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The guitar riff is one of the pillars of rock n’ roll. Classic riffs are basically masterpieces in their own right. That magic combination of notes that penetrate your soul. An immortal riff is perhaps the most solid way to become a legend. Riffs have defined bands, careers, and generations. There are so many great riffs that it’s hard to come up with such a short list. However, here we’ll try our very best. In no particular order, here are the ten riffs every guitar player should know.
(I can’t get no) Satisfaction
A simple yet extremely moving riff by the Keith Richards. Composed of only two bars of music and mostly single lines, it is a relatively easy riff to play. This would be a good choice for a beginner guitar player. But make no mistake, advanced guitarists can also learn a lot from the simplicity that encompasses so much punch. Released in 1965, “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction” is one of the Rolling Stones’ biggest songs. And it starts with a killer and unforgettable riff.
Smoke on the Water
There is a good chance that this is among the first riffs a guitar player learns. This says a lot about the staying power of this riff. Without question, it’s the most famous Deep Purple cut. Composed of a simple succession of power chords, this riff is super easy to play. As a matter of fact, “Smoke on the Water” is one of those favorite songs for young bands that are just starting up. Immortalized by the legendary Ritchie Blackmore riff, this song was released in 1973.
Back in Black
Few riffs are as powerful and punchy as this masterpiece by guitar legend Angus Young. It combines a few power chords with two licks, to give AC/DC the biggest song from their biggest album, also named Back In Black. This album is one of the biggest selling records ever, by any artist. Released in 1980, it has sold over 50 million copies.
Smells Like Teen Spirit
This is the riff that put Seattle on the map back in 1991. A series of palm muted bar chords by Kurt Cobain set off a revolution that put grunge rock on the top of the charts. Despite its simplicity, it almost sounds like a 180-degree turn from everything that came before. It is the most recognizable song and riff by Nirvana, and a very popular one with guitarists all around the globe.
Whole Lotta Love
Jimmy Page wrote this riff in the late Sixties and it still resonates profoundly today. It helped make Led Zeppelin, one of the greatest rock bands ever (the greatest, according to many). Recorded in 1969, this riff and song remain one of the most learned. Even though the entire Led Zeppelin catalog is a riff mine, “Whole Lotta Love” displays the power and finesse of one of the greatest guitar players ever: Jimmy Page.
Sweet Child O’ Mine
The story goes like this: Slash was fooling around with his guitar and started playing a riff. Drummer Steven Adler spoke up and told Slash to keep on playing it. And the rest is history. The riff for “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is an instant classic, based on outlining chords through some sort of arpeggio. It’s not an easy riff to play, but just like most things guitar-related, practice makes perfect. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” was released in 1987 and became Guns N’ Roses biggest hit and a classic rock anthem.
No riff list would be complete without a Jimi Hendrix cut. And that is a fact. “Purple Haze” has become a guitar player standard tune at jam sessions and other scenarios. And this includes the likes of Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Slash, (not to mention Stevie Ray Vaughan’s classic version of this song). Released in 1967, “Purple Haze” is one of Jimi Hendrix’s best-known songs and features several classic riffs.
This classic song by Black Sabbath features the accompanying immortal riff by the great Tommy Iommi. It is probably the best-known Heavy Metal riff ever. It has the added benefit that the actual riff is also the main vocal melody line, as recorded by one Mr. Ozzy Osbourne. Recorded in 1970, it still sounds menacing and very heavy today. It is another favorite riff to learn by beginners as it is fairly easy and sounds so great.
Released in 1965, “Day Tripper” features a classic riff that is both easy and fun. Like many riffs in this list, its beautiful simplicity is what made it a classic. No band had a stronger impact on music and culture than the Beatles. You could even make the argument that their influence is present in every riff in this list, even if by accident. The fab four have plenty of classic riffs in their repertoire, and “Day Tripper” is one of their best.
Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield are one the best-known guitar teams ever. In “Enter Sandman” it is clear why. This riff is extremely powerful and pushed Metallica into the mainstream back in 1991 when it was released. It is still a favorite riff to learn for many guitar players, although it is not particularly easy.
Wrapping it all up
There’s is nothing quite like a great riff. It can set off a mood and make your heart pump blood faster. Like in any shortlist, there will inevitably be some great ones left out. So please… don’t stop at 10. Learn as many riffs as you can. The modern music industry as we know it is largely dependent on riffs, and rightfully so.
One last thing – take a few minutes to look up some guitar tab for these riffs, or even check out some YouTube videos. Some of these iconic riffs may be a lot easier to play than you think!
Time’s up for this week. Stay tuned and…