear it coming over the radio back in 1958.


The Black Keys – ‘Lonely Boy’.

The Black Keys – ‘Lonely Boy’. Inspired by The Johnny Burnette Trio’s 1956 rockabilly blues classic ‘The Train Kept A-Rollin”, Dan Auerbach’s churning guitar buzz is right down there in the dirt.

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.

Black Sabbath – ‘Paranoid’.

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.

Bloc Party, ‘Banquet’.

Bloc Party, 'Banquet'.

Bloc Party, ‘Banquet’. Bloc Party affirmed their credentials as leading lights of the new wave revival with this choppy little gem that recalls Wire and Gang Of Four at their most direct.


Blur – ‘Song 2’.

Blur – ‘Song 2’. Sometimes a classic riff comes from great musicians embracing the power of simplicity. This pogoing four-chord riff may have been Blur’s tongue-in-cheek take on grunge, but it’s also one of the hookiest, catchiest and just plain fun songs they ever wrote.

David Bowie – ‘Rebel, Rebel’.

David Bowie – ‘Rebel, Rebel’.

David Bowie – ‘Rebel, Rebel’. After the departure of his guitarist Mick Ronson, Bowie wrote and performed this stomping riff himself. When it was released in 1974, NME pointed out that it “owed as much to Keith Richards as it did to the departed Ronno.”

Chic – ‘Le Freak’.

Chic - 'Le Freak'.

Chic – ‘Le Freak’. Disco could do the brain-lodging riff too, with Nile Rodgers’ clipped lick doing the business for all time. Thirty-five years as an instant lethargy cure.

Cream – ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’.

Cream – ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’.

Cream – ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’. Everyone knows Eric Clapton plays this riff, but it was actually written by bassist Jack Bruce immediately after he and Clapton had got back from watching a Jimi Hendrix gig in London.


The Cribs – ‘Men’s Needs’.

The Cribs – ‘Men’s Needs’. It’s like a cheeky little siren really, but that’s the catchy beauty of Ryan Jarman’s riff on The Cribs’ first ever Top 20 single.

Deep Purple – ‘Smoke On The Water’.

Deep Purple – ‘Smoke On The Water’. When guitarist Ritchie Blackmore wrote this classic riff, people told him it was too simplistic. He pointed out that even Beethoven’s Fifth uses a similar four-note arrangement.

Franz Ferdinand – ‘Take Me Out’.

Franz Ferdinand – ‘Take Me Out’. The jerky, pounding riff scorched its way across indie dancefloors in 2004 and gave Franz their signature sound. Mind you, it does bear more than a passing resemblance to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Trampled Underfoot’.

Jimi Hendrix – ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’.

Jimi Hendrix – ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’.

Jimi Hendrix – ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’. The apotheosis of the electric guitar tune, every moment from the incendiary opening riff to the funky breakdown makes this a classic. Often imitated, never bettered.

Hole – ‘Celebrity Skin’.

Hole – ‘Celebrity Skin’. A grungy grind of pure aggression apparently written by Billy Corgan while he helped out at the album sessions, but played by Eric Erlandson with unbridled metal power.

The Isley Brothers – ‘That Lady (Part 1 & 2)’.

The Isley Brothers - 'That Lady (Part 1 & 2)'.

The Isley Brothers – ‘That Lady (Part 1 & 2)’. Somewhere on the cusp between riff and solo, Ernie Isley’s searing theme was inspired by Carlos Santana and takes the Brothers’ soul onto the Funkadelic Mothership.

Michael Jackson – ‘Beat It’.

Michael Jackson – ‘Beat It’. Eddie Van Halen smoothed Michael Jackson’s crossover from darling of the disco/R&B scene to globe-enslaving pop/rock superstar with just a few boisterous licks of his axe. So to speak.

Kings Of Leon – ‘The Bucket’.

Kings Of Leon - 'The Bucket'.

Kings Of Leon – ‘The Bucket’. You can hear Kings Of Leon stepping up into the big league in the opening gallop of this first single from second album ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’. The exhilarating, descending riff comes steeped in rock history.

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.

Marion – ‘Let’s All Go Together’.

Marion – ‘Let’s All Go Together’. The Britpop stars that never were, Marion drew Suede comparisons in 1995 with ‘Let’s All Go Together’ and its waltzing, Bernard Butleresque riff.

Muse – ‘Supermassive Black Hole’.

Muse - 'Supermassive Black Hole'.

Muse – ‘Supermassive Black Hole’. Some warped cosmic timeshift found Matt Bellamy infused with the spirit of Prince. Actually, it was going out dancing New York clubs that really did it, as Muse dipped into some sci-fi funk for the first time.

New Order – ‘Ceremony’.

New Order – ‘Ceremony’. Written as Joy Division but released as New Order, the band marked the transition with one of their most pulsing and invigorating riffs, shot through with melancholy.

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.

Pearl Jam – ‘Alive’.

Pearl Jam – ‘Alive’. There’s a muscular, dragging, Led Zeppelin quality to Stone Gossard’s riff but it peaks with a hopeful note at odds with the grisly character of Eddie Vedder’s lyric.

Tom Petty – ‘Free Fallin”.

Tom Petty – ‘Free Fallin”. Petty’s biggest and most gloriously singalong chorus is built on the sort of riff that you don’t mind burrowing into your skull. Altogether now: “I’m freeeee….”

Primal Scream – ‘Jailbird’.

Primal Scream – ‘Jailbird’. The best riff to come out of the Primals’ delusional “we are The Rolling Stones” period, ‘Jailbird’ has the Keef filth but a bit of Jimmy Page churn too.

Prince – ‘Alphabet Street’.

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.

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.

Rage Against The Machine – ‘Killing In The Name’.

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.

Sex Pistols – ‘Pretty Vacant’.

Sex Pistols – ‘Pretty Vacant’. A filthy, explosive burst of punk from 1977, but Pistols bassist Glen Matlock let slip that the riff was partly inspired by a distinctly un-punk radio hit: ‘S.O.S.’ by ABBA.

Smashing Pumpkins – ‘Today’.

Smashing Pumpkins – ‘Today’. Billy Corgan took over guitar duties himself for this riff, which nods to the pentatonic scale, and which returns repeatedly and gloriously throughout the song which helped launch ‘Siamese Dream’ to generation-defining heights.

The Stone Roses – ‘Love Spreads’.

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.

The Stooges – ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’.

The Stooges – ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’.

The Stooges – ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’. Who needs more than three chords? Not Ron Asheton when he’s going feral and casually inventing punk in the process. So good The Stooges often play the song twice live: the legendary ‘Double dog’.

Radiohead – ‘Paranoid Android’.

Radiohead – ‘Paranoid Android’. You know the bit we mean. Trademark Johnny Greenwood guitar sorcery, his instrument slicing and snarling around a chaotic storm of noise as this iconic, defiantly ambitious ‘OK Computer’ anthem erupts and climaxes.

The Strokes – ‘You Only Live Once’.

The Strokes – ‘You Only Live Once’. There’s almost a boss nova shuffle to this one but it’s also one of the most melodic riffs in The Strokes’ arsenal, lending a tinge of sadness to otherwise throaty rawk proceedings.

Suede – ‘Animal Nitrate’.

Suede – ‘Animal Nitrate’. Bernard Butler’s opening guitar riff did many things: defined Suede’s sound, created the perfect mood for Brett Anderson’s chemical cynicism, and just downright rocked.

T. Rex – ‘Get It On’.

T. Rex - 'Get It On'.

T. Rex – ‘Get It On’. Marc Bolan was so pleased with this clipped riff he used it pretty much all the time, just altering key and tempo to fit. ‘Get It On’ is the perfect example though, low-slung and funky.

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.

The Who – ‘I Can’t Explain’.

The Who - 'I Can't Explain'.

The Who – ‘I Can’t Explain’. So good it was totally appropriated by Fatboy Slim for 1997’s ‘Going Out Of My Head’ (actually a sample of Yvonne Elliman’s cover), Pete Townshend’s choppy scruff of a riff is as barbed as Roger Daltrey’s doubts are sweet.

Wire – ‘Three Girl Rhumba’.

Wire - 'Three Girl Rhumba'.

Wire – ‘Three Girl Rhumba’. Colin Newman’s brutal, sharp metallic riff is typical Wire – taut, unforgiving and quite the influence on Elastica, who paid clear homage on their single ‘Connection’.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – ‘Bang’.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - 'Bang'.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – ‘Bang’. Yeah Yeah Yeahs announced themselves with a riff so dirty it was almost perverted. Clang, clatter and seedy jangle make for a statement of intent that’s been followed up in spades since.

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’.