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Top 10 Guitar Riffs of the All Time

VO: Rebecca Brayton
These guitar licks really get under your skin, stick in your head and bring out the guitar hero in everyone. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 guitar riffs of all time. For this list, we’ve chosen one song per artist and stuck to what we felt were their most signature, memorable or skilled guitar riffs. We’ve also excluded instrumentals. This video of the Top 10 Guitar Riffs of All Time is part of a series of videos that includes the Top 10 Heavy Metal, Hard Rock and Classic Rock Guitar Riffs.
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These guitar licks really get under your skin, stick in your head and bring out the guitar hero in everyone. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 guitar riffs of all time.

For this list, we’ve chosen one song per artist and stuck to what we felt were their most signature, memorable or skilled guitar riffs. We’ve also excluded instrumentals. This video of the Top 10 Guitar Riffs of All Time is part of a series of videos that includes the Top 10 Heavy Metal, Hard Rock and Classic Rock Guitar Riffs.

#10: “You Really Got Me” (1964)
The Kinks

Opening our list is this bombastic blues-based recording that musicologists agree was the first hit song built around power chords. After topping the UK charts, the single launched The Kinks’ American success and positioned them as a member of the British Invasion. Thanks to its distortion-heavy guitar sound, it also helped the band lay the foundation for hard rock, punk rock and heavy metal. In 1999 “You Really Got Me” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, cementing its legendary status.

#9: “Master of Puppets” (1986)
Metallica

Our next riff comes from the first thrash metal album to be certified platinum. “Enter Sandman” instigated Metallica’s mainstream popularity, but it was the fast-paced and intricate compositions on Master of Puppets – and especially the album’s only single and title track – that positioned the band as one of thrash metal’s “Big Four.” Enhanced by James Hetfield’s and Kirk Hammett’s guitar abilities, and featuring extensive use of down picking, this is very much considered Metallica’s signature song.

#8: “Paranoid” (1970)
Black Sabbath

“Iron Man” may have the cult status, but it’s “Paranoid” that’s cited time and time again as essential to the heavy metal canon. Tony Iommi’s dynamic riffs meld flawlessly with Ozzy’s trademark vocals and Geezer Butler’s tormented lyrics on this Black Sabbath track, creating a dark and heavy blues-rock sound unlike anything heard before it. Its aggressive, frenetic pace and short running time anticipated the punk rock sound that would dominate by the end of the decade, but also deeply informed the blueprint of heavy metal.

#7: “Back in Black” (1980)
AC/DC

Determined to move on after the death of original vocalist Bon Scott, but also wanting to honor his legacy, AC/DC penned this hard-hitting, in-your-face track in 1980. Opening with an unforgettable riff, the tune is driven by the dual guitar sound of brothers Angus and Malcolm Young. The screeching vocals of new hire Brian Johnson signaled the future success that he and the band would have together and assisted the song’s parent album in becoming of one of history’s best-selling records.

#6: “Layla” (1971)
Derek and the Dominos

Eric Clapton reveals his unrequited love for George Harrison’s then-wife Pattie Boyd on this track from Derek and the Dominos’ only studio effort. Originally written as a love balled, it was actually guest guitarist Duane Allman who wrote the song’s sizzling signature riff, turning it from a ballad into a rocker. Proving that “Layla” had staying power, Clapton’s Unplugged solo version won a Grammy over two decades after the initial release of the song in 1971.

#5: “Smoke on the Water” (1973)
Deep Purple

You’d be hard-pressed to find any guitarist who doesn’t recognize this iconic Ritchie Blackmore riff; it’s likely the first one they ever learned. Backed by Jon Lord’s fuzzy Hammond organ, Ian Paice’s smooth drumming and Roger Glover’s electric bass, the central four-note blues scale that rises above it all is one of the most recognizable in rock music. Add Ian Gillan’s vocals to the mix and you’ve got one of the most popular and successful songs in Deep Purple’s repertoire.

#4: “Whole Lotta Love” (1969)
Led Zeppelin

Jimmy Page’s taut guitar work in the intro to this song suggests a wild animal waiting to be released. And Robert Plant’s signature plaintive wail, John Bonham’s thunderous drums and John Paul Jones’ timeless bass drive home the tension in this song; it’s an innovative take on the blues, giving it a harder edge and structuring it into a tune with sections of atmospheric percussion and vocals. However, it’s Page’s blues-influenced power riffing during the intro that remains implanted in our brains.

#3: “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” (1968)
Jimi Hendrix Experience

“Purple Haze” gave us the Hendrix chord, but it’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return) that showcases Jimi’s electric guitar talents to a tee. While the middle of the song displays real guitar virtuosity, it is the intro that gets Hendrix the number three spot on this list. Beginning with his signature wah-wah in use, the guitar soon lets out a crunching psychedelic riff of mammoth sonic proportions. It’s a sound so large that only Jimi Hendrix was really capable of producing it.

#2: “Crazy Train” (1980)
Ozzy Osbourne

You’d be hard-pressed to find a metal fan that doesn’t recognize the Prince of Darkness’ first solo single. The song has been widely praised for Randy Rhoads’ incomparable guitar technique, which made use of the full minor scale in the main riff. But let’s not forget his mean guitar solo. Though he’s contributed several other notable riffs to Ozzy’s repertoire, “Crazy Train” remains the Godfather of Heavy Metal’s signature anthem and nabs our runner-up spot.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are some honorable mentions:
- “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love” (1978)

Van Halen

- “The Trooper” (1983)

Iron Maiden

- “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” (1990)

Megadeth

- “Sunshine of Your Love” (1968)

Cream

- “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (1988)

Guns N’ Roses

- “Money for Nothing” (1985)

Dire Straits

- “Seven Nation Army” (2003)

The White Stripes


#1: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965)
The Rolling Stones

The Stones became an international sensation after Mick Jagger and Keith Richards teamed up to pen this song, considered one of the best in the history of rock music. Richards originally wrote the tune’s now-famous riff for a horn section. By using a Gibson fuzz box, Keef gave his guitar a fuller sound and ensured that fuzz boxes sold like hotcakes thanks to the track’s success as a single. It was the Rolling Stones’ first American chart-topper and birthed one of the most recognizable and, dare we say, satisfactory riffs in rock history.

Do you agree with our list? What’s your all-time favorite guitar riff? For more riff-tastic top 10s published every day, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.
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