Years ago, my lifelong friend started learning piano by ear. I remember going over to his house. He dragged me into the living room and said, “Listen to this.” He proceeded to bang out the guitar riff to “Day Tripper” flawlessly. I was blown away. This was about a week after taking up the instrument (he has since become an extremely accomplished musician and music producer).
I have been playing guitar for 50 years now. I teach, compose, produce, and still play out. The riffs below represent some of the best ever written. They not only define the song, they are the song. Music is supposed to invoke feelings. As composers, this is our job. Some of these are mean, dirty, and nasty sounding. Some are happy and upbeat. Whatever the mood they create, these songs would not exist without them. This list is nowhere near complete, nor are these necessarily the “best,” but there is no denying they are a huge part of rock guitar history.
10. “TNT” – AC/DC
When my daughters were in public school, it was a ritual to crank up this song in the car on the way home. It was always, “Dad, not again,” and then, “I’m dirty, mean and mighty unclean.” Although my ex-wife was not impressed, it was extremely funny hearing two young girls singing these lyrics at the top of their lungs. Written by lead singer Bon Scott and Angus and Malcolm Young, the tune defined Scott. The man lived hard and fast, true to the lyrics. The song has been featured in numerous movies, TV shows, and video games. Many sports teams and pro wrestlers have used the tune to fire up their fans.
Where would rock music be without the mighty power chord? The riff is only three chords in the first measure and two with a single note separating them in the second bar. The effect is thunderous, like a summer storm directly overhead.
9. “Enter Sandman” – Metallica
There seems to be no middle ground when it comes to Metallica, they are either loved or hated. Beginning with The Black Album (the unofficial title for the fifth studio record, released in 1991), their sound took a new heavily compressed, polished direction under the guidance of Canadian producer Bob Rock. Many fans have accused them of selling out, claiming their music had become lame compared to the rawness of the previous albums.
Whatever your opinion is, this is the tune that put Metallica on the map, shipping over one million copies in the US and driving The Black Album to sales of over thirty million worldwide. The signature-opening riff has a menacing feel due to the dissonance created by the fourth note, the flat fifth. This dark sound sets the tone for the rest of the song. Very creepy.
8. “Iron Man” – Black Sabbath
The members of Black Sabbath would quietly pass fans chanting and indulging in devil worship and witchcraft, lining the halls of their tour hotels. They had trouble containing their laughter once they were out of sight in their rooms. It is show business after all, folks. Agents, managers, and bands will go to outrageous lengths to cultivate and maintain an image.
While working a factory job as a teenager, founding member guitarist Tony Iommi lost the tips of his middle and ring fingers of his right hand (his fretting hand, since he is left handed). This limited his technique and defined his minimalistic style.
“Iron Man” is arguably Sabbath’s most famous song. Green day, NOFX, Cancer Bats, Sir Mix-A-Lot, and even William Shatner (yes, Captain Kirk) have all given the tune a go. Sabbath relied heavily on distorted guitar riffs, often stringing four or five together in the same song. This riff is based entirely on two note power chords. It’s one of the most requested riffs by beginner guitar students.
7. “Day Tripper” – The Beatles
The Beatles rarely relied on riffs as a vehicle for their songs. “Taxman,” a George Harrison composition, and “Paperback Writer” come to mind, but neither of those equal “Day Tripper” in the memorable riff department. John Lennon wrote most of the song and cites “Watch Your Step” from Bobby Parker as the inspiration for the famous guitar line. The riff even found its way into the end of “I Like To Rock” by Canadian rock band April Wine.
The song begins in the 12 bar blues structure, then segues into more of a rock format, chugging along with palm muted power chords in the chorus. The riff structure is from the combination scale (a mixture of the minor and major pentatonic scales), a staple in blues and rock guitar.
6. “Cat Scratch Fever” – Ted Nugent
The Motor City Madman has certainly lived up to his nickname. Love him or hate him, the man pulls no punches and frequently finds himself in the middle of controversy. Whether he is going on about politics, gun control, or simply telling everyone how wonderful he is, he manages to create a buzz every time he opens his mouth.
The rawness of the song combined with the sexual connotations implied in the lyrics is perfectly suited towards his personality. It’s really Ted’s anthem, if you will. The guitar riff is based in the natural minor scale and comprised of inverted power chords in parallel fourths. Listen for the little scream when the drums kick in. It’s an absolute classic.
5. “Lager And Ale” – Kim Mitchell
Kim Mitchell is a Canadian singer and songwriter. He has managed to achieve success both as a member of Max Webster (an iconic Canadian rock band) and as a solo artist. Since a lot of attention has been focused on his vocal and songwriting ability, he is sometimes overlooked (much the same as Frank Zappa is) for his outstanding, virtuoso guitar work. He is currently working as a DJ for Q107, a radio station out of Toronto.
“Lager And Ale” is an ode to every barfly out there. With the lyrics “Over to the jukebox, I staggered” and “I hope you’ll nod at this drunken bar slob,” the tune fortifies Kim’s stature as Canada’s foremost party rock musician. He spent much of his younger years touring around Ontario’s resort areas in the summer months. It was during this time that he built up an enormous fan base and reputation. The signature riff is based in the A minor pentatonic scale around a standard blues pattern.
4. “Crazy Train” – Ozzy Osbourne
Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” features one the best rock guitar intros ever written, and is just an overall great song. Randy Rhodes has long been recognized as one of the greatest guitarists to have ever lived. Based entirely in F minor (relative to A Major: they share the same key signature), this is definitely a classic riff.
I remember attending the MIAC show in Toronto, Ontario. Michael Angelo was performing at a clinic for Dean Guitars. He was doing his trademark, two handed playing on a double neck guitar. It was truly amazing. If you have never seen it, check it out. He was going through a pile of riffs. When he hit this one, everyone started nodding their heads.
3. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” – Guns N’ Roses
Guns N’ Roses first and only number one single. The song started as a string skipping exercise composed by lead guitarist Slash. It is quite difficult to execute cleanly due to the fact that it is a continuous eight notes with no breaks. There is a video on YouTube where Slash himself screws it up three times before he actually gets it right.
The cover band I play with does this tune. Every time we start this riff, no matter what age the crowd is, they go crazy pumping their fists and screaming. It’s a true monster of a song.
2. “Thunderstuck” – AC/DC
There is an ongoing debate about the execution of this riff. In some videos it looks as though lead guitarist Angus Young is picking every note. In others it appears as if he is employing a one-handed technique known as hammering on and pulling off. Either way it is played, this is a killer riff.
On the studio recording, the second half of the phrase is repeated throughout most of the song, sometimes in the forefront, sometimes buried back in the mix. When they perform it live, Angus only plays it when it is needed, switching over to rhythm guitar for much of the song. Although AC/DC are known as a riff based band, it is the rhythm guitar work that sets them apart. Angus and his brother Malcolm Young are so in sync with one another, they manage to make two guitar parts sound like one.
1. “Smoke On The Water” – Deep Purple
This is the big one, the king daddy of all rock guitar riffs. Even Lars Ulrich (Metallica’s founding member and drummer), called this the “riff of life.” Every guitar teacher has heard this Deep Purple classic played wrong more than any other piece of music.
Comprised entirely of inverted two note power chords (the fifth is on the bottom and the root is on the top), this riff should go down in history as the most overplayed song on guitar. Forget “Stairway To Heaven,” there should be a sign in every music store: “NO SMOKE ON THE WATER!”