September 2, 2023
Music History

Weekly survey: What’s the best guitar riff of all time?

The guitar riff is the foundation of so much of the rock canon. It’s that catchy repeating hook, often played down low on the guitar, that draws you into the song and then forms the basis (most of the time) for the rest of the song.

Technically, a riff is known as an ostinato, a concept that goes back centuries. Ravel’s “Bolero” is an example of a classical music riff.

According to my diligent research, the word “riff” may have been derived from the phrase “rhythmic figure.” Jazz great Charlie Parker is credited with popularizing the word with the release of a composition entitled “Thriving on Riff” in 1945.

So here’s the question for the week: What’s the best guitar rock riff of all time? Remember that there are no wrong answers. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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16 thoughts on “Weekly survey: What’s the best guitar riff of all time?

  • A lot of great ones mentioned on the link posted. Most surprised not to see The White Stripes, ‘Seven Nation Army’ on that list. Not sure if it’s best of all time but surely deserves an honourable mention.

  • Nine Inch Nails – Heresy (1:06 mark)

  • The Beatles – Day Tripper.

  • The real question is “What’s the worst riff of all time”

  • T. Rex, 20th Century Boy.

  • Jumpin’ Jack Flash!

  • Bo Diddley. How is this even a debate.

  • Stairway to Heaven

  • Cat Scratch Fever

  • Whole Lotta Love. China Grove. Pretty well anything by Hendrix. Roadhouse Blues. Strange Brew. Slow Ride. But if I had to vote it would be You Really Got Me….Kinks Version.

  • I Wanna Be Your Dog – The Stooges
    The Fly – U2
    If 6 Was 9 – Jimi Hendrix
    Natural’s Not in It – Gang of Four
    Youth Against Facism – Sonic Youth
    Living Well is the Best Revenge – R.E.M.

  • If I hold a guitar and let my mind and fingers wander, I will almost inevitably catch myself playing the riff from the main verse of Last Chance for a Slow Dance by Fugazi. It’s hypnotic.

  • Lots to chose from, but no single one!

    China Grove, Black Dog, Raindow’s “Power”, Won’t get fooled again, Carry on Wayward son and almost anything by Tom Shultz or Boston


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