It is that time of year when the people have spoken, the votes have been counted, independently audited by GW’s stats team, and the sounds of wailing and the gnashing of teeth can be heard above the din of the top 10 riffs being played concurrently when, all of a sudden, Metallica releases a single.
You would think that, as metal’s highest-grossing band, seasoned pros and regulars on the network TV late show circuit, that Metallica would have pushed Lux Æterna a month or so earlier so it at least could have made the cut. Which is to say, up front, that when it comes to year-end lists there are always omissions, and that instances such as Hetfield/Hammett declaring after the race is run is just part of the process.
Anyway, is it a surprise that metal guitar dominates the top riffs list? Perhaps not when there is scarcely a genre that leans more heavily on open, short, repeated phrases, composed – nay, engineered, designed to worm their way into the consciousness of the audience. It also speaks to how rock and metal has evolved to dominate guitar culture at large in much the same way as hip-hop did with pop.
Anyway, it’s time to introduce the top 10 riffs of 2022, as voted for by you. There are some doozies, some familiar faces, one inspiring comeback story and an outright winner at number one.
10. Ann Wilson – Greed (feat. Tom Bukovac)
Good lord, should Tom Bukovac ever have a bake sale we are all over it in a flash. If his biscuits are as crunchy as his tone on Ann Wilson’s 2022 solo album, Fierce Bliss, then we’d all be in for a treat and he’d secure himself a guest spot on America’s Test Kitchen.
Wilson booked a number of great players for the Fierce Bliss sessions, including Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Warren Haynes, but the riff that wormed its way into the consciousness of the GW reader at large was Greed – a cautionary Faustian tale set to vintage Heart aesthetics that feel so very ‘70s. It just sounds so hot and analog, of a piece with an artist who put their name to Kick It Out and Magic Man. It’s no Barracuda but it sure sank its teeth into this year’s poll.
9. Meshuggah – The Abysmal Eye
Meshuggah sat down with GW for an extensive conversation about their latest work of alien metal, Immutable, and nary a peep came out of Mårten Hagström about The Abysmal Eye, its providence or from whence it came. Nature abhors a vacuum. Many assembled their own theories. Some looked at the title before concluding that it was originally a 12-bar blues written from the perspective of a soon-to-retire optometrist, on acoustic.
But c’mon, just listen to the thing. This is not off this Earth. It is as close as a riff gets to being a filmed-for-IMAX set piece from Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. It is not just a rhythm that manages to be tricksy and future-forward, like the Flashdance soundtrack after Skynet has won and rewrote human history; it’s also the pitch bends, that low-end arching up to massage the adrenaline out of us. Have mercy.
EDITOR'S PICK: Drive-By Truckers – Welcome 2 Club XIII
A delightful spin through Drive-By Truckers’ early days sweating it out in dingy clubs, Welcome 2 Club XIII is yet another addition to this Southern rock institution’s already-enviable library of cold-hard-classic riffs. Channeling the band’s Muscle Shoals, Alabama heritage, Mike Cooley makes this one to remember with sweet ‘n’ sour slides that bring the song’s ne’er do well characters to life just as vividly as Patterson Hood's lyrics. – Jackson Maxwell
8. Slipknot – Warranty
The undisputed heavyweight champions of 21st-century box-office metal returned this year with an album that Jim Root almost sounded a little lukewarm on, and the Iowa metal institution’s de facto creative director, Clown, was telling them all to chill out because it’s not really an album or something. Well, we do live in interesting times, as they say, and in such times what we need is a straightener – something to jar the senses.
From The End, So Far, that shock to the system comes by way of Warranty. “Isn’t this what you came here for?” asks Corey Taylor as it winds up the charge, and yes, this is. Warranty is riff-writing as hazardous material, pure nitro for the pit. A few months on from the album’s release, having played this live, we’d imagine Root is feeling more like himself.
7. Muse – Kill Or Be Killed
Bookish, brilliant, kinda knowingly nerdy, a reluctant stadium rocker, a man with a robot synth glove and shades illuminated with LEDs, owner of a guitar brand, Matt Bellamy is many things. But what he has never really been, until now anyway, is this, y’know, metal… In many respects, this is his widescreen vision for electric guitar turned into a fist.
“We wanted to update our hard rock sound on this album and with Kill Or Be Killed we found a modern metal sound featuring double bass drum action and even a death growl,” he said. And yeah, the death growl got all the attention at first.
Now the dust has settled, we can return to this riff and marvel at its unlikely physics. As though the paranoid android has been self-medicating with crystal meth, it is animated, scarcely containable by treble clef, and in the context of stadium rock it is pretty darn subversive.
EDITOR'S PICK: Soccer Mommy – Shotgun
Soccer Mommy has already masterminded a mountain of earworms, but her 2022 record Sometimes, Forever featured one of her catchiest yet. Boasting a boatload of fretboard flip-flopping and moody turnarounds to keep us on our seat edge, Shotgun subscribes to the Golden Rules of Riffage: reel listeners in from the get-go, maintain their attention throughout and have them on tenterhooks waiting for the riff’s reprise further down the line. Shotgun is a great song without the hook, but with it, it’s one of 2022’s finest riff-driven offerings. – Matt Owen
6. Megadeth – Night Stalkers
So here it is, officially the fastest song Megadeth has ever recorded, a thrash, bang, walloper featuring Ice-motherflangin’-T, all about a secret helicopter division of the US Military.
“They fly missions at night and no one knows what they’re gonna do until it happens,” said frontman and guitarist Dave Mustaine, describing the military unit but also accurately describing life in a rock ’n’ roll band, or on a guitar website.
Ice-T’s military cred notwithstanding – we love him, but ‘cmon, Dave, he’s hardly George S. Patton – Night Stalkers is quintessential Megadeth, state-of-the-art thrash metal that is all forward motion, everything in the red, nervous and fidgety, bumblebees in your underpants panic.
How fast is it? 190 of your finest BPMs. If Mustaine carries on in such a fashion, Soundbrenner is going to be faced with the metronomic equivalent of the Millennium Bug.
5. ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – No Confidence
Big, bouncy rough and tumble that sounds so big and hairy that your first instinct might be to set a bowlful of meat down by the speaker, the No Confidence riff leaves a big muddy paw print on the Austin, TX band’s latest studio recording, XI: Bleed Here Now, an album that was mixed in 4.0. Yes, that quadrophonic mix you like is coming back in style…
All that makes for a full immersion in the riff, as though the band have set up their guitar amps either side of your sofa, Conrad Keely’s headstock has just knocked a vase over, and this huge wool-covered rocker of their construction is running amok.
We live such internal lives, relations with the outside world brokered by a screen, that it seems such a fantastic thought to imagine this at full volume in a field, the summer’s grass rotting beneath the feet of a festival crowd, not a care in the world.
EDITOR’S PICK: Willow – ur a stranger
Willow Smith has made no secret of her love for Deftones and Crowbar, but her heaviest influences really came to the fore this year with this chug-laden monster of a riff. The harmonic touches nod to Smashing Pumpkins, but the potent combination of metal touchstones is also the sound of an artist finding her own voice after dabbling with pop-punk at the start of her guitar journey. We can’t wait to see where Willow goes next – especially if, as she suggests, it’s likely to involve two-hand tapping… – Michael Astley-Brown
4. Polyphia – ABC (feat. Sophia Black)
Some riffs are Paranoid and Smoke On The Water and are successful across the eons because their amoebic structure is 100 percent unfuckwithable, and then other riffs, such as ABC, from Polyphia’s hyper-dextrous new album, Remember That You Will Die, take off like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, with 20,000 moving parts, each perfectly in sync.
What is going on here? Well, Tim Henson has been good enough to break it down on his nylon-string signature guitar below. So check that out if you want answers. If you want the effect, then think of a clean tone guitar that sounds like it’s trying to out-game a CGI representation of an anime soundtrack, its kinetic reach and phrasing somehow keeping pace with Sophia Black’s alphabet aerobics on the mic.
The virtuosity is crazy but it’s delivered with a knowing wink and a sense of purpose and that makes this riff – and this song – fun above all else. This should be taught in How To Write 21st-Century Guitar Music 101.
3. Cave In – New Reality
Cave In were supposed to sign off with 2019’s Final Transmission, following the death of bassist/vocalist Caleb Scofield the previous year. They were supposed to be done.
But with Nate Newton of Converge joining them on bass for some tribute shows, and the positive reception for Final Transmission, they found a reason to continue, and with Newton on board, they tracked Heavy Pendulum with Kurt Ballou and made yet another record that chafes on the boundaries between metal and noise-rock.
New Reality explicitly references this era, the coming to terms with loss, and choosing to power on regardless, plow through on a downtuned groove with Stephen Brodksy and Adam McGrath’s guitars made ragged with hard-clipping gain – the sort of tone that makes you feel like you’d need a tetanus shot after coming in contact with it.
EDITOR'S PICK: Shinedown – Planet Zero
We’ll let you in on a little secret – Shinedown’s Planet Zero narrowly missed out on a spot in this list, just votes away from securing the number 10 spot. But like so many of you, we thought it was easily one of the top heavy riffs of the year, so we’re employing our hallowed editors’ powers to slot it right back in. Lead single and title track from one of the biggest hard rock albums of the year, Planet Zero sure as hell makes a statement, owing mostly to its gargantuan main riff, which, with its drop-tuned, gut-punching descending flurry of notes, bears the mass of the celestial object it describes.
2. Bleed From Within – Temple of Lunacy
Craig ‘Goonzi’ Gowans’ tones on Shrine are so fierce and gnarly that rumor has it Neural DSP has made the technology responsible age-restricted content. But once you acclimatize to the glare coming off the Glaswegian metallers’ full metal jacket you can appreciate the subtleties that are written into this track.
Bleed From Within are not Dream Theater, nor are they Rush – at their most vital they’re more MMA than YYZ – but there’s a knuckle-twisting progressivism in their writing. The riff, however, that you’re all getting steamed about is old-school full-sugar Irn-Bru, a motif animated by a fight-to-the-death spirit, and the sort of bone-breaking mosh pits that ‘Goonzi’ might have engaged with as a youth whenever Lamb of God or Meshuggah swung by the Barrowlands.
1. Alter Bridge – Silver Tongue
Winner by a landslide, Silver Tongue is, as Myles Kennedy tells it, one of those riffs that devours the rest of the song. It has a force of gravity, pulling the melody, the bass guitar, the vocal, passing songbirds, mailboxes, the audience’s false teeth all into its orbit. And then along comes Mark Tremonti to flex that PRS of his and make mincemeat of us all.
Indeed, the bold Tremonti all but puts electric fences and razor wire around the 12th fret to help him swear off soloing on this, a track that is to popular metal guitar what the coxless pair is to rowing, i.e. damn tricky, requiring inhuman levels of physicality, but spectacularly effective when both players/rowers are in sync.
How do they do it? We have two theories, both proffered by the team Kennedy/Tremonti. One involves guitar picks, which will please those holding stocks in Jim Dunlop. Tremonti apparently decided to “try every pick ever made” and settled upon Dunlop 1mm and 1.35mm Flow picks – “It made a huge difference,” he insisted. “Now I can’t look back.”
The other is that the Starsky and Hutch of modern rock/metal guitar have been doing this for so long that they are pretty much just left-brain and right-brain by now – “We’ve been playing together for so long, we’ve now morphed into one being!” says Kennedy, handing the initiative over to the likes of Spike Jonze or Chris Cunningham to shoot a remake of Bergman’s Persona only with Kennedy and Tremonti as the leads.
Now that would be something, a cultural moment only bettered in some alternate universe in which Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann cover Silver Tongue on TikTok.