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The 50 greatest guitar riffs of all time

1. Whole Lotta Love – Led Zeppelin (1969)

Riff (n.): Repeating guitar pattern by Jimmy Page

In 1969, the year Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, Jimmy Page launched his own giant leap for mankind. Whole Lotta Love’s guitar figure took just 2.7 seconds to play, but it immediately projected music into another decade. While everyone else was still playing the '60s, Zeppelin were now playing the '70s. 

Any guitar list – greatest riffs, solos, albums – is guaranteed to start fights, but it’s a brave soul who challenges Whole Lotta Love’s claim to riff supremacy. It wasn’t the first great riff, but it is the defining one. It’s why riffs became central to guitar music, the reason bands search for the guitar hook that can propel a whole song – or even a whole career. 

In many respects, Whole Lotta Love was not new. Some of the lyrics were lifted from You Need Love by Muddy Waters (lyricist Willie Dixon successfully sued for credit in 1987), and Robert Plant’s vocal owed a lot to Steve Marriott’s performance on the Small Faces’ cover of that song. The riff, though, was all Page. Without that, it was simply another British version of a blues classic. With the riff, it was the invention of a new genre. 

Page’s lick is so propulsive that it powers both verse and chorus. Almost every other riff on this list takes regular breathers so you don’t get sick of it, but Page grinds out his eureka moment non-stop, fully confident no one is losing interest. “I knew it was strong enough to drive the entire song, not just open it up,” Page told the Wall Street Journal. “We felt the riff was addictive, like a forbidden thing.”

Led Zeppelin

(Image credit: Chris Walter/WireImage)

In fact, it was so addictive it didn’t even need variations. Most iconic riffs are two- or four-bar patterns, alternating between different endings: think of Back In Black. There’s only one modification to Whole Lotta Love in the entire song: for the first two repetitions, Page chugs on the E chord for longer, making a two bar pattern. Once Plant starts singing, the riff slims down to regular one-bar repeats. That’s how it remains for the rest of the song, relentless and thrusting.

As you’ll know if you’ve ever suffered through a pub band not-quite-nailing it, sounding like Page is another matter. At the start of each repeat, Jimmy slides into fret 7 on the E string, and then plays fret 5 on the A string. He duplicates that 5th fret note by also playing the open D string, and bends the A string slightly sharp to exaggerate the doubling effect. This touch of genius sounds like two guitarists playing at once.

Led Zeppelin II was the album that made the Les Paul the essential hard rock guitar. But although Page also made the 100-watt Marshall the rock star’s default choice, he didn’t start using it until the album was almost finished. Last year, Page told us about the amp he used: “When Paul Samwell-Smith left [the Yardbirds] he left his equipment behind – the [Vox] amplifier heads. I know them as Super Beatles... So that’s exactly what’s on Whole Lotta Love.” Great... But what the hell is a Super Beatle?

There were several Vox amps officially sold as Super Beatles, starting with the V14. They were 120-watt solid state heads made for the Beatles when their AC30s were no longer loud enough to be heard above screaming Beatlemaniacs. One problem though: there’s no evidence Page ever used one. 

There is, however, a 1969 photo of Page at Olympic Studios, where Whole Lotta Love was recorded, with a Vox UL4120. These were also 120-watt Vox heads, used by The Beatles from Revolver onwards. In other words, an amp you could reasonably call a ‘Super Beatle’. 

The heads had solid state preamps and valve power stages, and weighed 68lbs. Good luck finding one if you fancy recreating Page’s tone: they were only made for a year, and many faulty units were destroyed. Experts estimate there are less than 10 working examples in the world.

Zeppelin refused to release singles in the UK, and they never appeared on Top Of The Pops. Instead, the BBC used cover versions of Whole Lotta Love to introduce the show. It underscored that Zeppelin were on a higher plane than their would-be rivals. Mortals aspired to appear on TOTP; Zeppelin wrote the theme tune.

Whole Lotta Love is what smartphones should play when you ask “What’s a riff?” It is the distilled essence of rock guitar: distorted tone, powerchords, string bending, and minor pentatonic notes all squeezed into a single bar of music. It is one of the all time great musical motifs, like Beethoven’s 5th, immediately recognisable, strong enough to power an entire movement, and destined to live forever.