“A rhythmic motif so simple that even the most basic living organisms on this great planet can get down to it”: These are the best guitar riffs of 2023

James Hetfield, Wolfgang Van Halen, Phoebe Bridgers, Sleep Token
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Your votes have been counted and the editors have had their say. Yes, GW’s best riffs of 2023 have been determined – and what does this tell us about rhythm guitar in the 21st century? Well, the riff is not dying out, for starters.

Looking at the top 10 it maybe tells us that even if the riff has evolved over the years it is still the lifeblood of rock/metal composition, and in an era of accelerating change we can still count on some constants – that James Hetfield’s right-hand will remain as reliable as quartz crystal timepiece, that repetition is next to godliness, and that the best riffs are almost always the simple ones.

When it comes to riffs, you can’t get too simple. Strip it back. Aim for the lowest common denominator – a rhythmic motif so simple that even the most basic living organisms on this great planet can get down to. You know what they say; if you’ve got something that can start a mosh pit in petrie dish of Entamoeba histolytica then it’s going to work at Madison Square Garden.

But let’s leave amoebic dysentery out of this – did they even release an album this year? – and get down to business, starting with a riff that’s so easy that you might even feel you already know how to play it.

10. Avenged Sevenfold – Nobody

He is Vengeance, he works at night, he is a bat man but he is not the Batman, and he sure knows how to put a riff together that has our index fingers reaching for pause and rewind to hear just what’s going on. This one came together a little differently (this Avenged Sevenfold album came together a little differently) with Albert Camus and the out-of-body psychedelic epiphanies from taking DMT reportedly playing a supporting role in the writing room. And it shows. 

So simple yet unsettling, Nobody has Zacky Vengeance trafficking in a yowling drop D octave drone riff that Jerry Cantrell would be proud of, offering Synyster Gates free rein to unleash arpeggiated insanity over the top.

9. Queens of the Stone Age – Paper Machete

As with their tone so it is with their songwriting, leaving us piqued intrigue, floundering in mystery, so we can’t be 100 per cent sure if it was Josh Homme, Troy Van Leeuwen or Dean Fertita who went foraging in Steel String Forest to pluck out this specimen earworm. Credit and congratulations, then, must go to all three.

No-one writes riffs and grooves like QOTSA. Having Jon Theodore behind the drumkit certainly helps; there’s nothing like a virtuoso with the sticks to carry that riff to the kids. So what if the Paper Machete riff has a familiar composition, a chord pattern that calls to mind a The Hives’ Hate to Say I Told You So, but with more diesel, more nitro – it has a shoulder-first strut and feel all unto itself.


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EDITOR'S PICK: Zulu – Where I’m From
Where I’m From was released back in January and incorporates a wealth of classic hardcore riffs, but in vicious, shape-shifting form. We love the percussive opening stabs, but it’s that sprawling, slightly-discordant second riff that absolutely stomps. It feels like it was written with a crowd in mind: to allow space to open up and the arms to really swing and resists the temptation to go full pedal to the metal. As a result, it feels 100 percent more menacing – and monstrous – in its scale. – Matt Parker


8. The Rolling Stones – Angry

We will surely have more to say in these year-end lists about the Rolling Stones and their return with their first studio album since 2005’s A Bigger Bang, and how they somehow tapped into a wellspring that is still not dry after 60 years of playing rock ’n’ roll; how there was still enough sap in the tree to put together a late-career masterpiece – and the role producer Andrew Watt played in all of it.

For now, it’s all about Angry: a pared-down rattler from the electric guitar of Keith Richards, aka the Human Riff. It’s pure Stones – spiky tube amp heat, nothing overplayed – giving the perennially sassy Mick Jagger’s vocals some space to move in.

7. Måneskin – Honey (Are You Coming?)

Måneskin were born too late. The Eurovision alumni missed the golden era of the continental talent competition, when broadcasting giants like beloved British entertainer Terry Wogan would call the plays on the BBC, observational wit pushing the boundaries of what’s permissible on a public service broadcaster. When the likes of Bucks Fizz were slowing things down, speeding them up. Now that was a TV party. 

But then they are a more serious act, for more serious times – a rock band whose pop sensibility has captured the consciousness of the record buying/streaming public faster than the bodysnatching pods ever could – and that sensibility is writ large over Thomas Raggi’s guitar here, with his big melody approaching widening the spectrum for his bandmates to run wild in.


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EDITOR'S PICK: Vexed – Anti-Fetish
The UK metal crew lay waste to the GW office speakers this year with this unapologetic bruiser. Bookended by guitarist Jay Bacon’s monster refrain, Anti-Fetish carries the Bizkit bounce that all good metalcore should aspire to, but Bacon’s pitch-shifted siren wails go far beyond Borland. Teamed with the fissure-inducing lows of his Jackson eight-string, it brings new meaning to extended-range guitar playing. – Michael Astley-Brown


6. Dirty Honey – Won’t Take Me Alive

Has anyone ever seen John Notto without a Gibson Les Paul in his hands? We certainly haven’t. He could be out buying cheese, at the dentist, cooking beans over an open fire in Joshua Tree National Park and there it is – there he is – staring into that curly flame maple top, just waiting for the mysteries of the world to reveal themselves, like that housewife from Vermont who swore she saw Elvis Presley’s face on a slice of toasted rye bread.

Well, this intimate association with the storied single-cut is doing him a power of good, and listening to the juiced-up boogie riff to Won’t Take Me Alive – OMG, that tone – makes us think that the hangover once Aerosmith call it quits won’t be that bad. The Les Paul will fill that Perry/Whitford shaped hole in Notto’s heart, just as it did with Led Zeppelin. The rest of us will have Notto.

5. boygenius – $20

Boygenius’s debut album, The Record, is a straight-up 21st-century indie-rock masterpiece and you could look at the personnel – Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus – and say, ‘Yeah, no shit,’ but music doesn’t work like that, and it’s a rare thing indeed that you get three talents with their own thing going on pulling together for a sound like this. 

$20 is one of those tracks that you stick on repeat because the first time is not enough; it gives you a sense of euphoria, or at least a sense of the potential that something euphoric might happen, maybe even something unexpected, and maybe any musicologists here can write in an explain why.

Might it be that the riff – lo-fi and most probably from a bolt-on electric – has the rhythmic cadence of a morning alarm, like it’s autonomous? Like we can’t control ourselves, though we try. We try.


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EDITOR'S PICK: Jacob Collier – WELLLL
When Jacob Collier began posting pics of a wild five-string Strandberg on Instagram, fans theorized he'd be dipping his toes into more progressive guitar territory for his upcoming album, Djesse Vol. 4. Such speculation was confirmed with the release of WELLLL – the generational multi-instrumentalist's most guitar-centric track to date, loaded with a monstrous drop-tuned hook that combines a pummeling progression with lithe turnarounds. A worthy inclusion for this year's finest riffs rundown – and hopefully indicative of Collier's rock-leaning future in 2024. – Matt Owen


4. Sleep Token – The Summoning

Sleep Token publish music under the condition of anonymity probably because there’s a degree of romance in all that. Who among us in this age of radical transparency, surveillance capitalism, cookies up the wazoo and Siri looking in the toilet bowl has not wished to live as Thomas Pynchon? But maybe it’s to avoid litigation from those who have been injured bodily or had their property damaged by the lowdown weight of riffs like this. 

Now, it’s not like the whole track is full-on Meshuggah x Oppenheimer destroy the world and all within it – much is a post-metal reverie that lets the oxygen in – but we kind of wish there was more of the riff in question. Movie franchises have spin-offs; characters get their own film. This 3D monster riff needs a breakout role of its own. We could listen to 45 minutes of it straight but, be warned, the chances of that igniting the atmosphere and blowing up the world would not be zero.

3. Metallica – 72 Seasons

Connoisseurs of the metal guitar riff will look upon Metallica’s strongest album of the 21st century – and by some distance – as an all-you-can-eat buffet, and thus should take the appropriate preparations when approaching their hi-fi system. Bring your Big Plate. Wear trousers with the elasticated waist. Because this is a goddamn feast, and 72 Seasons, the title track alone, has a couple of contenders for best riff of 2023. Once it gets to that middle section, though, that’s where you hear the Metallica rhythm machine kicking into gear, ready to turn and burn.

Kirk Hammett, who actually has to play this material – and, by the way, never gets the props for nailing these rhythms live, night after night, stadium after stadium – says it is a real beast.

“We all agree that the middle part of 72 Seasons is one of the most difficult Metallica riffs we have ever played,” he told Total Guitar in May. “It’s not the choice of notes or how the notes are played; it’s all in the timing and the phrasing. You have to use your head; you can’t just punt it. It shifts and it has weird counts.” And it sets the tone for what is a triumphant return for metal’s grandest institution.


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EDITOR'S PICK: Olivia Rodrigo – bad idea right?
We've all heard the 'no guitar in the pop charts' refrain a million times (and it’s sure been disproven enough) but Olivia Rodrigo’s irrepressible bad idea right? is pure power-pop bliss. There are energetic guitars all the way, led by that rabble-rousing earworm of a riff that helps the chorus explode. The pick-up-and-play value is off the charts – what more could you ask for? – Jackson Maxwell


2. Greta Van Fleet – The Falling Sky 

The Falling Sky is a tumbling weed of a riff, all gnarly and dry, itchy and scratchy, contact burns from the tarmac, like the desert sun was applied to the master tapes to act as a high-pass filter. The effect of all this is to give it the immediacy and iron clang of a garage rock recording while the compositions themselves call to mind a state-to-state shuttle run on the seemingly great infinity of the two-lane blacktop. 

Those Led Zeppelin comparisons are in the distant rearview mirror. The Falling Sky is pure contemporary retro Americana, bold, confident songwriting, all gauzy from the ‘60s/‘70s throwback sensibility but pitched perfectly for writing the next captivating chapter in the GVF cinematic audio universe.

1. Mammoth WVH – Right?

Riff of the year 2023, please come on down, Wolfgang Van Halen, a musician whose prodigious abilities are shared across guitar, bass guitar, drums, vocals. And you can choose your theory as to why. Nominative determinism? Maybe. Good genes? Definitely. His dedication is a given.

Right? is a a great example of WVH’s musical gifts forming like Voltron, with the rhythm guitar part sounding very much as though it was tapped out on a drum kit first. As performed, it locks in with the drums, propulsive, kinetic, leaving just enough melodic information to give the track its hook but definitely more preoccupied with the count.

Sometimes thinking like a drummer makes a riff better. Other times thinking like a bassist yields impressive results. But when you can think as all of them do, you see it from all the angles. You see it in Wolf vision.

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Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to publications including Guitar World, MusicRadar and Total Guitar. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.