The 50 greatest guitar riffs of all time

30. Seven Nation Army – The White Stripes (2003)

Garage rock riffing goes stadium-sized 

Four albums into The White Stripes’ career, Jack White already had considerable form as a blues revivalist with a raw approach to production. But even by his standards, Seven Nation Army was minimalist. The song didn’t even have a chorus as such. 

Instead, that now-immortal E minor guitar line (all seven notes of it) was the chorus, while a single-note version – pitched down by a DigiTech Whammy – served as the verse.

A novice could play it on guitar, and many have done. Not that White ever considered Seven Nation Army a mere throwaway. As he once revealed: “I thought: ‘If I ever got asked to write the next James Bond theme, that would be the riff for it.’” 

29. The Spirit of the Radio – Rush (1980)

Alex Lifeson tunes in and turns up the widdle…

Drawing on hard rock, blues-rock and reggae, this hit single from 1980’s Permanent Waves is one of the more accessible and broadly-appealing tracks in the Canadian trio’s catalogue. Alex Lifeson’s fast, fiddly intro riff is picked, hammered and pulled on the high E and B strings, an E7 figure with an almost Celtic flavour with which he wanted to illustrate radio waves themselves. (The verse’s E major chord progression – E, B, G#m, A, B – is altogether more conventional, and playable). 

Lifeson was a ES-335/355 player back then, with an Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress flanger and Boss CE-1 Chorus Ensemble on his 'board.

28. (Don't Fear) The Reaper – Blue Öyster Cult (1976)

Death, cowbell and nifty arpeggios. What else do you need?

Blue Öyster Cult’s signature hit was a meditation on the acceptance of death (a subject rather undercut 24 years later by Will Ferrell’s meme-mungous ‘more cowbell’ skit on Saturday Night Live). Vocalist, songwriter and guitarist Buck Dharma recorded Reaper’s main riff in one take on a Gibson ES-175 through a Music Man 410 amp. 

The repeated A minor arpeggiated figure (A5, G, F6add9, G) is played in first position, that G string ringing open throughout as a high pedal tone. Dharma picks it with alternating up and down strokes, but it can work well fingerstyle or, at a push, downstrokes only. Cowbell optional... 

27. Barracuda – Heart (1977)

Ancestor of the Iron Maiden gallop

In 1976, Heart supported Nazareth on tour, where they heard Nazareth cover Joni Mitchell’s This Flight Tonight with a galloping riff. They stole the gallop and added two powerchord stabs to make Barracuda. Later, Iron Maiden would make this rhythm essential to '80s metal. 

Nancy Wilson supplied acoustic guitar. Roger Fisher played the intro on a Strat into a Music Man head, with the song’s distinctive flanger effect. When the band kicks in, Howard Leese joined him on a ’66 Tele into a Fender Bassman. Both guitarists played loud so they could get sustain with relatively clean guitar sounds.

26. Breaking the Law – Judas Priest (1980)

A minor offence

Culled from British Steel, the definitive Priest album, Breaking The Law is a song of hopelessness, a cri de coeur at finding oneself discarded by society, out of work and broke. But it also makes an excellent case study in the practical application of the A minor scale. 

The riff is simply a meditation on that. Guitarists KK Downing and Glenn Tipton used Gibson SGs, Flying Vs and Strats back then, which would be going through a non-master volume Marshall head most likely a late-'70s JMP 50-watt head – with a treble booster in front to give it more bite.

25. Walk this Way – Aerosmith (1975)

The world’s rockingest funk riff

Joe Perry’s favourite band were New Orleans funksters The Meters, and Aerosmith covered James Brown’s Mother Popcorn in concert. But Perry suggested they write their own funk tune so they wouldn’t have to rely on covers, and then produced this instant classic at a soundcheck. 

The original was Aerosmith’s second US top 10 hit. It was played on a double-cutaway Les Paul Junior into an Ampeg V2 amp, while the career-saving Run DMC remake featured Joe’s Strat-style Schecter Traditional.

Walk This Way is based on a repeating five-note figure – on the repeat, it’s played one 16th note later, creating the funk magic.

24. 2 Minutes to Midnight – Iron Maiden (1984)

Heavy metal’s quintessential nuclear protest anthem

Written by singer Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith, the first single from Maiden’s fifth album Powerslave is undoubtedly one of the band’s catchiest songs. The main riff is played using open A-string pedal tones against diads on the D and G strings – taking Ritchie Blackmore’s Smoke On The Water concept to newer, faster and more metallic extremes. 

Smith and fellow guitarist Dave Murray were experimenting with Ibanez Roadstars around this time, so it’s likely that these were the instruments used for the sessions, fed through the Boss and MXR pedals and Marshall JMP amps seen on the World Slavery Tour of the same year.

23. Beat It – Michael Jackson (1982)

It was Eddie’s solo – but Steve Lukather played the riff… 

The self-appointed King Of Pop wrote Beat It to break into the rock market, with a riff inspired by The Knack’s My Sharona. For added rock cred, he called in Eddie Van Halen for the solo. But to get that riff just so, Jackson and producer Quincy Jones turned to two seasoned session players, both members of soft rock titans Toto – guitarist Steve Lukather and drummer Jeff Porcaro. 

As Lukather recalled: “I got together with Michael, working on the riff, getting it in the pocket. From his body language, I could tell he wanted it to feel a certain way. I played all the guitar parts on that track except for the solo, and all the bass parts, and Jeff is on drums. 

“Quincy Jones had Michael’s pristine lead vocal and Eddie’s pristine lead solo on the master track, so all that Jeff and I had to play to was headphone leakage and Michael Jackson playing two and four on a drum case. But Jeff – being the genius that he was – was able to find the pocket and play it. 

“He put the drums down first, in a couple of takes, and I ran with it from there. I put down all the guitar riffs through Marshalls, quadruple-tracked, but when Quincy heard it he said, ‘It’s great, but it’s too heavy, too much. I can’t get that on pop radio. You gotta tone it down, use smaller amps.’ So I did that.”

22. The Ace of Spades – Motörhead (1980)

Play the hand you’re dealt

Motörhead’s calling card is performed at the visceral tempo of a car chase, its signature riff barrelling towards the helter-skelter open-G5 abandon of the verse with a sense of devil may care fatalism. Scarcely has a bona-fide hit sounded so hostile. 

Ace Of Spades is all syncopated dissonance and tension. Of course, the riff is played at 140 bpm, but it sounds as though it is accelerating. ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke tunes down a half-step, dimes a Marshall and uses the extra clarity from his Gibson Les Paul Deluxe’s mini-humbuckers to spike the riff with something piquant.

21. Money – Pink Floyd (1973)

Rock history is not brimming with odd-time riffs, and Money is the most successful 7/4 effort of all time. It’s more accessible than most because you’re never left in any doubt where beat 1 falls. 

Nick Mason’s drum groove seems designed to trick you into thinking you’re hearing a standard 4/4 pattern: it follows a typical kick-snare pattern for the first six beats, with an extra kick on beat seven that sounds more natural each time it repeats. Money’s riff is just one bar long and is played the same every time, which keeps it from confusing listeners who aren’t steeped in prog.

Roger Waters wrote the riff, and his bass dominates the introduction with Gilmour’s guitar double playing second fiddle. The guitar was his legendary black Strat on the bridge pickup, which at the time of recording was still unmodified. Gilmour plugged into an Arbiter Fuzz Face but backed off his volume control for a nearly clean sound – you can hear the grit as he digs into the quarter-tone bend on beat 7 of each riff. His towering Hiwatt amp rig kicked out enough volume that chief engineer Alan Parsons mic’ed the cabinets from a foot and a half away.

Although there isn’t much variation in the riff, it builds in excitement thanks to layers of guitar and keyboard overdubs. After four times, Gilmour’s tremolo chord stabs kick in, recorded with a Kepex tremolo unit. There’s a distorted chord stab on beat 2, helped by a Colorsound Power Boost. Then there are Steve Cropper-style hits in sync with the snare drum on beats 4 and 6. These add to the illusion you’re hearing a riff in 4/4, because they sound like a classic soul backbeat part. 

With all that rhythmic complexity, Waters wisely kept it harmonically simple, sticking to B minor pentatonic. If it were in 4/4, Money would be considered a blues song, which shows the blues format’s massive potential for innovation.

Money became Floyd’s first US hit on release, helping to propel Dark Side Of The Moon to its gargantuan success. It dominated the top 10 for so long that US chart compilers Billboard eventually created a separate catalog chart for older albums so Dark Side would stop eclipsing newer releases. Money’s enduring success proves that odd time signatures can be accessible, and that bass riffs can be just as important as guitar riffs.

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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).