Riffs are the backbone of a lot of guitar music, and they are the instrumental sections which stick in your head all day. For a guitarist, riffs are the opportunity to create an iconic and memorable moment that will echo throughout the history of rock. This list compiles the top five guitar riffs of all time, and explains why they’re so awesome.
5: Layla – Derek and the Dominoes
Despite the group being best known for Eric Clapton, this melodic riff was actually written by Duane Allman. The faced paced lead-in to the wailing, bent notes creates a crescendo of energy, which is all released with the long guitar howls that make up most of the riff. This riff is massively expressive and undeniably catchy.
4: Iron Man – Black Sabbath
Tony Iommi’s crushing, uncompromising riff to “Iron Man” is arguably the most recognisable electric guitar riff in metal. The steady rhythmic pounding of the power chord run is coloured with small slides, which bring the underlying melody of this riff to light. Osbourne’s vocal melody follows the riff, and further cements the run of notes into the mind of the listener.
3: Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses
The legendary opening to “Sweet Child of Mine” was originally written as something as a joke by Slash. He was messing around, playing what he described as a circus-style riff, and then the rest of the band took notice. Slash wanted to ditch the riff, but the other Guns members convinced him to keep it. It is a simple run of notes in E minor, but the melody has endured and become one of the most well-known guitar riffs of all time.
2: Voodoo Child (Slight Return) – Jimi Hendrix
The off-shoot of “Voodoo Chile,” a more bluesy track of Hendrix’s, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” was created when a TV crew was visiting Hendrix’s band and asked them to “look busy.” What resulted was arguably the best guitar track in history, complete with Hendrix’s expressive and creative lead work and an endlessly enjoyable riff. The bluesy yet ballsy swagger of the opening riff made it into an instant guitar classic.
1: Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple
If this would have been a list of ultimate guitar songs, Hendrix would have probably taken the top spot. Because this is a list of riffs, “Smoke on the Water” is the undisputed master. It is difficult to think of another riff that people will as readily “sing” along to when it plays. The four-part, pounding riff is only made up of four chords, and Richie Blackmore originally thought it was too simple to use in a song. The beauty of the riff is in its simplicity, but it also happens to be a head-banging classic and shockingly catchy.