Can you judge a decade by its riffs? When looking at the years 2010 to 2019 within the context of the electric guitar, the top 20 guitar solos - as voted by you - show us where the decade has taken guitar as a lead instrument. But we need something fundamental to hang our judgment on, and the guitar riff is exactly that.
With solos, we see where players are taking technique forward and the compositional nous needed to complement the song, but riffs, the building blocks of guitar-driven music, they are the moments that stick with us by design.
This end-of-decade list tells us a few things. It tells us the masters still have plenty sap in the tree, that they have lost little of their power to land a guitar-driven hook. It also shows us that the riff can be bent into new shapes and still work as a musical motif, burying its way into our consciousness.
Your number one is one such riff, a shapeshifter with such a clever rhythmic identity that little wonder it was 13 years in the making.
1. Tool - 7empest
Guitarist: Adam Jones
The year’s most anticipated record, Fear Inoculum is a typically challenging long-form exercise in the careful evolution of Tool’s sound.
It’s a heady work of atmospherics, with Adam Jones at times occupying himself with the layering of textures, swells of feedback, but then he’ll play something like 7empest and pin it all on a succession of riffs bearing his unique rhythmic fingerprint, and that glorious tone.
There’s no-one else on this astral plane who plays the guitar like this.
2. Dream Theater - Paralyzed
Guitarist: John Petrucci
A mid-tempo lunker to remind anyone who needs reminding that however expansive John Petrucci’s musical vision for Dream Theater might be, it’s all rooted in the primal architecture of the heavy metal riff.
Here it’s as though Petrucci mapped out the notes, then played around until he found the pocket of the groove, and when everyone joins in that’s when the magic happens and it all comes together.
3. Arctic Monkeys - Do I Wanna Know?
Guitarists: Jamie Cook, Alex Turner
Now here’s a lesson in how space can make a riff pop, and, heck, give it a sense of the profound. Do I Wanna Know? is played at a slack tempo, a late-night groove, and it shouldn’t be any faster, for this is exactly what the song needs.
Like the best riffs, it’s simple, the song structure is simple, and yet it’s to Cook and Turner’s eternal credit that it sounds so full.
4. Metallica - Atlas, Rise!
Guitarists: James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett
A vintage Hetfield haymaker that sounds as though it may have reentered the Earth’s atmosphere after traveling forward through time from 1989.
Certainly, Hardwired… saw Metallica hooking their old thrash sound up to some crude lightning to reanimate it for the 21st century. An ever-present on the setlist, it’s another city-leveler from Hetfield’s jackhammer right hand.
5. The Black Keys - Lonely Boy
Guitarist: Dan Auerbach
How do you know when Dan Auerbach’s riff on Lonely Boy is working? Is it when it has you reaching for the guitar? Maybe. Because it makes you want to dance? Well, sure. But really it’s when it’s stuck in your head for the day, with a groove that won’t quit, a Billy Gibbons move if ever there was one.
What is really so cool about this one is Auerbach’s use of a Boss PS-5 Super Shifter, ably demonstrating just how you can augment blues-rock with modern gear and reinvent it for the next generation.
6. Alter Bridge - Still Remains
Guitarist: Mark Tremonti, Myles Kennedy
Where many of the riffs on this list are notable for their simplicity, here’s one that’ll twist you into a pretzel in your efforts to replicate its exotic rhythm and on-point phrasing.
The note choice, of course, really makes it pop, but the tempo and rhythm construct an almighty groove that’s one of Alter Bridge’s finest moments on record.
7. Ghost - Cirice
Guitarist: A Nameless Ghoul
Ghost’s sense of the theatrical has always leaned towards the melodramatic, with a sound that’s pitched somewhere between Candlemass’s stately operatic doom, King Diamond’s diabolica in musica, and classic rock deep cuts, and Cirice articulates this perfectly.
It’s everything that Ghost is about; it’s not as though the riff is super-simple, but it has an undead, automatic quality nonetheless, testimony to the instinctual power of riff-writing.
8. Gojira - Stranded
Guitarists: Joe Duplantier, Christian Andreu
When the world first heard Gojira it was like seeing an electrical storm for the first time, as Joe Duplantier and Christian Andreu bent an ostensibly death-metal sound into new forms.
But six albums in, Stranded proved they still had the capacity to catch us unawares, applying a DigiTech Whammy pedal to further distance the lead riff from its melodic responsibilities. After all, it is such alien rhythms that get you moving.
9. Polyphia - G.O.A.T.
Guitarists: Timothy Henson, Scott LePage
To listen to G.O.A.T. for the first time is to grasp desperately for pop-cultural references to anchor you in this world, but somehow they are not even to put what Polyphia are doing in a broader context. Really, how could they?
There is a Zappa-esque playfulness, there’s metal - sort of - an avowedly 21st-century jazz-metal sensibility, funk... But it’s the execution, the expert-level showmanship, and the sheer imagination that makes it.
10. Black Sabbath - God is Dead?
Guitarist: Tony Iommi
Having invented heavy metal, before delivering at least seven, arguably eight stone-cold classic albums that took the craft further, Tony Iommi has done his bit and then some for the black t-shirt demographic.
But on 13, Sabbath’s ultimate studio album, he proves that the talent for expressing the uncanny and the baleful in distorted guitar is undiminished by time, with God is Dead a typically slow-handed, serpentine work of the macabre.
11. Van Halen - She’s the Woman
Guitarist: Eddie Van Halen
We all too often get carried away by EVH’s pyrotechnic lead playing that we forget his rhythm chops reside in a similar state of off-the-charts ridiculousness.
She’s the Woman is a timely reminder that - as the greatest hard-rock player of all time - the man behind Panama, Atomic Punk, Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love and so on is equally blessed in riff-writing.
His style is super-kinetic, employing pedal points, harmonic squawks and little conversational asides, and She’s the Woman is just so... Eddie Van Halen.
12. Gary Clark Jr. - Bright Lights
Guitarist: Gary Clark Jr.
First off, Gary Clark Jr.’s tone is ridiculous on this. Secondly, for all he has this chameleonic quality to his sound, absorbing the blues and taking it into a contemporary context of his making, Clark has the ability to make the riff wholly at peace with the song, letting it dissolve within the groove.
This is another great use of space; just let the groove groove and all will be well.
13. Greta Van Fleet - When the Curtain Falls
Guitarist: Jake Kiszka
Jake Kiszka sure didn’t invent this sound, and there’s no way you can listen to Greta Van Fleet without thinking of classic rock titans of yore, and Led Zeppelin in particular, especially here, but what When the Curtain Falls lacks in originality it makes up for in conviction, and Kiszka is seriously gifted in the art of using what sounds like a bluesy turnaround as a motif that snakes around the jam and holds it all together. His tone is righteous, too.
14. Daft Punk ft. Pharrell Williams - Get Lucky
Guitarist: Nile Rogers
What price could one put on Nile Roger’s wrist? Watching his right-hand as he plays, it’s as though it is spring-loaded, and his immaculate playing on this Daft Punk/Pharrell Williams mega-hit is as sweet as you’ll hear.
It’s a shining example of disco-funk guitar’s soft power in establishing melody, rhythm and emotional cadence in song.
15. Muse - Reapers
Guitarist: Matt Bellamy
Reapers features every trick in Matt Bellamy’s book. The playing here is phenomenal, its technical dexterity matched only by its imagination, but, again, as with the likes of Petrucci, Bellamy knows instinctively when to trust his instincts and hang the song on something simple.
It’s a groove, a big human footprint in a Muse sound that can be a dizzying, alien soundscape.
16. Alice in Chains - Stone
Guitarists: Jerry Cantrell, William DuVall
It’s the string bend that pulls the audience out of its comfort zone. Jerry Cantrell leans all the way into it here, and it makes Stone gnarly, for sure, but it also gives it a haunting, mourning quality.
Hell, it sounds like someone is in pain, a dinosaur with a bone tusk in its side. But that’s what AIC specialize in, creating bestial moments and resolving them in a a chorus. This has to be one of the most satisfying riffs to play, and the louder the better.
17. Foo Fighters - Rope
Guitarists: Dave Grohl, Chris Shiflett
The song starts with some tape echo on some chord stabs and then falls into a staccato groove that’s quite alien for Foo Fighters.
But songwriting, as Dave Grohl well knows, is all about tension and release, and the verse riff of Rope is 100 per cent tension - as close to math rock as you’ll find the Foos - that’s just waiting for the invigorating release of a chorus.
18. Joe Satriani - God is Crying
Guitarist: Joe Satriani
As one of Satch’s finest moments, Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards deserved something special like this to close it.
God is Crying reminds us that Satriani’s sound is rooted in hard rock and that is a business in which you don’t get anywhere if you don’t know how to put a riff together.
Of course, being Joe Satriani, it’s always going to go somewhere melodically, and somewhere special at that.
19. Animals as Leaders - Physical Education
Guitarist: Tosin Abasi
It might be accurate to call this djent but it feels a little redundant to confine what Abasi is doing here to a sub-genre of metal. Here, we have Abasi’s rhythmic sensibilities working in close collaboration with his melodic ambition.
This is a riff, sure, but it’s one you’d be hard-pressed to hum. On this list, Nile Rogers’ Get Lucky is its closest in terms of approach and playing.
20. St. Vincent - Cruel
Guitarist: Annie Clark aka St. Vincent
The genius with St. Vincent is always in her appreciation of the composition as a whole, and where her guitar can lift it. This is another bravura exercise in using space to enhance the efficacy of the guitar parts.
That sounds like we’re talking about a heating ventilation system in some office block, but really, songwriting is a form of construction, one piece at a time.
When it comes time for St. Vincent’s riff, it’s simple, it’s kinetic, and it speaks the audience’s language. That’s what riffs do; they talk to us.