“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.


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


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


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


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

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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.

With contributions from