Flannel shirts. Ripped jeans. Long (non-sprayed) hair. Second-hand guitars. And loads of classic riffs. Grunge went global towards the end of 1991, when three now-landmark albums were all released within a span of a few weeks – Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten, and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger (plus, the year-old Alice in Chains debut, Facelift, hitting just a short while before).
And, for a spell, grunge was undoubtedly rock’s leading style – as evidenced by seemingly non-stop coverage of the “Seattle sound” in print and on MTV, with its influence even spreading to fashion, advertising, and politics.
While some of the genre’s top contributors may be gone, their music lives on – which was more often than not propelled by simply awesome riffs.
So, on the 30-year anniversary of its mainstream breakthrough, we count down the 30 greatest grunge riffs, from its ’80s inception to early-’90s heyday.
Betcha can’t guess no. 1…
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30. The U-Men – Gila
There are several Washington-area bands that helped clear the path for grunge, and certainly, the U-Men would be towards the top of the list.
While most standout grunge riffs were of the fuzzed-out variety – and sometimes detuned – the chug-chugging riff on Gila (supplied by guitarist Tom Price) sounds much cleaner than what would come later on from grunge’s “Big 4.” But it still rocks. Ferociously.
29. 7 Year Bitch – The Scratch
One of the things that made grunge so darn appealing was that, like the punk movement of the ‘70s, it put the emphasis back on songwriting, rather than instrumental gymnastics that required hours of training.
All you needed was a sturdy chord progression and attitude… and the Gits – and their guitarist, Roisin Dunne – certainly had lots of both on The Scratch.
28. The Gits – Seaweed
The Gits’ story is one of a promising talent being cut short due to tragedy – their singer, Mia Zapata, was murdered in 1993, while the band was working on their second album, the posthumously released Enter: The Conquering Chicken.
And a tune like Seaweed shows that guitar-wise (via a chap dubbed “Joe Spleen”), they leaned more towards the “melodic punk” side of things.
27. Skin Yard – 1000 Smiling Knuckles
Jack Endino will forever be best known as a producer. And for good reason – he was behind the board for such landmark grunge releases as Soundgarden’s Screaming Life, Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, and Nirvana’s Bleach.
But he was also the guitarist for Skin Yard – and his capable noise-riffing is on display throughout 1000 Smiling Knuckles, including a surprisingly near-shred solo!
26. Truly – Blue Flame Ford
Grunge’s best-kept secret just might have been Truly, which saw ex-members of Soundgarden (bassist Hiro Yamamoto) and Screaming Trees (drummer Mark Pickerel) join forces with singer/guitarist Robert Roth.
Their 1995 album, Fast Stories… from Kid Coma was full of coulda/shoulda-been rock classics, especially the psychedelic-grunge guitar stylings of Blue Flame Ford.
25. Brad – Sweet Al George
Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard seemingly had oodles of riffs oozing out of his amp throughout the ‘90s – as evidenced by the abundance of first-rate leftover material that often found a home in his side band, Brad. And on Sweet Al George, he offers up one of his very best stadium-sized riffs.
24. Green River – This Town
Were they punk? Were they metal? The members of Green River themselves probably don’t even know for sure.
Featuring contributors that would go on to form Pearl Jam and Mudhoney, guitarists Stone Gossard and Bruce Fairweather slashed n’ thrashed their way through much of GR’s repertoire, especially the frantic riff featured on This Town.
23. Screaming Trees – Shadow of the Season
Along with the likes of Soundgarden and the Melvins, the Screaming Trees were there for grunge’s first wave in the mid-‘80s. And on Shadow of the Season (the opening track from their second major label offering, 1992’s Sweet Oblivion), guitarist Gary Lee Conner shows off his fondness for utilizing vintage tones as a major part of his style.
22. Bikini Kill – Rebel Girl
Although not necessarily “grunge”, Bikini Kill were one of the trailblazers of the riot grrrl movement – which combined feminism, razor-sharp lyrics, and raging punk rock.
Hailing from Olympia, Washington and led by singer Kathleen Hanna, Rebel Girl (and its Cherry Bomb-esque riff, provided by Billy Karren) is Bikini Kill at their best – and provided the movement with a bona fide battle cry.
21. Hole – Violet
One of the standout tracks from Hole’s commercial breakthrough LP, Live Through This, stakes the unique claim of being one of the few (only?) grunge tunes to feature a “bolero-style” riff.
Of course, we’re talking about Violet – whose memorable guitar line was co-strummed by Courtney Love and Eric Erlandson.
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20. L7 – Pretend We’re Dead
One of the prerequisites to be a true “grunge band” was that you had to hail from some location within the state of Washington (preferably Seattle). But LA natives, L7, was one of the few outside of WA exceptions.
On their best-known tune, Pretend We’re Dead, guitarists Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner offered up an undeniable gem of a fuzzy/grungy riff.
19. Nirvana – Scentless Apprentice
The number of memorable guitar riffs that the late, great Kurt Cobain devised for Nirvana was plentiful. But interestingly, one of the heaviest riffs Nirvana ever offered up, Scentless Apprentice, was not penned by Cobain, but rather Dave Grohl.
However, Grohl would have to wait for the launch of the Foo Fighters to show off his multi-instrumental skills – it’s Cobain who performed the riff on record.
18. Pearl Jam – Rearviewmirror
When you’re in a band with three gents who are expertly adept at creating classic riffs (Stone Gossard, Mike McCready and Jeff Ament), there couldn’t be much room left for another contributor, right? Wrong.
Singer (and sometime third guitarist) Eddie Vedder composed one of Pearl Jam’s best-ever guitar lines – the repetitive eight-noter that drives Rearviewmirror.
17. Soundgarden – Hunted Down
Want to pinpoint the birth of grunge to a specific riff? Possibly impossible. But we’d be fairly confident putting our money on the A-side of Soundgarden’s first-ever single, Hunted Down.
The group’s guitarist, Kim Thayil, penned and played the riff on his own (this was before Chris Cornell would regularly provide six-string assistance) – which would also be re-used as the opener for their Screaming Life EP.
16. Tad – Grease Box
A great grunge riff that starts out on… bass? Surely some mistake! But no, this is most certainly one of the few confirmed cases when it comes to Tad’s Grease Box, as bassist Kurt Danielson kicks things off, before handing the ball off to larger-than-life guitarist, Tad Doyle.
15. Mudhoney – Suck You Dry
Mudhoney single-handedly helped popularize the Big Muff/fuzzed-out guitar sound that would eventually become synonymous with grunge. And Suck You Dry is a perfect example.
Guitarists Mark Arm and Steve Turner (who were previously bandmates for a spell in Green River) snarl n’ gnarl their way through the song’s furious two-and-a-half-minute duration.
14. Melvins – Set Me Straight
Along with Soundgarden, the Melvins are largely considered “the grandaddies of grunge”.
Detuned guitars and plodding tempos served as the band’s main sonic components, and on one of their most melodic tunes, Set Me Straight – a tune that was also produced by none other than Kurt Cobain – guitarist Buzz Osborne doesn’t disappoint.
13. Mad Season – Lifeless Dead
12-string guitar is not usually associated with grunge. But in the short-lived supergroup, Mad Season (featuring Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley and Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready), McCready does indeed go for the chime-ier of the two necks on his Gibson EDS-1275 for the main riff of Lifeless Dead – and judging from this live cut, he even played the solo on the thing!
12. Alice in Chains – It Ain’t Like That
One of Alice in Chains’ heaviest – and decidedly meatiest – riffs resides deep within Facelift, via It Ain't Like That. Its recipe, you ask? Simply backwards-strum an open E chord, bend the G on yer low E string up a whole step and back down, repeat, and… voila, you have been “chained”!
11. Pearl Jam – Breath
The Singles Motion Picture Soundtrack was chockful of goodies – Alice in Chains’ Would?, Chris Cornell’s Seasons, and especially, Pearl Jam fan favorite, Breath.
And it just so happens to feature one of PJ’s best guitar riffs – created via Stone Gossard’s use of sliding octaves up on the neck, and Eddie Vedder's vocal doubling of the melody.
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10. Nirvana – Negative Creep
Certainly, grunge guitarists were “anti-shredders” – as it was much more important to be able to write memorable songs – and, indeed, riffs – than it was to offer up never-ending complex suites and warp speed shredding.
One of Kurt Cobain’s best guitar bits turned out be one that any old beginner could master, Negative Creep – whose main riff mostly requires simply rapidly dragging your finger up and back down the low E string.
9. Mother Love Bone – Stardog Champion
Grunge was the antithesis of glam, right? Not so fast. While that assumption is largely correct, there were exceptions – such as the short-lived Mother Love Bone.
Somehow finding a way to merge both styles together and make it all work, two former Green River guitarists, Bruce Fairweather and Stone Gossard, offer up a lazily paced yet mighty Zep groove on the anthemic Stardog Champion.
8. Soundgarden – Spoonman
Another gent who penned his share of grade-A grunge riffs was Chris Cornell, who was the author of the drop-D classic, Spoonman – and perhaps the closest Soundgarden ever came to approaching boogie territory.
Spoonman first came to life as a throwaway for the Singles film (a solo version not included on the soundtrack), but was reworked full-band style for Soundgarden’s tour de force, Superunknown.
7. Alice in Chains – Them Bones
No other grunge band offers up as many mammoth riffs per square album as Alice in Chains – even now, Jerry Cantrell continues to astound with an infinite well of killer hooks.
But the band arguably hit their peak with their dark classic, Dirt, which kicks off with one of Cantrell’s hardest-hitting riffs ever – the seemingly relentlessly ascending Them Bones.
6. Temple of the Dog – Hunger Strike
Not all grunge riffs were mega-ton behemoths. Case in point, the almost country-ish, chicken-pickin’ twang of Hunger Strike.
Another short-lived all-star grunge side band, Temple of the Dog featured both of Pearl Jam’s guitarists (Mike McCready and Stone Gossard), but it was actually Chris Cornell who composed its memorable opening riff.
5. Soundgarden – Outshined
Soundgarden needed an industrial-sized riff to help break through to the mainstream in the fall of ’91 (just as “grunge mania” was getting underway), and wouldn’t ya know it, Outshined just happened to feature their all-time best.
Although the “Lookin’ California/feelin’ Minnesota” lyric is certainly memorable, the Chris Cornell composed 7/4-time riff that drives the song simply cannot be denied.
4. Pearl Jam – Alive
The song that first introduced many to the wonders of Pearl Jam also happened to feature their best-ever riff, Alive – penned by Stone Gossard, and whose origin can be traced back to the Mother Love Bone days.
Situated in the key of A and utilizing slides, open strings, hammer-ons, and pull-offs, props also have to be given to Mike McCready’s Hendrix-y solo, which pays tribute in its opening to two similar-sounding predecessors – She (Kiss’s Ace Frehley) and Five to One (the Doors’ Robby Krieger).
3. Alice in Chains – Man in the Box
It took a specific song to demonstrate that, in the summer of ‘91, the riff was regaining its composure within the realm of rock: Man in the Box.
And once more, the track proved that a riff didn’t have to be complex to be killer – Jerry Cantrell plays only a handful of notes on his battered and stickered G&L Rampage, and processes it through a talk box, for added dramatic effect.
2. Mudhoney – Touch Me I’m Sick
By the late-‘80s, most rock bands utilized distorted guitar sounds so processed it had gotten miles away from the more purely overdriven/fuzz reverberations of late-‘60s bands like the Stooges.
Lucky for us, it sounded as if Mark Arm and Steve Turner successfully travelled back in time to provide us with the wondrous retro/garage riff rocker, Touch Me I’m Sick, one of grunge's definitive anthems.
1. Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit
Smells Like Teen Spirit claiming the top spot can’t be much of a surprise. Few times in rock history did a single song usher in a global rock music movement, and the song’s riff has joined the lofty likes of Smoke on the Water and Iron Man as one of the most instantly recognizable.
The fact that the riff is composed of just four simple powerchords means it not only gave birth to a whole generation of new guitarists, but it remains a rite of passage for any aspiring new players.
And we mustn’t forget the solo, which replicated the melody of the verse – an obvious “flipping of the bird” to the day’s high-tech six-string shredders. Goodbye glam. Hello grunge.
Greg Prato takes his grunge seriously. So seriously, that he has penned several books pertaining to the subject – Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music (opens in new tab), Dark Black and Blue: The Soundgarden Story (opens in new tab), and 100 Things Pearl Jam Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die (opens in new tab).