The Best Guitar Riffs of All Time Collection
Learn legendary guitar riffs and the history behind the songs, artists, and lyrics.
By Perry Martin and Ben Nemeroff
There are tons of guitar riffs out there, but only a few have become deeply ingrained and ubiquitous in pop culture. 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.
Whether it’s the chugging heavy chords of "Smoke on the Water" or the groovy licks that fill your airspace throughout "Can't You Hear Me Knocking", some of the best guitar riffs moments of songs are the riffs and licks that define them.
In this article, we'll cover how to play these six famous guitar riffs, perfect for beginners:
- "My Girl" - The Temptations
- "Smoke on the Water" - Deep Purple
- "Rebel Rebel" - David Bowie
- "Mannish Boy" - Muddy Waters
- "When I Come Around" - Green Day
- "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" - The Rolling Stones
Fender Play features tons of lessons that get you learning some of the most memorable riffs in just a few minutes! For a list of our favorite riffs and solos, check out the full Riff & Solos Collection in Fender Play.
What is a Guitar Riff?
A riff in music, a riff is a repeated sequence of notes or chords. A guitar riff is often catchy and helps give structure and character to a piece of music. Riffs most commonly appear in rock, funk, jazz, and Latin music, though they can be found in almost any genre of music. A riff can be a wide range of things - from a melodic lead line that is repeated throughout a song, to a particular chord progression, to even just a single note played with a unique rhythm. Most musicians use the term to describe any musical idea that exists within a song.
A riff can be a wide range of things - from a melodic lead line that is repeated throughout a song, to a particular chord progression, to even just a single note played with a unique rhythm. Most musicians use the term to describe any musical idea that exists within a song. Sometimes, you’ll hear a riff referred to as a hook, a lick, or (less commonly) a lead line. Riffs are played by lead guitarists – or if a band has two or more guitarists – as well as rhythm guitarists.
When you think of some of the most memorable songs and guitar riffs of all time, they share many similar qualities:
• Repetition - You’ll hear a guitar riff throughout a given song at various points. For instance, you may hear a riff in the intro, throughout the verse, and even on the chorus.
• Keeping it simple - While some guitarists are brilliant technicians, even beginners with a feel for rhythm and melody can create (or play) a great guitar riff. Because a guitar riff often repeats throughout a song, you don’t want it to be too complicated to play. It can consist of a few notes, chords, or a combination of the two.
• Syncopation and rhythm - A great guitar riff has a rhythmic quality all its own. It may stand alone before the bass and drums kick in, or be played right alongside those critical rhythmic components. However, a solid guitar riff will set the tone and pace (quite literally) for a song.
• Originality - The greatest guitar riffs of all time don’t sound like anything that’s come before. Individuality – and an artist putting their indelible stamp on a song – is part of creating a memorable riff.
Famous Guitar Riffs
1. My Girl - The Temptations
The Temptations' first #1 hit “My Girl” has one of the most famous guitar riffs of all time, and is a great riff for beginner guitarists to learn. This riff is immediately recognizable and will introduce you to some simple lead techniques like alternate picking.
When The Temptations first heard this song, they knew they had to have it. And that's why they convinced its writers - Smokey Robinson and Ronald White of The Miracles not to record it themselves. The bass line gives "My Girl" a heartbeat like no other song before or after it. You'll feel your heart beating too as you play along to one of the most soulful relics of 1964.
Learn the "My Girl" riff on guitar.
Read this article for more information on C Major which is the main chord used in this song.
2. Smoke on the Water - Deep Purple
While riffs can be played by really any instrument in the band, typically, riffs are associated with guitar and can often be the driving force behind a song. In fact, some of the best guitar riffs are so memorable that they become the defining characteristic or idea in a song, despite not being played throughout the entire piece. For instance, the chugging guitar line that’s played during the verse of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” is the standout part of the song. Watch Glenn Brigman of Triptides talk about the various ways to play that iconic guitar riff on Fender Play LIVE:
When Deep Purple sat down for dinner in Montreux, Switzerland on December 4, 1971, they likely had no idea they would witness a casino fire at a Frank Zappa show nearby. Zappa had to stop the show after a fire was caused by an audience member shooting two flares that landed near the corner of the building. "Smoke on the Water" is about that fire on the night Zappa, who is referenced in the first verse, would lose all his equipment. Give your guitar a hug because you never know what the future can bring.
Learn the "Smoke on the Water" riff on Fender Play.
Check out this article for more information on the history of Deep Purple and "Smoke on the Water."
Click this link for our current stock of Mustang electric guitars like the one used in this video.
3. Rebel Rebel - David Bowie
In some cases, a guitar riff can provide a melodic background that the entire song is based around. A great example of this is “Rebel Rebel” by David Bowie. The song opens with a fantastic first position riff that Bowie himself played on the record, and its simple yet catchy hook provides the basis for the rest of the song.
The riff to “Rebel, Rebel” is a fun one for guitarists of all skill levels play. It incorporates single notes alongside a full E chord for flavor. Beginner guitarists also get a taste of arpeggio, learning to break down a chord into its single-note components, giving this riff the refined-yet-rough sound so emblematic of the glam rock genre that Bowie helped popularize.
In the early 1970s, the "Glam Rock" era hit London by storm bringing extravagant stage shows and often times flamboyant makeup and hairstyles to the rock scene. In this song, Bowie seems to define the genre with lyrics telling the story of a young boy who revolts against his parents by wearing feminine clothing. "Rebel Rebel" is a reminder to us all to never compromise who we are or who we want to become.
Check out this episode of Fender Play LIVE to get a crash course in playing “Rebel, Rebel” by David Bowie with guitarist Izzy Fontaine and host Eugene Edwards. You’ll also get a chance to hear how this scorching riff plays alongside the song’s bassline, with Angels & Airwaves bassist Matt Rubano.
Learn the guitar riff from “Rebel Rebel” on Fender Play.
Read this article teaching E Major which is the main chord used in the song.
4. Mannish Boy - Muddy Waters
Perhaps one of the most recognizable blues guitar riffs, "Mannish Boy" has been covered by countless artists, and included in the "Classics of Blues Recordings" category in the Blues Hall of fame. In this blues standard, the riff is a simple pentatonic sequence that leaves plenty of space for adding your own personal flourishes. For Waters, this song must have served as a declaration of being a man. If so, then he would have appreciated all three of the films it has been featured in - The Long Kiss Goodnight, Risky Business, and Goodfellas.
The riff to “Mannish Boy” makes use of several two-note power chords that repeat throughout. Built around the pentatonic scale, it’s just that factor that gives this riff its murky, gritty quality. “Mannish Boy”’s main riff carries throughout the song and is perfect for beginner blues guitarists to learn, as all of the power chords used to play it are in the open position.
Muddy Waters’ influenced countless blues players with his simple-yet-potent riff on “Mannish Boy.” It’s one that “you know it when you hear it” and can pinpoint its structure in such blues and blues-rock songs as George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone,” “Born Under a Bad Sign” by blues great Albert King, and “Dust My Broom” by Elmore James.
Learn the full "Mannish Boy" lesson on Fender Play.
5. When I Come Around - Green Day
Released in 1994, “When I Come Around” introduced punk band Green Day to mainstream fans and ushered in a wave of pop-punk. Propelled forward by a simple, yet catchy riff, “When I Come Around” has a bottom-heavy bounce to it. While it’s definitely one-of-a-kind, there are multiple ways to play this riff. Beginner guitarists can start off playing it with single notes, then build to a more advanced version that uses a series of fifth chords (better known as “power chords”).
In under two minutes, you can learn to play an easy version of the main guitar riff to “When I Come Around.” The riff is played with single notes, starting with the second fret of the Low E string. Play the second fret of the low E three times. Next, jump over to the fourth fret of the next string - the A string. Play that note three times.
Finally, slide your fingers from the fourth fret to the sixth fret of the A string. Play that note twice before sliding your finger back over to the seventh fret of the Low E string and playing that note once.
Practice the finger patterns on your own a few times. Then, watch the video below to play along and get a rhythm for the riff yourself.
Want to challenge yourself a bit more? The power chord version of the riff to “When I Come Around” also skates between the fourth and sixth frets as your starting point, but also weaves in palm muting techniques and syncopated strumming for that chugging, percussive quality that’s so integral to a memorable riff.
The idea for this song comes from a time back in 1990 when lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong was having trouble maintaining a long distance relationship with his then girlfriend Adrienne Nesser at the age of 18. Four years later, during Green Day's rise to fame, Billie and Adrienne would wed. They are still happily married today with two children.
Learn the song "When I Come Around" on Fender Play.
6. Can’t You Hear Me Knocking - The Rolling Stones
The year is 1971. The US lands three men on the moon with Apollo 14 and passes Amendment 26 lowering the voting age to 18. You are back in your dorm room listening to master riff creator Keith Richards, and not studying for tomorrow's math exam. When it comes to The Rolling Stones, the riffs are as memorable as the songs themselves. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and crew have a way of transporting their listeners, even if that sometimes means far away from studying for the math exam.
The riff to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” incorporates a ton of Keith Richards’ bluesy techniques. What makes this a great one for beginners looking to grow as a guitarist, is riff’s focus on crispy-yet-dirty alternate strumming and picking, which can help you build up speed. Slides, hammer-ons, and bent notes used in this riff are great for guitarists looking to get more nimble with their fret work, while double stops and string muting really lean into the rhythm of the riff.
Learn the riff from "Can't You Hear My Knocking" on Fender Play.
“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” is a blistering classic rock riff that’ll introduce you to open tunings and Keith’s signature hammer-on chords. Here is an easy lesson on how to tune to "open G" which is required for this song.
Quick Lesson - Open G Guitar Tuning
Open G Guitar Tuning Chart
The great thing about guitar riffs is that they are often simple phrases, making them easier to learn than learning an entire song. Oftentimes learning a riff can be just as satisfying as learning a song from top to bottom and can be a fun way to learn something new (and impress your friends!).
Learn more with Guitar Riff Lessons on Fender Play
Whether you’re a beginner guitarist or a more seasoned player looking for new ways to beef up your technique, Fender Play can help you level up. Learn chords, riffs, songs, and more with bite-sized video lessons that let you learn and play at your own pace – whenever and wherever you want. Start your free trial of Fender Play today.