Top 20 Greatest Guitar Riffs of All Time

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Top 20 Greatest Guitar Riffs of All Time

VOICE OVER: Ryan Wild WRITTEN BY: George Pacheco
Let's rock! For this list, we'll be ranking the most powerful, influential and iconic guitar riffs ever recorded. Our countdown includes "Walk This Way", "Barracuda", "Welcome to the Jungle", "Layla", "Smoke on the Water", and more!
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Top 20 Guitar Riffs of All Time


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we're counting down our picks for the Top 20 Guitar Riffs of All Time.

For this list, we'll be ranking the most powerful, influential and iconic guitar riffs ever recorded. Please note, however, that we’ll be excluding instrumentals for another day.

What iconic riffs rock your world? Let us know in the comments!

#20: "Walk This Way" (1975)

Aerosmith

Who doesn't crave a little Aerosmith to kick start their day? "Walk This Way" may arguably be the band's best known song, but that doesn't mean it doesn't deserve every damn bit of praise. A lot of this credit should be laid at the feet of guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, who lay down such a thick and funky groove, that it makes "Walk This Way" basically impossible to resist. A major success in the ‘70s, the track later helped to revitalize the band's career when Aerosmith collaborated with Run-DMC for a reworked version of the song in 1986.


#19: "Round and Round" (1984)

Ratt
Don't sleep on hair metal riffs, especially when they're coming from musicians as talented as Ratt's Warren DeMartini or Robbin Crosby. The genre was actually a breeding ground for skilled players who usually played as flashy as possible, but could also bring to the table a surprising amount of depth and texture. "Round and Round" boasts one of those instantly memorable riffs that's mid-paced and metallic, but poppy enough to create crossover appeal. The song also has a superb harmony around the middle of the track, really letting Crosby and DeMartini shine bright. This riff is a reminder that '80s glam metal wasn't only about big hair, but big hooks as well.


#18: "No One Knows" (2002)

Queens of the Stone Age
The ghosts of the desert loom high over Josh Homme's riffing on "No One Knows," an echo to the star’s past with pioneering stoner rock band, Kyuss. Queens of the Stone Age are comparatively more pop-friendly than Kyuss, but that doesn't mean that "No One Knows" rocks any less. In fact, we'd argue that the quirky arrangement of the song is part of what makes the riffing stand out so much. Homme knows when to get funky, when to go heavy and when to let the song breathe. As a result, "No One Knows" is something of a pop-stoner-jam anthem for the ages.


#17: "Check My Brain" (2009)

Alice in Chains

There had to be a lot of mixed feelings for Alice in Chains fans when the band finally released their fourth album—the first without frontman Layne Stayley, following his tragic passing. Thankfully, "Black Gives Way to Blue" had all of the music elements their audience craved, along with a new singer and rhythm guitarist, William DuVall. DuVall actually brings a lot to the table here on "Check My Brain," playing along with guitarist Jerry Cantrell for the song's heavy and sludgy main riff. It's a throwback to the band's early, metallic period as heard on the "Facelift" album, and a welcome return to form for one of the greatest grunge pioneers.



#16: "Eye of the Tiger" (1982)

Survivor
You know it, you love it, you can sing every word by heart. It's Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger," and it's a perfect pump-up song for any occasion. Of course, this melodic AOR rock jam became iconic thanks to being featured as the main theme to "Rocky III," but we'd like to think it would've been a hit regardless. It feels epic regardless of context due to the impact and immediacy of that main riff; guitarist and songwriter Frankie Sullivan keeps things anthemic and mid-paced. We defy anyone to hear "Eye of the Tiger" and not want to punch a heavy bag or engage in some kind of personal heroism.


#15: "Beat It" (1982)

Michael Jackson
The King of Pop may not have been hard rock or heavy metal, but he certainly knew a good musician when he heard one. Michael Jackson surrounded himself with the very best, both on tour and in the studio, which explains why he employed none other than Eddie Van Halen on lead guitar for this track. The riff on MJ's "Beat It" sounds as if it was brought down by the gods themselves, a killer and groovy staccato number that gives the song an authentically tough feel. Oh, and then there's the matter of that solo, a pitch-perfect example of Eddien Van Halen at his very best. It’s the icing on the cake of this pop-rock crossover masterpiece.



#14: "Barracuda" (1977)

Heart
It was the classic rock gallop heard ‘round the world. It's Heart with one of their best known jams, so sing it with us now: ooooo Barracuda. It's a radio staple for the Seattle-bred group, and one that exemplifies that seventies rock sound that was so popular with fans. Guitarist Nancy Wilson actually revealed in a 2019 interview with Gear Factor that the killer main riff from "Barracuda" was adapted and borrowed from their touring partners Nazareth. Wilson went on to say that Heart heard Nazareth's heavy cover of Joni Mitchell's "This Flight Tonight" and liked it so much that they tinkered with their own "tribute”. The end result was rock music’s most famous fish. The world has never looked at a barracuda the same way since.


#13: "Paranoid" (1970)

Black Sabbath

Here's a question: if Black Sabbath were the honest-to-goodness first heavy metal band, does that make "Paranoid" the very first crossover pop single for the genre? For better or worse, “Paranoid” has become intrinsically linked with Sabbath's iconic early period with Ozzy Osbourne. Of course, there's no denying the immediacy of that main riff, and it's even more crazy to note that the band basically wrote it in a matter of minutes. Yup, "Paranoid" was an afterthought for the band's then-titled "War Pigs" album, but it only took one listen by Vertigo Records execs to immediately change those plans, and voila! The "Paranoid" album was born.



#12: "Wasted Years" (1986)

Iron Maiden

The next band on our list is better known for their melodies and guitar harmonies than riffs, but Iron Maiden should NEVER be excluded from the conversation. The title track from the band's "Powerslave" album is a great example, while "Wasted Years" delivers the best of both worlds. The song opens with a super melodic guitar run that moves into the relatively simple main verse riff. It drives "Wasted Years" into the memorable chords that serve as structure for the chorus, before that opening melody returns and joins the verse riff again for the solo. It's metal magic, and an enduring hit for one of England's finest heavy exports.



#11: "Ain't Talkin' ‘bout Love" (1978)

Van Halen

It's a song you've probably heard covered a million times by your favorite bar band, but you're STILL not sick of it. And to be honest? Neither are we. Van Halen explored different musical moods, but many fans have preferred it when Eddie and co. go full heavy metal on songs like "Atomic Punk" and our pick, "Ain’t Talkin' Bout Love." It's a song that hangs its hat on that opening riff, but what a riff it is: an aggressive call to arms that basically serves up a Sunset Strip, hair metal prototype in just a few notes. Eddie may have initially dreamt up the track as a play on punk rock, but "Ain’t Talkin' ‘bout Love" went on to become a classic rock staple.



#10: "Raining Blood" (1986)

Slayer

Simply stated: Slayer IS the sound of all hell breaking loose. The faint of heart need not apply for "Raining Blood," a thrash metal masterpiece that truly is the sum of its creative parts. After all, you can basically just take your pick of badass riffs in this beast, from that iconic and dark opening harmony to the breakdown to end all breakdowns juuuust after the two minute mark. Oh, and did we mention that this song—minus the roughly 1 minute of rain noises—clocks in at just over 3 minutes? It's proof that you don't need any bloated posturing to create epic heavy metal. Slayer basically defines the genre.



#9: "Welcome to the Jungle" (1987)

Guns N’ Roses

Ok, so we easily could've given this ninth spot to any number of classic GnR jams, including "Sweet Child o' Mine." Ultimately though, we settled on what has to be one of the best album openers ever, "Welcome to the Jungle." Some songs just have that "it factor," this nebulous power to put you in a specific time or place. In the case of "Welcome to the Jungle," it's the 1980s Sunset Strip: Los Angeles sun, nighttime sleaze and the hot neon of unrepentantly bad behavior. If there was any doubt that Guns 'n Roses were truly living out the scenarios laid out in their songs, "Welcome to the Jungle" silenced them with a riff that screams, "this is the next big thing: get used to it."


#8: "Money for Nothing" (1985)

Dire Straits
Mark Knopfler isn't really about the flash. His playing style tends to be far more subtle. Dire Straits’ lead vocalist and guitarist instead tends to focus on texture, melody and finger-picking technique. That said, the main hook to the "Money For Nothing" riff is actually quite thick, by Knopfler's standards, anyway. The riff and it's very eighties-sounding, synthesized production dates the song, but not really in a bad way. Instead, "Money For Nothing" brings a nostalgic smile to the faces of those who remember the decade, and perhaps imaginative musings of what could've been for those who weren't there the first time 'round.


#7: "Crazy Train" (1980)

Ozzy Osbourne
Remember how we mentioned earlier that Michael Jackson always surrounded himself with the best musicians? The same could also be said of The Oz Man himself, Ozzy Osbourne. That's because the former Black Sabbath frontman always sought out and employed the best guitarists around for his solo career. Jake E. Lee, Brad Gillis and Zakk Wylde are just a few of the axemen who've played with Ozzy, but the hearts of many fans lie with the dearly departed Randy Rhoads and his work on this classic Ozzy track, "Crazy Train." Rhoads permanently left his mark on popular culture with this song. "Crazy Train's" main riff is a hook that just won't let go. It's a classic that's endured for a reason.



#6: "Master of Puppets" (1986)

Metallica
Is Metallica's "Master of Puppets" the perfect thrash metal song? If not, we’re not sure what is! This title track from the album of the same name is a veritable treasure trove of great riffs. From the charging opening salvo to the twin harmony bridge section, "Master of Puppets" is all killer, no filler. This is due largely to the impeccable arrangements of James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, who make sure that no riff overstays its welcome, while also creating mini-movements that drive the song ever-forward. Hetfield's downpicked rhythm playing is arguably at its best here. "Master of Puppets" manages to make its near-ten minute run time feel incredibly short.



#5: "You Really Got Me" (1964)

The Kinks
Although most music historians point to the late seventies as the point where punk rock began to explode into the public consciousness, its origins can actually be traced back much further. Case in point? "You Really Got Me," by The Kinks, a classic rock track that really doesn't sound anything like other classic rock tracks of the day. That’s got a lot to do with the aggressive main riff, and how unique this approach was in the early to mid sixties. The Kinks experimented with a lot of styles, from psychedelia to pop, but "You Really Got Me" is straight, pissed and to the point: a perfect jump off for similar attitudes explored by punk rock nearly a decade later.


#4: "Layla" (1970)

Derek and the Dominos
Songwriting is a beautiful thing, especially when it works this well. "Layla" was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle moments where the members of supergroup Derek & the Dominos got a little help from their friends...and created a classic rock anthem in the process. That striking opening riff gets things going right away, of course, but the real brilliant move is how "Layla" then quickly changes key for the main verse. This decision makes the second section sound even more urgent and powerful, before that opening riff comes back for the chorus. As if that wasn't enough, that iconic piano exit smoothes down everything after a blistering solo section from Eric Clapton and guest Duane Allman. It's pure rock genius.



#3: "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" (1965)

The Rolling Stones

When you think of The Rolling Stones and iconic riffs, two particular songs come to mind. One of them is "Start Me Up," but perhaps even more popular is the band's famous hit, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Keith Richards is never going to win any awards for flashy guitar heroics, but he doesn't need to, because the main riff here is simple but oh-so-memorable. It's a punchy lick that works great with Mick Jagger's unique vocals, and honestly never wears out its welcome. There isn't much deviation here with regards to arrangement, but when the riff is THIS good, why not hammer that sucker home for all its worth?

#2: "Smoke on the Water" (1972)

Deep Purple
Does Deep Purple have better riffs than "Smoke on the Water?" Maybe. Does Deep Purple have more complex riffs than "Smoke on the Water?" Definitely. But that doesn't make our penultimate pick any less iconic. After all, the band was already firmly entrenched as a force for British psychedelia, prog and heavy rock when they released "Smoke on the Water" back in 1972. However, it only took the magic of Ritchie Blackmore's playing to turn what's essentially a basic blues riff into the early formations of heavy metal. It's monolithic, lumbering and oh so majestic in its simplicity, and so it's naturally been covered to pieces by adoring bands all over the world.


Before we name our number one pick, here are some honorable mentions!

"Back in Black" (1980), AC/DC
Malcolm and Angus Young Sound the Charge

"Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" (1968), The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Mountain-Sized Riffs From Jimi


"Walk" (1992), Pantera
Lumbering and Massively Satisfying


"Heartbreaker" (1979), Pat Benatar
The Queen Rocks Her Subjects

"Rock You Like a Hurricane" (1984), Scorpions
Arena Rock Perfection


#1: "Heartbreaker" (1969)

Led Zeppelin

Ok, let’s address the elephant in the room. Led Zeppelin have repeatedly faced accusations that they...well, let's say, were overly “inspired” by riff ideas from other artists. We'd argue, however: does that really matter when the end results are this good? Take your pick: it could be "Whole Lotta Love." Or "Immigrant Song." Or, it could be our top choice, "Heartbreaker," a twisted jam that's barely hanging on, but in the best possible way. Jimmy Page’s opening riff is stumbling and messy, but possesses awesome, intense drive. It's steeped in Page's love of American blues, but amplified to oblivion and turned into an amazing, hydra-headed proto-metal behemoth.
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