The 10 best guitar riffs of 2020

[L-R] Mark Tremonti, Stephen Carpenter, Matt Heafy and Daron Malakian
(Image credit: Paul Bergen/Sergione Infuso/Frank Hoensch/Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images)

This year in riffs has been declared. We have a winner by popular vote, and a Top 10 to share with the world, and once more we, on behalf of the electric guitar, would like to thank riffs for giving us a place in this world.

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[L-R] Joe Satriani, Plini, Gus G and Kiko Loureiro

(Image credit: Xavi Torrent/Miikka Skaffari/Brigitte Engl/Lauren James/Getty Images)

The 10 best guitar solos of 2020
The 20 best guitar albums of 2020

It’s true: no riffs, no life, nothing to hold onto and carry the song. Here we have 10 as chosen by you, plus a number of staff picks that are well worth checking out.

End-of-year lists invite a little perspective. What this year’s riffs tell us is that they remain the lifeblood of the song, the soul of the party, but there is no one way to write one.

Maybe the best riffs are the catchiest. That is as good a rule as any, but music resists rules. Some of the following are not that catchy; they are not My Sharona, Walk This Way, Iron Man. But what they do is serve the song, and they can come from anywhere.

Look at John Petrucci, a man from whom we expect greatness in riff work, yet he throws one in during a dazzling instrumental, not so much for something to stick in our heads for days but to give the song a sense of awe. Others take a similar strategy, allowing the riff to dictate the feel of the song, even if the melody lies elsewhere.

And then, you’ve got AC/DC on the list, which just goes to show that, even in era of digital transformation and self-driving cars, the primitive joy of rock ’n’ roll will never lose its edge.

10. Deftones – Ohms

There is a hi-fidelity quality to Stephen Carpenter’s guitar tone. You don’t so much listen to it as bask in it. Turn it up loud, position yourself by the speaker, and it’s like you’ve been spirited away to a more Zen dimension. 

Some people go on a spa retreat and hit the jacuzzi. Others persist with this. Yeah, turn it up loud, louder still, et voila! A parallel dimension, one of total luxury. Ohms is the cashmere pajamas of metal tone. 

Besides that, Ohms is a cool motif – low-end obviously, but with a groove that’s too cool (too stoned?) to get overly hot and bothered and that’s in the song’s benefit. It gives Chino Moreno’s vocals some space to work with. 

Carpenter’s signature baritone ESP with its Fishman Fluence humbuckers and eight-string heft certainly gives him the edge with material like this. Sumptuous.

9. Lamb of God – Checkmate

In a more just universe, Netflix would have picked this up for The Queen’s Gambit soundtrack. What is a chessboard but a wall of death waiting to happen, right? Well, there’s no justice, and we will just have to wait for a more righteous context to savor this haymaker from Mark Morton and Willie Adler – preferably a field, sunshine, open air, over-priced cartons of beer and people. Some day… 

Anyway, this one is vintage Lamb of God, which is to say that Adler and Morton’s guitar parts are Sugar Ray’s left and right hands providing a syncopated pummel to the viscera that only ever resolves itself on those groove-metal turnarounds upon which LoG have built a sound. It’s hard to sit still to this.


STAFF PICK: Kaki King - Can't Touch This or That or You or My Face

One of the highlights of her superb new album, Modern Yesterdays, this airy, gorgeous tune opens with a spell-binding head-fake of a riff. Percussive, foreboding and futuristic, it's a brilliant display of how King – who could put anyone to shame in a contest of pure technical acoustic skill if need be – is skilled enough to floor you with even the simplest figures. – Jackson Maxwell

8. System Of A Down – Genocidal Humanoidz

You might not find Daron Malakian’s Genocidal Humanoidz dressed in a tux, sharing Oreos in the green room with Smoke On The Water before the Best Riffs Of All Time Awards Ceremony, but that’s okay. Some riffs you want teach to the kids, others you want to hang a hyperactive contemporary metal jam to. This is the latter. 

That most radioactive of subgenres – nu-metal – was once a term that followed System of a Down around, but Genocidal Humanoidz plays to different rules. This, surely, is anxiety metal, with more than a streak of punk, in spirit if not sound, which holds a complex rhythm close to its chest, eschewing hooks for power and the frenetic sense that the center will not hold.

7. Mr. Bungle – Raping Your Mind

With Trey Spruance and Scott Ian in full flow over a Dave Lombardo drumbeat, and all the athletic abundance that comes with a madcap comeback and the hurdy-gurdy of crossover thrash, Raping Your Mind is a warm cup of wake-the-hell-up. No matter how many notes are added to the riff, Ian, a man seemingly born to count to four, locks that groove down tight. 

This is boutique chug. They should make a pedal with this sound in it. Oh, wait, they already did, with the KHDK SGT D boost/preamp… That would help dial it the tone, but it takes nigh-on four decades of stomp to keep it moving with such venom.


STAFF PICK: Code Orange - Swallowing The Rabbit Whole

Vast swathes of territory in the metal world go yet unexplored, and Code Orange remain steeled to lead the expedition. With their latest album, Underneath, the Pittsburgh troupe come prepared with an arsenal of tectonic riffs and electronically influenced arrangements, dealing audial blunt-force trauma that’s as clever as it is destructive. Case in point: Swallowing the Rabbit Whole’s main riff bears enough mass for its own gravitational pull, but its expertly placed natural harmonic flurries remain perfectly in keeping with the record’s digital theme. – Sam Roche

6. Joe Satriani – Nineteen Eighty

Satch’s Nineteen Eighty is two for two with the riff now joining the solo in our end of year Top 10. A feel-good instrumental that harks back to the pre-shred golden age, when a young Eddie Van Halen arrived in a flash, sawdust on his pants from workshopping more innovation into his guitar, lightning in his fingers. 

It was a time when Satch was coming to the end of the road with The Squares, his talent soon to gravitate towards the hitherto unfathomed potential of the guitar rock instrumental. 40 years later he has perfected it: his bubbling hot tone is always a sound to savor, like hearing the school bell that marks the end of term and the promise of a long, hot summer ahead.

5. John Petrucci – Gemini

Trivia alert: John Petrucci is not a Gemini. His star sign is Cancer. You know how we can tell that? Well, it’s in this riff. Listen to it. Taken from Terminal Velocity, his 2020 solo album and tour de force of progressive metal guitar playing, the Gemini riff takes a sideways approach (remember, Cancer, that’s the crab one) from the avowedly exotic leads that precede it. 

It’s a 21st-century Iommi style riff with a bluesy turnaround of sorts, y’know, if the T-1000 attempted one, and it takes you by surprise, leaving you wanting more. Yup, a bit like eating crab! No, you’re right, horoscopes are dumb. But this riff, and Petrucci teasing us with it before sidelining it for pastures more melodic, is very clever indeed.


STAFF PICK: Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou - Ancestral Recall

2020 has been full of surprise collaborations – William Shatner and Ritchie Blackmore, anyone? – but none were quite so successful as the teaming of Emma Ruth Rundle's ethereal baritone stylings with Thou's sludge-metal assault. Their collaborative masterpiece, May Our Chambers Be Full, is brimming with impossibly heavy riffs, but lead-off single Ancestral Recall takes the crown for the absolute sledgehammer that lands at 58 seconds in – a chromatic gut-punch that's up there with the most punishing drop-tuned riffs of the past decade. What's more, Thou's Andy Gibbs taught us how to play it as part of this year's Sick Riffs series. Learn it. Now. – Michael Astley-Brown

4. Psychedelic Porn Crumpets – Tally-Ho

What are they putting in those Psychedelic Porn Crumpets? The recipe surely is not FDA-approved, for this trippy, astral little groover has a lysergic quality that places it at an extra-dimensional remove from the others on this list. 

Of course, the video plants the suggestion but this sound is ripe for such tricks of the mind. George Harrison went to India. These cats took over the Play-Doh factory and started fashioning all-new worlds. There are easier paths to mind expansion than climbing into the progressive stylings of Jack McEwan and Luke Parish but they are not legal in all 50 states.

3. Trivium – What The Dead Men Say

Cory Beaulieu and Matt Heafy are like the Jordan and Pippen of contemporary heavy metal guitar playing – offense, defense, lead, rhythm… It’s just what they do, effortlessly passing those parts back and forth, switching up tempos and plays. 

What The Dead Men Say is a case in point. Is there a trick in the book that was left in the control room? This is your third favorite riff of the year, but which one? There’s at least three, four. Any advance on four? The first pulls you in, the second antes up with Duplantier-esque pick scrapes, the third brings in third-generation Gothenburg melodies and a technical excellence that underpins all of their work.

2. Demon Fire – AC/DC

The quality control on AC/DC’s Power Up is unimpeachable. Blues is at the heart of it, of course. Blues is writ large throughout rock ’n’ roll, and that is AC/DC’s thing. But where the blues legend suggests a faustian pact, we’d rather suspect that the Australian rock institution made a similar deal with electricity. That high-voltage exuberance shows no sign of waning, even after Malcolm Young’s passing. 

Not even death could stop his ideas from continuing to set the standard for rock rhythm guitar, with cowriting credits on all tracks here, with riffs dating way back to the Black Ice sessions. The Demon Fire riff is a single-note blues-rocker. Traditional, old-school in a sense, but anything but safe. Well, electricity is old, too. Touch a live wire, and it’ll still shock you good. The same principle applies here.

1. Alter Bridge – Last Rites

Last Rites paints a happy ursine nativity scene in which Mark Tremonti’s signature PRS amp and guitar are the proud parents of a yowling 200lb grizzly bear riff, which soon busies itself with the urgent business of flattening stuff and being badass. 

There’s a sophistication to Alter Bridge’s oeuvre, a technical prowess and meticulous delivery, so sometimes we overlook the heaviness, the weight in Tremonti’s guitar parts. It’s a weight augmented by his bends, which like latter-day Jerry Cantrell, moves the earth beneath your feet. 

You know this riff is gold. Tremonti doesn’t even feel the need for a solo. We agree: you don’t interrupt a rhythm figure like this. That’d be like getting in between a grizzly and a pork chop.

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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.