Top Ten Must Know Rock Guitar Riffs

June 16, 2009 by  

Slash-Sweet-Child-O-MineThe guitar riff is central to rock and roll as we know it. A great intro riff identifies and emboldens a song and kicks the band (and the crowd) into overdrive. Rock history is filled with riffs that have changed the world and it is all of our jobs to learn to play as many of these as we can. That’s how we learn what greatness really is and how we absorb the vocabulary needed to craft our own riffs and songs.

The question most often asked by my students, though, is “Where do I begin?” At this point, so much has happened in rock music since its inception in the 1950’s that choosing which songs to focus on can be overwhelming. Well, once again, here comes Gear-Vault to the rescue. Through much scientific testing and field research, we have distilled rock riff superiority down to a list of ten riffs that every savvy guitarist should be able to whip out at a moment’s notice, if ever their rock credentials are called into question.

These riffs have stood the test of time and have become large parts of our common language. Master each of these songs from beginning to end (including solos) and you will be well on your way to having the skills to possibly get one of your original riffs into a list like this someday. Can’t play ANY of these? Go home and practice.

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10 – “Johnny B. Goode” Chuck Berry. This is where it all began. Berry is the reason rock songs have guitar solos and is the real King of Rock and Roll. Every electric guitarist should be able to play this intro at the drop of a hat in the proper key (hint: it’s not in A).

9 – “Pipeline” The Chantays. Original surf music at its finest. It’s cool, minor key style informed much of the genre that came after it and holds up much better today than many of its contemporaries.

8 – “Satisfaction” The Rolling Stones. Arguably the first use of a fuzztone on record, this was Keith Richard’s attempt to play a horn part, but ended up being so much more.

7 – “Sunshine Of Your Love” Cream. This was Clapton’s strongest statement in his early period and remains a swaggering, muscular example of blues/rock riffery.

6 – “Purple Haze” – The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Hendrix defined the blueprint of the modern rock guitarist and “Purple Haze” remains the definitive Jimi track. Just learn it.

5 – “My Woman From Tokyo” Deep Purple. So much sweeter than the over-done “Smoke On The Water” figure, this was an instantly memorable riff from Ritchie Blackmore, one of rock’s greatest ever.

4 – “Hell’s Bells” AC/DC. “Hell’s Bells” just oozes menace and instantly commands attention. Play this right and all eyes will focus on you.

3 – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Nirvana. This is the riff that killed the 80’s and let the 90’s begin. Even if you are not a Cobain fan, it is impossible to deny the impact this song had. It should probably be in your back pocket somewhere.

2 – “Paranoid” Black Sabbath. Sabbath wrote the textbook of heavy metal early on and if you are going to learn their music, this is the best place to start. Didn’t learn this one in high school? Shame on you.
And the number one Must-Know Rock Guitar Riff is…..

1 – “Whole Lotta Love” Led Zeppelin. It doesn’t get much simpler and heavier than this. Get past its uncluttered approach and become one with the vibe, which will rock any house anywhere, any time. If you can’t play this, can you really call yourself a rock musician?

(Honorable mention “Sweet Child o’ Mine” by American hard rock band Guns N’ Roses)


24 Responses to “Top Ten Must Know Rock Guitar Riffs”
  1. valverdes says:

    paranoid by black sabath, why…. because it has like darkness in that riff, kind of like the song that is played when you enter hell and wait until you get judged. i mean its simple, but it just rock

  2. Josh says:

    So many to choose from! This time I’m going to go with AC/DC’s back in black. Turn it up load and mute the strings to set up the rhythm.. thump, thump, thump , thump then in comes the E5, D5, A5 Bam… Ban an am… Ban an am… you know the rest, well… you SHOULD know the rest!

  3. Scott says:

    My favorite guitar riff…..


    at the moment probably the riff from YYZ by Rush….

  4. Mike says:

    Mississippi Queen!!!!!!!!!! first position, Les Paul, Marshal stack (wow)

  5. Richard Wood, Jr. says:

    My favorite riff is the intro to Wish you where here. Sounds so naked and bares the soul of learning to play the guitar.

  6. bertram says:

    Sonic Youth’s 100% gives me goose bumps each time!

  7. John Brower says:

    A Hard Day’s Night – Beatles. It’s to cool, to catchy and totally unique. It turn a piece of electronic noise making equipment into an iconic tool of rock. Genius.

  8. collin magee says:

    the intro to turbulence by catherine its just so intense in a good way

  9. Don says:

    I have to go with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird. I like how the slide sounds so sweet. It may be an old song but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sound awesome!

  10. Luke says:

    Sweet Home Alabama, a classic. It is one of the most know riffs, and is a great song to just mess around with. If you don’t already know it, you should learn it NOW!!! lol.

  11. Fireman9 says:

    Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird
    best driving music!

  12. robby says:

    my fav riff has to powerslave by iron maiden. the raw power and rage comin from the guitars literally throws you into ancinent setting of this utterly awesum song.

  13. jordan says:

    seven nation army, simple but great

  14. Jeremy says:

    “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Nirvana. This is the riff that killed the 80’s and let the 90’s begin. Even if you are not a Cobain fan, it is impossible to deny the impact this song had. It should probably be in your back pocket somewhere.

  15. Wynand Van Emmerik says:

    I’m all for the top ten but talk about being subjective,theres not a bad one on the list but woman from tokyo was a classic.

  16. adhi says:

    “Spirit Carries on”Dream Theater, there are the great lick whose bring me remember God are True…and smiling to Us..

  17. brent baron says:

    Supernuaut or anything from vol 4 by Black Sabbath is honestly the beginning to the world of rock. Yet SRV tightrope is a song all should learn to open those minds…

  18. Jake says:

    BLOOD AND ROSES by the Smithereens
    it has such an awesome bass line i love playing it with the previous band i was in

  19. MikeM says:

    Cool top ten man, but how Jimi isn’t in your top three must be a question any serious guitar fan will ask. Another one: where’s Clapton (other than Cream). Also, Chuck Berry is one of the all-time greats, but millions of people around the world will tell that the title of king of rock and roll belongs to someone else. Respect your opinion dude and your top ten – but when it comes to Elvis, be careful!

  20. ToneFreq says:

    Sounds like a list of most overheard songs at a Guitar Center! *LOL* Great list. Let me add “Ain’t Talkin”Bout Love” by Van Halen!

  21. Kristian Brummenæs says:

    “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix. Why ? Because i grew up with that riff, and the wah intro lick in the begining with jimi’s tone just makes it perfect. He’s the greatest guitarist of all time!!

  22. Mike Kobylinski says:

    Riffs come and go.I like the riff and solo on Iron Maidens 22 Acacia Ave. It rocks hard and still sounds bluesey.

  23. Steven Ford says:

    Appetite For Destruction – Guns ‘N Roses— coming out of the Grunge Era and the “the world sucks” attitude this song brought new life back into mainstream music.

  24. valery says:

    From my point of view, actually, the best guitar riff ever is the legendary Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode. That’s just because it is one of the earliest (probably the earliest) example of what we call “a rock riff”. For the time it was written, this riff was nontrivial, almost genial, and we all should remember that’s a basis on which the temple of rock music is erected

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