Top 10 Instantly Recognizable Guitar Riffs

By Pauline France

There are tons of guitar riffs out there, but only a few have become deeply ingrained and ubiquitous in pop culture. Our Top 10 Instantly Recognizable Guitar Riffs all have something in common: They’re the ones you can’t wait to learn how to play; the ones you catch yourself humming; the ones that are revered worldwide by musicians and non-musicians alike.

1. “Smoke on the Water” (Deep Purple, 1972)

Raise your hand if this is the riff that inspired you to play guitar. Yeah, we thought so. “Smoke on the Water” has enjoyed widespread popularity since 1972, when guitarist Ritchie Blackmore conjured what is possibly the world’s most famous guitar riff ever. If you teach guitar, it’s very likely that this is the most requested song from your students. If you work at a music store, you probably hear this riff every day.

2. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (Rolling Stones, 1965)

As a whole, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” made a huge impact on rock ‘n’ roll, with a simple yet unbelievably infectious guitar riff that really captivated (and continues to captivate) the masses. According to Rolling Stone magazine, the catchy riff came to Keith Richards in a dream in 1965 in a Clearwater, Fla., motel room during the band’s third U.S. tour.

3. “Crazy Train” (Ozzy Osbourne, 1980)

From debut Osbourne solo album Blizzard of Ozz, “Crazy Train” is epic on many levels. Not only does the song have heavy F# minor riffage going on, but it also has an utterly face-melting solo—all the famously nimble work of late, great guitarist Randy Rhoads. “Crazy Train” has stood strong on the airwaves for more than 30 years, is a popular must-learn on guitar and is a true gift to the senses from beginning to end.

4. “Back in Black” (AC/DC, 1980)

Much like “Crazy Train,” “Back in Black” boasts guitar work of epic proportions, with a killer Angus Young airtight riff and wild soloing. All it takes to recognize this rock classic right off the bat is the powerful opening E chord (or the muffled strumming at the beginning if you’re paying extra attention).

5. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana, 1991)

This supercharged Kurt Cobain chord riff inspires an anarchic sensation of fury and power, and has done so generation after generation since the 1991 release of megahit Nirvana second album Nevermind. Its disarmingly plain structure (four power chords) is so forceful that it continues to dominate best-of song lists to this day (Rolling Stone ranked it ninth among its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time).

6. “Iron Man” (Black Sabbath, 1970)

No other guitar riff is as heavy and ominous as that from quintessential Sabbath proto-metal anthem “Iron Man.” From 1970 blockbuster Paranoid, “Iron Man” has transcended generations, inspiring faithful legions of metal lovers young and old alike to play along with Tony Iommi’s menacing main riff. A playable track on a wildly popular guitar video game, “Iron Man” was featured in the hit 2008 superhero motion picture of the same name and we predict enduringly popular longevity.

7. “Whole Lotta Love” (Led Zeppelin, 1969)

Jimmy Page would easily be a shoo-in for “Greatest Guitar Riff Master of all Time” should such a prestigious title ever be bestowed. Take, for example, one of his greatest riffs—the one from “Whole Lotta Love” on 1969’s Led Zeppelin II. Between the blues-y and strikingly heavy main phrase and the jaw-dropping solo work, this song is the embodiment of musical ecstasy.

8) “Sunshine of Your Love” – Cream (1967)

Alluringly ultra-catchy, 1967 Cream hit “Sunshine of Your Love” is anchored by a memorable Eric Clapton/Jack Bruce tandem riff that has achieved true immortality. The memorable descending riff has since made numerous film and television appearances, including School of Rock, Goodfellas, The Simpsons and more. And like Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” it’s also a track on a popular guitar video game.

9. “Purple Haze” (Jimi Hendrix, 1967)

Another great 1967 riff is the staccato psychedelic blast that launches Jimi Hendrix classic “Purple Haze.” There’s no denying that this hit and its sonically stunning riff worked magic on generations of musicians, and we can attribute its arrival to a dream Hendrix had one night. In a 1969 New Musical Express interview, Hendrix said “Purple Haze” was all about a dream he had in which he found himself walking beneath the sea.

10. “Walk This Way” (Aerosmith, 1975)

Like the nine riffs listed above, “Walk This Way” has stood the test of time for several decades, and it’s no surprise—Joe Perry’s funky-blues-y riff is unbelievably contagious, especially combined with the rapid-fire vocal delivery. This a song that moves. Plus, with all those positively nasty power-chord extensions and killer soloing, it has to be one of the most guitar-friendly songs ever written.


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