The 50 greatest guitar riffs of all time

20. The Rolling Stones – I Can't Get No (Satisfaction)

Enter the fuzz box…

We begin our top 20 with the man famed as the ‘Human Riff’... Keith Richards famously did not have great expectations for Satisfaction. In his mind, the riff was a horn part, one idea among many. But often ideas require a little kismet before they blossom. 

Finding a tone in the studio was not happening, but Ian Stewart, the Stones’ pianist at the time, presented Richards with a Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone, and the riff came alive. Of course, listening to Otis Redding’s cover proved that Richards was right all along – it did make an excellent horn part – but Satisfaction consecrated the fuzz pedal on record, forever changing rock guitar tone.

19. Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd (1974)

Three chords and two fingers to Neil Young

Neil Young had challenged Alabama values in Southern Man, and since pistols at dawn were no longer acceptable, Skynyrd replied with this deathless radio-botherer. Even beginners can get their hands round the basic shapes, which has only helped its popularity.

The track opens with the distinctive sound of a Strat’s bridge and middle pickups (with a non-hum-cancelling middle pickup, if you’re being picky), played by Ed King on a 1973 model, running into a Fender Twin cranked almost to full blast.

18. Angel of Death – Slayer (1986)

Thrash metal’s peak 

“We were not schooled musicians,” said Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman. “But we knew what sounded dark. All you do is go a step up or down till you get it right, and it sounds huge. I recognised that when I hit certain notes I’d get a certain feeling. This is the way I played it in my head: if it sounds like I’m standing over a body that’s just been stabbed to death, then it’s perfect.”

The darkness and brutality in Slayer’s music was most vividly illustrated in the band’s third album Reign In Blood, and in particular its opening track, Angel Of Death. Widely recognized as one of the greatest metal albums of all time, Reign In Blood is also, for many, the definitive thrash-metal album. And what Jeff Hanneman created in Angel Of Death was a song as brilliant as it was controversial. 

The lyrics detailed the atrocities performed by Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele. The music was a high-speed riff onslaught in which Hanneman and fellow guitarist Kerry King were locked in tight. The equipment the pair used was the classic 1980s metal arsenal, with both men turning to Marshall JCM800s for amplification. The former was playing a black Jackson Soloist with retrofitted EMG pickups, while King had recently begun an endorsement with BC Rich.

That’s the riff that people get wrong, if they’re gonna get any of them wrong!

Kerry King

His Warlock and Hanneman’s Soloist were both run through MXR distortion and Dunlop Cry Baby pedals, with effects, such as reverb, added by Rubin at the desk. The song was recorded in Eb, the same as all of Reign In Blood’s 10 tracks, with the guitarists performing mesmerisingly fast tremolo picking on all the riffs apart from the iconic groove that anchors the midsection. That particular riff has been hailed as an all-time classic and it’s based on razor-edged downstrokes.

“That’s the riff that people get wrong, if they’re gonna get any of them wrong!” King said. “It’s not tricky, it’s just odd notes. It’s not a scale as such, it’s just what Jeff threw together then liked the way it sounded.” There are actually two riffs to learn in this section, as King explained: “When that riff comes in, it’s one guitar, then when the second guitar comes in we play the same riff. Then, during the second section, we’re playing something different.”

And if Angel Of Death feels hard to play, don’t be put off. King had some words of encouragement. “All the riffs are fairly doable,”he confirmed, “especially the one that begins the song. We just go for it. It’s at ‘go-for-it’ speed, haha!”

17. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana (1991)

Punk angst in a radio-rock disguise defines an era

Gearing up to record Nevermind, Kurt picked a rig of a MESA/Boogie Studio Preamp, a solid-state Crown Power Base 2 power amp, and a wall of Marshall cabinets. It was the humble Boss DS-1 Distortion, though, that Kurt considered the core of his sound. 

The moment he stomps on it, eight seconds into Teen Spirit, encapsulates Nirvana’s whiplash dynamics and their ability to summon a tonal tornado. The sudden volume shifts came via the Pixies, but the riff has been called More Than A Feeling for alienated Gen X-ers. The chords are different, but Nirvana and Boston’s biggest hits both use progressions with four chords and similar rhythmic accents.

Where More Than a Feeling is pure feelgood, Teen Spirit radiates teenage frustration. Kurt’s chord choices (F5-Bb5-Ab5-Db5) are standard, all coming from the key of F minor, but there weren’t a lot of pre-Nirvana rock songs to feature those chords in that order. 

More importantly, he employs the guitarist’s trick of briefly strumming the open strings to smooth the transition between chords. That’s normally unremarkable because in typical guitar keys like E or A minor all the notes are in tune. Because Teen Spirit is in F minor, those notes are completely discordant, adding a blast of conflict to every bar.

Nirvana

(Image credit: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images)

Cobain took three guitars into the studio to make Nevermind: a Jaguar, a Mustang, and a Strat, all modified with humbuckers. He usually chose the Strat for live performances of this song, so that’s the best guess at what he used to record it. Kurt’s vision for Nevermind was a raw, punky album, and he later described the final production as “far too slick”. 

To achieve the massive tones on record, producer Butch Vig sometimes tricked Cobain into double-tracking parts by pretending earlier takes were lost or not good enough. Nirvana reportedly chose mix engineer Andy Wallace in part because his name appeared bottom of the record company’s suggested list. The band assumed this meant he was less corporate than the others, but it was Wallace’s earthshaking sonics that made Teen Spirit a radio smash. 

Kurt moaned that the result was closer to Mötley Crüe than punk rock. While rock history records that Nirvana slayed hair metal, in 1991 Teen Spirit sat comfortably on MTV alongside the Crüe’s current single Primal Scream. Kurt may have felt conflicted, but he had undoubtedly created the defining guitar riff of the '90s.

16. Killing In the Name – Rage Against the Machine (1991)

The most iconic drop-D riff of them all?

It’s still astonishing, even after all these years, just how little gain Tom Morello was using on RATM’s debut. His tones, though slightly overdriven, were clear and punchy – relying more on the melodic and rhythmic content within the music itself to define the overall heaviness.

To this day, their debut single is among the first anyone will learn in drop D, typifying how the third and fifth frets on the A-string can be used for minor seventh and octave notes against the low string root.  A walking chromatic blues run is thrown in halfway through the second verse, embellishing the idea further.

It was Morello’s 1982 ‘Sendero Luminoso’ Telecaster handling the bulk of the work and a hot sauce-coloured Gibson Les Paul for overdubs, going through his faithful Marshall JCM800 and Peavey cab, plus modulation on the opening chords from an Ibanez DFL Flanger.

15. Symphony of Destruction – Megadeth (1992)

Dave Mustaine at his most direct

It may be one of his simplest creations, but the powerful main riff on this 1992 single is one of Dave Mustaine’s very best. Adding to the dissonance of the half-step interval between its two opening chords are the silences that follow, and then a palm-muted closing line to further outline its Phrygian feel. 

A custom-built silver sparkle Jackson King V was Mustaine’s ‘Number One’ during these years, fed into a VHT power amp and either a Bogner or Custom Audio Electronics preamp. Lead guitarist Marty Friedman, who left the band eight years later, was also using Jackson guitars through the same rackmount gear, as well as a hot-rodded Marshall 50-watt.

14. Sunshine of Your Love – Cream (1967)

'Woman tone' and a tribute to Hendrix

Sunshine was actually bassist Jack Bruce’s riff, inspired by witnessing a Jimi Hendrix gig. Clapton simply doubled Bruce’s part, adding 7th chord strums on the repeats. It’s the ideal riff for learning the blues scale because it hits each note almost in sequence. 

Clapton used his psychedelic SG known as The Fool, turning off the tone on the neck pickup for the most famous example of his 'Woman Tone'. Given the myth around Clapton, hard info on his amp choice is thin on the ground, but at this time he favoured the Marshall JTM-100.

13. Money for Nothing – Dire Straits (1985)

One of rock’s happiest accidents

Aiming for a Billy Gibbons tone on his MTV breakout hit, Mark Knopfler chose a Les Paul Jr into a Laney 2x12 and rocked back his Morley wah pedal in increments until he found the sweet spot.

Producer Neil Dorfsman mic’ed it with a single SM57, but as they were about to record, he noticed the mic had fallen out of position and was pointing at the floor. Thus was born the inimitable Money For Nothing tone.

The notes are fairly standard, fitting largely around G minor pentatonic, but the wah overtones and Knopfler’s fingerstyle technique make it completely unique.

12. Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry (1958)

Rock’s fine tradition of plagiarism starts here

Rock ’n’ roll had long existed out of sight of white America until Chuck Berry exploded into the mainstream. In fact, Berry’s intro to Johnny B. Goode was pinched note-for-note from 1946’s Ain’t That Just Like A Woman by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five. 

But while Berry may have stolen guitarist Carl Hogan’s notes, he played them with such ferocity, adding his signature sliding double-stops, that it became an entirely new sound. Much as Jimmy Page would later utilize blues riffs to invent heavy metal, Berry wrung jump blues into a different beast. Then the Beach Boys stole it again, for Fun Fun Fun.

11. Layla – Derek & the Dominos (1970)

The sound of unrequited love and an amp on 10

In 1967, Clapton fell in love with a woman he couldn’t have – George Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd – and a guitar he couldn’t use – ‘Brownie’, a 1956 Strat whose sound didn’t work with Cream or Blind Faith. On Layla, he poured out his emotions for the former through the latter.

Plugging Brownie into a Fender Champ gave the tone for Layla’s screaming ostinato. The Strat’s comparative lack of sustain made Clapton a busier player, ably demonstrated by the fleet hammer-ons in this opening lick – which was reportedly written by Duane Allman, who also performs on the track.

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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).