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.


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


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


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


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

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month**

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49

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.