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

Much of the rock music canon has been built on the foundation of the riff, that magical collection of notes and chords played on a guitar, the progression that anchors the song.

The riff is the thing that captures your attention and drags you into the song. It’s a reoccurring theme that shows up again and again within the track.  It’s so identifiable that if you just hear the riff, you automatically know the song.

Think the opening bits of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” Kurt Cobain hammering E A G C at the beginning of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or any one of a thousand AC/DC songs.

A “riff” is different than a “lick,” which is a cool guitar bit but isn’t as complete as a riff. (Here’s an attempt to explain the difference.)

But which riff is the best of all time? There’s no right answer to this question, obviously, but I’m looking to gather as many individual opinions as possible.

No rules here except that I’m looking for riffs, not licks. And yes, there is such a thing as a bass riff. And while there are keyboard bits that can be described as riffs, let’s just focus on the six- and four-string variety.

Here are some classics to get you thinking. They are examples only, not suggestions.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ 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.

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

  • July 23, 2018 at 10:11 am
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    Ozzy – Crazy Train – RR was a wizard
    GnR – Sweet Child – Such a memorable riff

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  • July 23, 2018 at 10:13 am
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    Riffs-Gimme Shelter-Stones, gotta be right up there

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  • July 23, 2018 at 10:37 am
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    Wolf Alice – Moaning Lisa Smile -I’m glad to see there are great new riffs.

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  • July 23, 2018 at 11:28 am
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    Stevie Ray Vaughan – Pride and Joy

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  • July 23, 2018 at 11:39 am
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    Not sure it’s the best riff ever, but the Rolling Stones’ “Monkey Man” is certainly the sleaziest.

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  • July 23, 2018 at 12:16 pm
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    Hi Alan. For me, David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” is the one that always makes me stop what I’m doing in order to crank it up to 11.

    For additional brain fodder, you mentioned guitar riffs, bass riffs and keyboard riffs. I wonder if vocal riffs are an actual thing? Not just great verses and choruses… but actual vocal riffs, in the same sense that guitar riffs exist? In The Sweet’s “Fox on the Run”, it seems to me there’s more going on than just a great verse and chorus being sung. Brian Connelly really seemed to “riff” it out with his power voice.

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  • July 23, 2018 at 1:03 pm
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    Heart – Crazy on You
    Sweet – Love is like Oxygen
    Rolling Stones (so many choices) – Can’t you hear me Knocking

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  • July 23, 2018 at 1:46 pm
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    Just Got Paid by the one and only ZZ Top!

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  • July 23, 2018 at 3:12 pm
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    Therapy? – Screamager

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  • July 23, 2018 at 4:01 pm
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    White Stripes – Seven Nation Army
    Led Zeppelin – Black Dog
    Metallica – Enter Sandman
    Black Sabbath – Paranoid or Iron Man

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  • July 23, 2018 at 6:28 pm
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    No More Tears- Ozzy for the 4 string variety.

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  • July 23, 2018 at 6:31 pm
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    The Tragically Hip – New Orleans Is Sinking

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  • July 23, 2018 at 8:50 pm
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    Can’t Stop- Red Hot Chili Peppers is my favourite

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  • July 23, 2018 at 10:02 pm
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    19 year old Zakk Wylde’s riff on Miracle Man on 1988 No rest for the wicked.

    Pantera – Mouth For War , Cowboys From Hell
    Metallica – Master Of Puppets
    Anything White Lion’s Vitto Bratta has ever played.

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  • July 23, 2018 at 11:27 pm
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    Bad finger – Baby Blue

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  • July 23, 2018 at 11:34 pm
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    Xanadu by Rush.

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  • July 24, 2018 at 10:50 am
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    The opening riff to The Hollies “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress”, which is only repeated as an intro, is no less recognizable as an integral part of the song so that it is indelibly linked to the song. Second favourite is the pounding riff of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” which recurs throughout the song.

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    • July 30, 2018 at 3:24 am
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      The Hollies stole the riff from Marc Bolan and T.Rex. They even had the nerve to repeat “Get it on” several times at the end of the song.

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  • July 24, 2018 at 5:12 pm
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    Back In black ac/dc. Both 4 and 6 string riffs.

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  • July 28, 2018 at 9:52 pm
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    Sweet Child O’ Mine. Who can’t name that song in two seconds m?

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  • July 28, 2018 at 10:28 pm
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    Today – Smashing Pumpkins

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  • July 30, 2018 at 3:28 am
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    My choice- Get It On (Bang A Gong)- Marc Bolan and T.Rex

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