There’s a bit of magic in that mystical combination of notes that makes up a good riff. And there’s no perfect formula for success. Sometimes it takes a pile of rapid-fire shots to do the trick. In other cases, it only takes three.
Gibson.com recently called upon its editors, writers and – most importantly – readers, to weigh in on the greatest riffs in music history. After all the votes were tallied, we were left with the Top 50 Guitar Riffs of All Time. We’ve already revealed #50-41, #40-31, #30-21 and #20-11. Without further ado, Gibson.com is proud to unveil the Top 10 Guitar Riffs of All Time!
10. “Sunshine of Your Love,” Cream (1967)
One of the prototypical “riff songs,” “Sunshine Of Your Love” – from 1967’s Disraeli Gears – is built on a sinister-sounding repeating figure which hints at almost supernatural overtones – a vibe that plays upon the psychedelic blues-rock trio’s colorful, visual edge while also drawing attention to their musical powers. Legend has it that the riff itself was written by vocalist/bassist Jack Bruce after he and bandmate Eric Clapton attended a Jimi Hendrix concert at the Saville Theatre in London. Lyricist Pete Brown worked his poetic magic, and Clapton contributed the bridge that gave the song its title. Clapton used his 1964 Gibson SG on the song, revolutionizing its famed “woman tone” in the process. It’s interesting to note that Hendrix obviously felt a connection with the song he inspired, as he performed it regularly at shows throughout 1968 and 1969. – Peter Hodgson
9. “Walk This Way,” Aerosmith (1975)
Joe Perry’s opening riff on “Walk this Way” is pure rock and roll genius. When the song was released as a single in August of ’75, it became an instant classic, as much for Perry’s riff as for Steven Tyler’s lyrics. As simple as the riff sounds to the ears – just a few notes climbing up, then the same few notes descending back down – it’s very original in composition and sound. Lots of classic 20th century riffs are derivative of others; the riff on “Walk this Way” stands alone. – Sean Patrick Dooley
8. “Day Tripper,” The Beatles (1965)
This brilliant riff for the 1965 Beatles hit, recorded during the sessions for the Rubber Soul album, was written by John Lennon. The riff’s slightly loopy feel foreshadowed The Beatles’ move toward a more psychedelic sound, a point driven home by the “tripper” reference and other subtle lyric cues. Oddly enough, however, the song sprung from a style that was very traditional. “‘Day Tripper’ was [written] under complete pressure, based on an old folk song I wrote about a month previous,” Lennon later revealed, according to The Beatles Anthology. “It was very hard going, and it sounds it.” Just days after recording “Day Tripper,” Paul McCartney came up with “We Can Work it Out,” which was deemed to be the more commercial of the two tracks. Lennon held firm to his belief in “Day Tripper,” however, and the songs were released together as a double-A-sided single. – Russell Hall
7. “You Really Got Me,” The Kinks (1964)
It has been argued – convincingly – that heavy metal starts here, with the opening barrage from Dave Davies on The Kinks’ 1964 hit single, “You Really Got Me.” The driving power chords certainly kicked Pete Townshend into gear as a songwriter, and behind him a steady stream of guitarists looking to capture the raw essence of hard rock. Ray Davies later claimed that he, himself, was inspired to write the riff by The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie,” but with all due respect to that frat-house classic, it’s a bit like saying a pop gun inspired the Howitzer. – Michael Wright
6. “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana (1991)
Whether you worship at the altar of Nirvana or scoff at the band’s “saviors of rock” legacy, it’s tough to deny the sting of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” riff. Assembled from four power chords by Kurt Cobain, the riff became one of rock’s most iconic in a relatively short time. The double-tracked, roaring riff formed the “loud” part of the song’s loud-quiet-loud dynamic, which Cobain said was inspired by The Pixies. Since most people couldn’t understand what Kurt was singing, you can credit the riff’s catchiness (Cobain would later call it clichéd and compare it to Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”) for the song’s success – #6 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also propelled Nevermind to bump The King of Pop from the top of the charts. That’s one powerful riff. – Bryan Wawzenek
5. “Back in Black,” AC/DC (1980)
Angus Young channeled the rock and roll gods when he conjured the opening riff for the title track to AC/DC’s Back in Black album. The song was their way of paying tribute to the band’s fallen singer, Bon Scott. Three staccato-hard, crunchy chords – E, D, A – then a sliding, bending scale back down to E. The riff is unique, bone-crushing, and it instantly grabs your attention. Angus has created some sick riffs in his day, but none sicker than this ode to a lost friend. – Sean Patrick Dooley
4. “Iron Man,” Black Sabbath (1970)
Sinister, menacing and filled with foreboding, “Iron Man” remains, for many, the heaviest heavy metal riff of all time. In 2008, Tony Iommi told Gibson.com that the riff came to him during a rehearsal. “It was one of those occasions when I said, ‘I’ve got a riff, I’ll come up with something.’ Then I just built it … it just sort of happened.” Adding to the riff’s power is the fact that Ozzy Osbourne chose to double the guitar part with his vocal, an approach the singer often took with Sabbath songs. Hearing the riff for the first time, Osbourne remarked that it sounded “like a big iron bloke walking about.” So dark were “Iron Man” and other Sabbath riff-rockers, early critics often overlooked the melodic power at their core. Black Sabbath were in fact huge Beatles fans who simply wanted to give their material a frightening twist. “It was something different,” Iommi said, “something about supernatural things.” – Russell Hall
3. “Whole Lotta Love,” Led Zeppelin (1969)
Jimmy Page can claim more than a few of the greatest riffs in rock, and Led Zeppelin fans will always debate which one is the best. But none packs more swagger than the riff that drives “Whole Lotta Love.” Page played the heavy blues riff on his Sunburst ’59 Les Paul Standard, although there’s some debate as to where and when the riff originated. Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones said it came out of an in-concert jam for “Dazed and Confused” and other sources attribute it to another concert improvisation, but Page has claimed that it was one of the riffs he wrote during rehearsals for Led Zeppelin II. The song became an instant classic and was performed at every subsequent Zeppelin gig (often as the closer). – Bryan Wawzenek
2. “Smoke on the Water,” Deep Purple (1972)
They are, quite simply, the holy chords of rock. By guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s standards, “Smoke on the Water” is actually a pretty simplistic riff, considering this is the same mage who summoned “Lazy,” “Burn,” “Woman from Tokyo,” “Man on the Silver Mountain” and a host of other alchemic finger-twisters. But the impact of “Nuh. Nuh. Nuh. Nuh. Nuh. Nuh-uh. (etc., etc.)” is undeniable. Ask any music store clerk, any marching band director or any guitarist worth his salt and they’ll all tell you that those driving chords are a core component of the universal language of rock. – Michael Wright
1. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” The Rolling Stones (1965)
No other riff has ever captured the essence of rock and roll as succinctly, elegantly and infectiously as the one for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” With just a handful of notes, Keith Richards crafted a guitar-based mantra upon which rock’s rebellious spirit could be perfectly hung. The riff came to Richards in his sleep, and he woke up just long enough to record the part on a portable cassette player. The band later recorded an acoustic version at the Chess facility in Chicago, and then did the definitive version – using a Gibson distortion pedal – at RCA Studios in Hollywood. Remarkably, Richards at first envisioned the riff as a horn line. “The fuzz tone came in handy so I could give a shape to what the horns [would later] do,” he writes, in his biography. “But the fuzz tone had never been heard before anywhere, and that’s the sound that caught everybody’s imagination.” Nearly a half-century later, it still does. – Russell Hall
Votes for the Top 50 Guitar Riffs of All Time were included from Michael Wright, Bryan Wawzenek, Andrew Vaughan, Sean Dooley, Cesar Acevedo, Russell Hall, Ted Drozdowski, Paolo Bassotti, Peter Hodgson, Bart Walsh (David Lee Roth), Jeff Cease (Black Crowes, Eric Church) and the Gibson.com Readers Poll.