Top 15 Rock Riffs of All Time
If the Beatles list didn’t get you going, this one is sure to! Here is a list of the top 15 rock riffs of all time, as compiled by Total Guitar magazine.
15. Van Halen Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love
“Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” is one of the best known songs from Van Halen. Appearing on their 1978 eponymous debut, it is considered one of the rawest songs the band has ever recorded. The song almost has a “punk” feel, yet the solo and guitar virtuosity of Eddie Van Halen shines throughout the record. It has a distinct and raw sounding intro, structured around a palm-muted and arpeggiated chord progression of I, IV, VII in the key of A minor with harmonics.
14. Led Zeppelin Black Dog
Led Zeppelin bass player John Paul Jones, who is credited with writing the main riff, got the idea for “Black Dog” after hearing Muddy Waters’ experimental psychedelic-blues album, Electric Mud. He wanted to try “electric blues with a rolling bass part.” Jones also wanted to write a song that people couldn’t “groove” or dance to.
13. Muse Plug in Baby
This song is widely praised for its intro riff, almost instantly recognizable for use of a rising triad motif to move through a distinctively classical minor scale. It made it to #5 in Kerrang!’s Top 50 Riffs.
12. Free All Right Now
“All Right Now” is a rock single by the English band Free. The song, released in the summer of 1970, hit #1 on the UK rock music charts and #4 on the U.S. charts. “All Right Now” originally appeared on the album Fire And Water, which Free recorded on the Island Records label, formed by Chris Blackwell.
11. Ozzy Osbourne Crazy Train
The riff is used by many baseball players as their walk-up music, including Chipper Jones, Ryan Church, Hanley Ramirez and Troy Glaus. It is also the introduction song for the New England Patriots of the NFL. Ozzy Osbourne sang the song live on national television during the Patriots’ opening game in 2005. As well, to this day it is played in the NHL, usually at the onset of a powerplay.
10. Black Sabbath ‘Paranoid’
“Paranoid” is a song by Black Sabbath that appears on the band’s breakthrough album Paranoid. Supposedly, the members of Black Sabbath put together this song in 15 minutes based on a solo by Tony Iommi. This song was only meant to be a “filler”, but became one of Black Sabbath’s most well known songs.
“Voodoo Chile” is a song by The Jimi Hendrix Experience from the album Electric Ladyland. Recorded on May 2, 1968 at the Record Plant Studios in New York City, the recording session included Mitch Mitchell, drummer of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Steve Winwood of Traffic on B3 organ, and Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane on bass duties. The song, basically a 15-minute blues jam, evolved into the final product over the course of an hour.
8. AC/DC Back in Black
“Back in Black” is a song by AC/DC best known for its distinctive, powerful opening guitar riff, appearing as the sixth track on their 1980 album of the same title, Back in Black. Two live versions of the song later appeared on both versions of the album Live, as well as the Australian tour edition of Stiff Upper Lip. It has been covered by bands such as The Hives, Steriogram, Foo Fighters with Jack Black, Travis and Colombian pop singer Shakira. The band’s unstated tribute to Bon Scott, it was a worldwide success, and peaked in the U.S. at #37 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in 1981 and #51 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.
This song features a chromatic introduction riff and a change into a Spanish phrygian interlude. Before the second solo of the song, bassist Cliff Burton, can be vaguely heard in the background reciting the verse, in a deep gruff voice.
6. Derek & The Dominoes / Clapton Layla
“Layla” is the title track on the Derek and the Dominos album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, released in December 1970. It is considered one of rock music’s definitive love songs, featuring an unmistakable guitar figure, played by Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, as lead-in. Its famously contrasting movements were composed separately by Clapton and Jim Gordon.
5. Metallica Enter Sandman
After releasing a musically complex album in …And Justice for All, Metallica wanted to write simpler songs for their self-titled album, therefore “Enter Sandman” is a departure from their previous works. It is, as Lars Ulrich has stated, a “one-riff song”: all sections derive from main riff that Kirk Hammett wrote. The main riff utilizes variations of the E/B tritone, often referred to as the “devil’s interval” in medieval church music.
This song is known for and recognizable by its central theme, a crunching four-note “blues scale” melody harmonized in parallel fourths that is one of the most famous riffs in hard rock history. The riff, played on a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar by Ritchie Blackmore, is immediately joined by hi-hat and drums and electric bass parts before the start of Ian Gillan’s vocal.
3. Led Zeppelin Whole Lotta Love
The song begins with a trademark Page riff and moves into the first chorus. Then, beginning at 1:24 (and lasting until 3:02) the song dissolves to a free jazz-like break involving a theremin solo and the moans of Robert Plant (sometimes called the “orgasm section”).
2. Nirvana Smells like Teen Spirit
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a song by the American rock band Nirvana, and the opening track and lead single from the band’s 1991 breakthrough album Nevermind. Written by Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl and produced by Butch Vig, the song uses a verse-chorus form where the main four-chord riff is used during the intro and chorus to create an alternating loud and quiet dynamic.
1. Guns ‘N’ Roses Sweet Child o’ Mine
This song is credited as being written by Guns N’ Roses as a band; more specifically it contains Slash’s riff, Izzy’s chords, Axl’s lyrics, and McKagan’s bass line. The subject of the song is generally thought to be lead singer Axl Rose’s then-girlfriend and eventual wife, Erin Everly. In a VH1 special, it was stated that Slash played the riff in a jam session as a joke. Drummer Steven Adler and Slash were warming up and Slash began to play a “circus” melody while making faces at Steven. Adler asked him to play the riff again, and Izzy Stradlin came in with the chords. Axl became intrigued and started singing the poem he had written.
You may be interested to know that the five closest runners up to this list were:
Aerosmith w Run DMC ‘Walk This Way’
Cream ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’
Queens Of The Stone Age ‘No One Knows’
Guns N’ Roses ‘Paradise City’
Rage Against The Machine ‘Killing In The Name’
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