The 10 best guitar riffs of 2021

Christian Andreu, Myles Kennedy, Mark Tremonti and Alexi Laiho
(Image credit: Andrew Benge/Lorne Thomson/Sergione Infuso/Corbis/Roni Rekomaa via Getty)

Here we have it, folks: your favorite riffs of 2021. The votes have been counted and, by the power invested in the crude democratic efficiency of the online poll, we can see which ‘short repeated phrase in popular music and jazz, typically used as an introduction or refrain in a song’ reigns supreme.

This year was big for metal. Indeed, only two out of the 10 could be described as something other than metal, and even then, one is hard rock, and the other was written and performed by a guy who knows Slash. It’s impossible to decipher what this list tells us about the riff, and our tastes in it, but maybe it's the same thing that every year-end Best Riff list tells us – that, even within the one subculture of guitar playing, there are innumerable ways to get the job done, and that rhythm is key to making these parts work.

After all, there are only so many notes. How we arrange them, and the pockets of groove that we can summon out of the raw ingredients of electric guitar, is crucial. 

This list also begs the question: are the best riffs always on electric guitar? These certainly are, but we would argue that a great riff will sound just as great on a parlor-sized acoustic guitar as it does through an enormo-rig. For evidence, check out Melvins’ Five-Legged Dog, which saw Buzz Osborne rearrange some of the most inventive riffs for acoustic. 

Are there any glaring omissions here? Well, there are so many riffs it's hard to keep score, but it is strange that Greta Van Fleet missed out after taking top spot in your Best Solos of 2021 list. And to have such a metal-heavy list but then no Carcass, when Torn Arteries presented such a smorgasbord of gourmet hesher’s delights, seemed like an oversight.

But that’s life. And you’ll just have to check in later in the week to see if any of those turn up in your favorite guitar albums of 2021.

10. Architects – Animals 

Architects have something philosophically grand but ultimately pessimistic to say about humankind’s place on this planet – something about us not quite fulfilling the promise of our Darwinian triumph. Or perhaps its just misanthropy; there’s a lot of it around. Either way, to articulate this, the British metalcore band dress the guitars in a gorilla suit and go 100 per cent silverback primitive on our unworthy asses. It’s quite spectacular.

It is maybe too early in this list to go referencing the Brown Note, but what Adam Christianson does with his seven-string is in effect a chemical-free colon cleanse, with a style of songwriting that invites crude analogies to such profound physical reactions from its audience. This is a chug inspired by the mind’s sharpness but delivered via high-volume low frequency blunt force. Crude, effective and, yes, animalistic.

9. Spiritbox – Circle With Me 

Mike Stringer loves nothing more than taking contemporary metal into ever more progressive and technologically augmented spaces, and Circle With Me is a prime example of this aesthetic sensibility in action, with the trance-y, aerated electronic parts endowing the track with the soul of the machine.

But for all this future-forward, metal 4.0 frontiersmanship, Stringer is at his best when he is engaging with the manual pleasures of electric guitar manipulation, scoring the strings with the pick and introducing the timbre of his Abasi Concepts Larada 8 Legion to seismologists the world over. He might keep us waiting for the riff to detonate but we know it’s coming. As Hitchcock explained, that is the definition of suspense.


EDITOR'S PICK: Biffy Clyro – A Hunger in Your Haunt
Biffy Clyro, who should just hold a masterclass in riff writing at this stage, delivered the goods once again with A Hunger in Your Haunt. A descending scale pattern followed by an aggressive thwack of the strings – shaken up every second repeat with some beat-skipping tendencies – is at the crux of this heavy rock guitar riff. Rhythmic intrigue? Check. Juicy tones? Check. Infectious fret work? Check. It’s got everything a great riff needs, and packages them up in a spectacular six-string sucker punch worthy of a shoutout. – Matt Owen

8. Iron Maiden – Stratego 

Written by Janick Gers and team captain Steve Harris, Stratego is something of a throwback for the British heavy metal institution: a work of 21st-century NWOBHM that captures the quintessence of the Iron Maiden anthem. You’ve got a gallop, octave guitars, harmonies, melodies, and the riff so favored by the six-string triumvirate of Gers, Dave Murray and Adrian Smith is more rapier than battle axe. The flash of the blade, if you will.

While Senjutsu – the latest long-form heavy metal odyssey from Iron Maiden – puts some distance between these dramatic moments of derring-do, when they come together like this, with Bruce Dickinson channeling Sun Tzu and his Long Beach rocking self, it’s pure gold, and all the invitation we need to park a sand-shoe on a wedge monitor and toss our Stratocasters around without a care in the world. 

7. Dream Theater – Awaken the Master 

Why did no one think to make John Petrucci an eight-string electric guitar before now? You'd think it would have come up in conversation at one of Petrucci and Sterling Ball’s epic barbecues, a platter of franks evoking that mega-hench low F#. No matter, it’s here now, and as soon as Mr. P took receipt of the prototype Majesty 8, he wrote Awaken the Master.

The extra fretboard acreage sure doesn’t slow him down here. This is a lithe groover, the jolly green giant in tap shoes, and it lends what is otherwise a 10-minute prog-metal jam a sense of physicality to contrast the otherworldly arrangements that stretch out and color in what is yet another epic Dream Theater soundscape – and indeed extend what’s possible with an eight-string guitar. Never mind the beard oil, JP, we’d need liniment on the fingers after attempting this one at home.


EDITOR’S PICK: Nova Twins – Antagonist
The art of a good riff is its ability to worm its way into your brain and fashion a vice-like grip on your auditory cortex. By that logic, Antagonist, from UK alt-rock force – and face of Fender’s Player Plus campaign this year – Nova Twins, is an undisputed highlight, having been rattling around our skulls nonstop since it dropped last month. Dripping with attitude, this single-string bruiser is one of the gnarliest, downright nastiest guitar hooks of the year. But, crucially, it also feels unapologetically now: it’s as much a modern rock banger as it is a colossal dub raver, the fuse of its explosive course lit by the duo’s ingenious use of effects pedals. – Michael Astley-Brown

6. Bodom After Midnight – Paint the Sky with Blood 

The tragic death of Alexi Laiho casts this posthumous release in a bittersweet light, but there could be no more appropriate track to sign off on than this. Paint the Sky with Blood is a distillation of the Laiho ethos and a typically extravagant guitar spectacular that carries on in the Children of Bodom tradition of mainstreaming extreme metal for the broadest audience possible.

This subversive act is to be commended, and facilitated by Laiho’s gifts as an entertainer. The melody is foregrounded but not at the expense of the aggression, for holding both in equilibrium is key to making this material work – that and the imagination to make it come alive.

5. Trivium – In the Court of the Dragon 

The riff that Matt Heafy and Corey Beaulieu hatch on the epic title-track from the Orlando, Florida metal stalwarts’ 10th album, is all muscle and sinew – a veritable boa constrictor. Some occasions call for Trivium to invoke the hyper-animated power of Skolnick/Peterson but for others, such as this, they need something different, and what is, of course, prima facie a kinetic, powerful metal riff is really kind of like a blues turnaround, weaponized and taken out of context.

Where did that style of riff-making come from in popular metal? Dimebag Darrell was certainly one of its architects, and Lamb of God use a similar construction for their riffs. What links all three is that sense of groove and swing, proving that metal can sound all the more physically imposing when it can move its hips.


EDITOR'S PICK: Olivia Rodrigo – brutal
Those needing evidence of the guitar’s continued cultural vitality in 2021 need only point to the battering ram of a riff that leads off Olivia Rodrigo’s blockbuster debut LP, Sour. A powerchord-driven earworm imbued with the rebellious DNA of the punk and grunge that came before it, the riff helped brutal reach over 270 million listeners this year, likely inspiring more than a few of them to pick up a guitar for the first time themselves as well. – Jackson Maxwell

4. Gojira – Born For One Thing 

This is a list of greatest riffs, and so first off the kudos has to go to Joe Duplantier and Christian Andreu for rewilding metal with this thrashing squawker. But Duplantier’s kid brother Mario on drums gets a little co-ownership of this one, for his beat really makes that riff shift and turn.

Indeed, there are two principal riffs here. There’s the squawker, and a head-down chug to test the tensile strength of the Earth’s crust. Like everything in the Gojira catalog, both are executed exquisitely, but not at the expense of the human feel. No-one grooves quite like them. It’s perhaps a lesson learned from listening to Sepultura in their pomp, but this uncanny sense for finding the pocket and stretching it a little to defy metal’s rigid form is something you are born with.

3. Mammoth WVH – Don’t Back Down 

In a list dominated by the box-office pummel of today’s contemporary metal set, the feel-good defiance of Mammoth WVH’s Don’t Back Down is a welcome change of pace. It’s a fun, Friday night fuzz jam that leans into a sort of plaid-shirt Kyuss groove, albeit without the desert sand under the fingernails. 

Just when you think you’ve got a bead on it, Wolfgang Van Halen will throw in a passing note to keep you honest. But really the triumph of this riff is in its adaptability and how it informs the song, reprised as a melody to sit under the lyric. Then, when it’s time to come out into the foreground, it strong-arms its way through the mix, doing as all great hard-rock rhythm guitar does: commanding all that goes before it and carrying the song forward on broad shoulders. 


EDITOR'S PICK: Limp Bizkit – Out of Style
Few riffs made us lurch forward in our orthopaedic desk chairs quite like Wes Borland’s monster hook in Out of Style. It was a relatively quiet morning at Guitar World HQ when we stumbled across Borland’s Instagram page, where he was teasing the first snippets from Limp Bizkit’s new album, Still Sucks. Lying within was a sneak peek at the track’s utterly chaotic, whammy bar-centric riff, which prompted the entire office to bob their heads in universal agreement of its awe-inspiring bounce. We’ve been trying to perfect those pitch-bending squeals ever since. – Sam Roche

2. Myles Kennedy – In Stride 

Myles Kennedy slides into our affections and takes silver with a track that sounds like he has turned American popular guitar culture into a big ol’ engine, and he's revving it up to hurry everyone out for a summer-long road trip. 

Oh, yes, this is a fun one. A delectable truffle shuffle that sounds a little anachronistic for our overly serious and fraught present, and would play better if we all lived life at the pace and zen temperature of Dazed and Confused’s David Wooderson. That would be all right, all right, all right. It also reminds us that in rock ’n’ roll the slide can do a lot of heavy lifting when you need to write something effervescent and instinctive like this. But then it is a track about a preparing for a zombie apocalypse, and that really would be a bummer for the summer.

1. Tremonti – Now and Forever 

Let’s talk about Mark Tremonti’s right hand. There has always been a physicality to his playing, something of the Green Beret wrestling champ 2006 about his manipulation of the strings. But here, proving once more that rhythm is the lifeblood of the metal guitar riff, his wrist has got a Federer-esque mastery of its brief. 

Is this the triumph of science? Has Alter Bridge Inc. amassed a team of specialists to train our point man and riff-master general 2021, to make sure that, when the time comes to lay down a take, he is in prime physical condition. Or is this just years spent umbilically tethered to a metronome – “Hi, everyone, the name’s Tremonti, Mark ‘Soundbrenner’ Tremonti” – and stopping just before the point of passing out? It’s probably the latter. Or alien tech. Either way, Tremonti’s Now and Forever riff is a tour de force of power and precision, shock and awe. 

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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.