The 50 greatest guitar riffs of all time

40. Alive – Pearl Jam (1991)

A must-know riff from the grunge era

Pearl Jam’s 1991 album Ten was quickly defined as one of the holy tablets of the grunge era, and its monolithic first hit single set the tone. Alive’s unmistakable intro/verse riff was played by the song’s writer, guitarist Stone Gossard, on a gain-saturated Les Paul, and it’s mainly A- and D-string stuff – easy to play, but with real slacker feel. 

That first wide interval D to A gets texture from the A being hammered on, not picked, and the second measure’s laconic bend from B to C adds a briefly minor bluesy, woozy vibe. Co-guitarist Mike McCready’s A and Asus4 chords and Jeff Ament's bassline outline the Mixolydian tonality here.

39. Born to Be Wild – Steppenwolf (1968)

“Heavy metal thunder”, indeed!

Famously the first song to feature the phrase ‘heavy metal’ in its lyrics, Born To Be Wild was the biker rock anthem that became a classic of the counter-culture via its inclusion in '60s cult movie Easy Rider

Written by the enigmatic Mars Bonfire (Dennis to his mum), the track was originally intended to be a folk ballad about life on the open road, but as it was developed with the band, the tempo and gain were increased and a million-selling smash hit was born. Played in E with scratchy distortion, the riff set the tone for a whole genre.

38. Psychosocial – Slipknot (2008)

The Nine taking their death metal influences to new limits

Tuned down all the way to drop A, decorated with palm-mutings, pauses, pinched harmonics and slides, this single from 2008’s All Hope Is Gone has earned its place among Slipknot’s finest. On its final cycle, the chromatic line at the end doubles in speed, climaxing in tension before the less-syncopated and more direct-hitting verse brings relief. 

It’s interesting how guitarists Jim Root and Mick Thomson find different ways of playing the same idea, doubling up in places and then switching to harmonies to add weight and dimension, respectively.

Root was using his signature Telecasters, fitted with EMG 81/60 pickups, into Orange Rockerverb 100 and a Diezel Herbert, while Thomson relied on his own signature Ibanez guitars and Rivera amps.

37. Scuttle Buttin' – Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble (1984)

Chicken pickin’ good…

Inspired by the Lonnie Mack number Chicken Pickin’, this iconic Texas blues riff requires speed and stamina. It’s built around a first position blues scale lick in Eb (which Stevie would always tune down to). The track's lightning-fast runs are made humanly possible with lots of pull-offs, plucked open strings and fleet-fingered slides. 

The repeating lick is sandwiched between stabbing I, IV and V chords, and – played on a Strat through a Fender amp – the tone is characteristically twangy and bright. Testament to the riff’s ability to make people sit down and and shut up, SRV frequently opened his live sets with Scuttle Buttin'.

36. Mississippi Queen – Mountain (1970)

Iconic tone from the man who inspired Slash

Pete Townshend, Slash, Joe Satriani and Joe Bonamassa are just a few of the guitar heroes who hailed the genius of Mountain’s Leslie West. And there was no finer example of West’s power than Mississippi Queen, the opening track on Mountain’s debut album Climbing! on which he delivered explosive high-octane riffage and sweet vibrato soloing. 

Gear-wise, he plugged his trusty sunburst Les Paul Junior into his famous Sunn Coliseum amplifier, which had been designed as a PA system.

“I didn’t put the volume way up,” he said. “I distorted the preamp and put the master volume at four or five, because you wanted to get the tone rather than the volume in the studio.”

35. Sweet Child O'Mine – Guns N' Roses (1987)

From a “cool little riff”, a rock classic was born

Every decade has its rock anthem. While the 1970s had Stairway To Heaven and the 90s had Smells Like Teen Spirit, the most memorable riffathon of the 80s has to be Sweet Child O’ Mine. It was the US number one hit that confirmed Guns N’ Roses as the greatest hard rock act of a generation, propelling debut album Appetite For Destruction to multi-platinum status. And while it was rumoured for years that lead guitarist Slash was dismissive of his own ultra-iconic opening riff, that’s not the whole story. 

As he told TG: “In passing, I did say that it was sort of a joke or something, but initially it was just a cool, neat little riff that I’d come up with. It was an interesting pattern and it was really melodic, but I don’t think I would have presented it to the band and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea!’ because I just happened to come up with it while we were all hanging around together. Izzy [Stradlin, GN’R’s rhythm guitarist] was the first one to start playing behind it, and once that happened Axl [Rose, the band’s singer] started making up words, and it took off that way.” 

As for the guitar Slash played, it could only ever have been a Les Paul – but perhaps not the Les Paul that you’d expect. “I was lucky even to have a guitar for the Appetite album,” he said. “Originally, when I got to the studio, I had somehow, in a fit of desperation, pawned most of my guitars, so all I had was a BC Rich Warlock and two Jacksons. I’d been playing those guitars live, and they sounded OK in a room full of people but when I actually went and heard them in the cans they sounded fuckin’ horrible!” 

Fortunately, fate intervened in the form of GN’R manager Alan Niven. Slash recalled. “Right before we went in to do the guitar overdubs, Alan gave me a handmade copy of a 1959 Les Paul made by a guy called Kris Derrig. He built a run of between fifty and a hundred immaculate ’59 reissues, and that was the guitar that I used for the whole record. You could never tell that they weren’t Gibsons.” 

34. Man In the Box – Alice In Chains (1990)

The talkbox gets reinvented for the 90s

The big hit from Alice In Chains’ debut album Facelift could very well be the finest grunge anthem of them all. Guitarist Jerry Cantrell was pairing his 1984 G&L ‘Blue Dress’ Rampage, fitted with a single JB pickup in the bridge, with a Reinhold Bogner-modded Marshall JCM800 via his Dunlop Heil Talkbox, and dialling in more throaty and metallic sounds than the majority of his Seattle peers – and with stunning results. 

The main riff, played half a step down as per most of their recordings, sees him chugging on his low Eb and a minor 7th up on the next string, layered with a Hendrix-y lead line that’s doubled by original singer Layne Staley.

33. You Really Got Me – The Kinks (1964)

Ingredients: Two chords and one vandalised amp

A blueprint for countless rock and heavy metal riffs to come, the opener of the Kinks’ You Really Got Me ricochets ceaselessly between F5 & G5 powerchords. Having slashed the speaker of his little green Elpico amp in a fit of angst, guitarist Dave Davies happened upon the track’s signature distorted sound, and in doing so changed the course of rock history. 

The unforgettably raw riff propelled the track to the top of the UK charts in 1964 and – legend has it – inspired Pete Townshend to write The Who’s I Can’t Explain the following year. Van Halen notably covered it (with added squealies) on their 1978 self-titled debut.

32. The Boys Are Back In Town – Thin Lizzy (1976)

Twin Les Pauls at full throttle

The greatest Lizzy guitar line-up, Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson, hit their zenith on 1976 album Jailbreak. The Boys Are Back In Town was one of 15 songs considered for the album, and hadn’t even made the band’s shortlist, so no-one was more surprised than they were when it produced their US breakthrough hit. 

The intro riff is just three powerchords, punctuated by Phil Lynott’s thundering bass fill, doubled by Scott Gorham. The signature ascending harmonies were added by Robertson, who’d learned theory from his musician parents. The guitar tone is perhaps the definitive Les Paul & Marshall combination, with Gorham employing a mini-humbuckered Deluxe.

31. Lateralus – Tool (2001)

What happens when alt-rock and advanced mathematics collide

The title track from Tool’s 2001 masterpiece perfectly demonstrates why they are the masters of time, using alternating metres to add pushes and pulls where least expected. The song has ties to the Fibonacci sequence or ‘Golden Ratio’ found in sacred geometry, from singer Maynard James Keenan’s rhythmic syllables in the verses to the shifts in the signatures themselves. 

As guitarist Adam Jones explained to TG, the song’s main riff came from bassist Justin Chancellor via drummer Danny Carey. “Justin brought in a riff, and Danny saw it had a connection to the Fibonacci, so he started trying to work in elements of it,” Jones said. “Then Maynard came in and we started telling him about the sequence.” 

For a heavy song, a heavy subject. “It came from trying to relate to those things in life or nature we all have in common,” Jones elaborated. “It’s something that people have been studying since the beginning of time... That’s why we got more into the idea behind science, metaphysics and the myth of communication.” 

For the recordings, Jones was using his 1979 Silverburst Gibson Les Paul Custom and an array of amps including his modded 1976 Marshall JMP Super Bass, a ‘blue face’ Diezel VH4, and a Sunn Beta Lead through Mesa/Boogie cabinets.

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Amit Sharma

Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences as a guitar player. He's worked for magazines like Kerrang!Metal HammerClassic RockProgRecord CollectorPlanet RockRhythm and Bass Player, as well as newspapers like Metro and The Independent, interviewing everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handled lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).