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Musical Interlude: E-A-B-E-A-B-A-E-A-B-E-A

Let's take a moment to step away from all this madness and argue about a topic that really means something: The top guitar riffs of all time. Total Guitar magazine in the UK put out a list of the 100 greatest guitar riffs ever. I don't have the time right now to get into the reasons why I think Smoke on the Water should be higher up, so consider this an open discussion while I get some real work done. The only thing I have to add to this is that this list seems to be an exact copy of my son's list of mastered guitar riffs. Even eleven year old rock stars need to know the classics, of course. Here's the top twenty: 1. Sweet Child O' Mine - Guns N' Roses 2. Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana 3. Whole Lotta Love - Led Zeppelin 4. Smoke On The Water - Deep Purple 5. Enter Sandman - Metallica 6. Layla - Derek & The Dominoes/Eric Clapton 7. Master Of Puppets - Metallica 8. Back In Black - AC/DC 9. Voodoo Child - Jimi Hendrix 10. Paranoid - Black Sabbath 11. Crazy Train - Ozzy Osbourne 12. All Right Now - Free 13. Plug In Baby - Muse 14. Black Dog - Led Zeppelin 15. Aint Talkin' 'Bout Love - Van Halen 16. Walk This Way - Aerosmith 17. Sunshine Of Your Love - Cream 18. No-One Knows - Queens Of The Stone Age 19. Paradise City - Guns N` Roses 20. Killing In The Name - Rage Against The Machine. Discuss.


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What about Pink Floyd? Nothing by Pink Floyd? Or how about Zappa?

Any list of top riffs that does not include at least one entry by the Rolling Stones is not worth being propagated.

That is all.

Ditto Pink Floyd, I'll specifically nominate "Wish You Were Here."

"Ironman" or "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath?

"Barracuda" by Heart?

I'd swap "Smoke on the Water" for "Sweet Child O'Mine." It's THE classic guitar riff IMO.

"Cities On Flame", by Blue Oyster Cult: the first true voice of American heavy metal.


Reelin' in the Years isn't here?


Umm... how about "Over the Mountain"? Not only is that a kickass riff, but it also has the best guitar solo ever.

And where's "Master of Puppets"?

I also think Pantera's "Hollow" has a nifty riff, too.

I nominate:

"Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult
"Shoot To Thrill" by AC/DC
"Panama" by Van Halen
"Starship Trooper" by Yes
"Sober" by Tool

"Spirit of Radio" by Rush should be on there. Not everyone likes Rush, but Alex Lifeson's intro is more distinctive than quite a few of the choices on the list.

"What I like about you" by the Romantics comes to mind, too. More of a chord progression than a riff I suppose, though.

Where is Joe Walsh's "Walk Away"?

Duane Allman's Fillmore East version of "Whipping Post"?

Bind Faith "Sea of Joy"?

wha, no "Rock You Like a Hurricane?"

or maybe some Cult "Wild Flower"?

or how about the Crue's "Public Enemy #1"?

oh shit, how about Def Lep's "Photograph"? fuck, everybody knows that one.

I have to say: What were they smokin'?
Honestly, the only reason sweet child o mine would be number 1 would be to tick people off. I mean, c'mon. It's not even the best guns n roses lick, nor is paradise city (Welcome to the Jungle would be much more riff-friendly).

Ditto many of the mentions above - especially pink floyd's "wish you were here" and some Rolling Stones song.

Plug In Baby? Puh-leeze.

Another: "Secret Agent Man", by Johnny Rivers.

On the matter of Frank Zappa: he was the single most-accomplished band leader in all of rock history. All his bands were superbly trained in what I've called "composed improvisation". He drilled his bands on "modules" of melody and time signature, which he would signal onstage like a quarterback calling audibles at the line of scrimage after noting defensive alignments.

The "modules" technique was crafted to suit his moods and improvisational impulses. He used a complex set of signals onstage to call the changes. For instance, he would twirl his fingers as if
playing with a Rasta braid on his head. That meant "Play reggae", and the band would instantly shift rhythmic gears, even if the melody was the first two measures of "God Bless America". He would grab his crotch to signal "Big Balls", and the band went to "heavy metal", no matter what the melody was. He could instantly re-style the tune, live, onstage.

(I'm getting to the point, here...)

He also drilled a complete set of what he called "Archtypical American Musical Icons", including "the Twilight Zone texture", the "Mister Rogers texture", the "Jaws texture", and (in his words) "Things that sound either exactly like or very similar to 'Louie Louie'."

Get it? "Louie Louie" is, indeed, an "Archtypical American Musical Icon". It's as emblematic of the rock impulse as another one that Michele endorses ("Smoke On The Water"), every bit as theoretically simple but difficult to actually groove, and it predates "Smoke" by ten years in real time and whole eras in the rock chronicle.

These are all pretty good riffs. Have to agree we need some David Gilmour in here somewhere; Money would be my pick - most recognizable (and extra points for something in a 7/4 meter...like mom said, "you don't see that every day").

Pretty Woman has a memorable riff too - also covered nicely by Eddie Van Halen.

My hearing's shot... is Pink Floyd "One Of These Days" riff bass or guitar?

Odd times: how 'bout "Manic Depression", by Jimi Hendrix -- the first waltz (3/4) time in rock music?

Enter Sandman?

What the fuck ever. I'll agree with Mater of Puppets, but "One" had a better riff than Enter Sandman. Besdies, don't they know that everything after (and including) the Black Album SUCKS. ;)

I can't believe I don't see any Steve Vai on there either.

U2. Where the Streets Have No Name. 'Nuff said.

I wasn't really into Metallica until the black album, and then I went back to the old stuff. Other people hate Metallica for "selling out" with the Black album (or is it for finally making videos?) and I think it's a great album. The major reason I never heard them before "One" is cuz no one I knew was into them. I'll be 40 in a month, so it isn't an age thing.

All those riffs are good. I would probably change the order, add some others. Making a top twenty on this topic will always piss a lot of people off.

What technically counts as a riff? I think of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (sub in "Breed"?) as four chords strung together, similar to "More Than a Feeling". Same with "Back in Black" and "Smoke on the Water". Never heard of #13.

In terms of riff minimalism, I prefer RATM's "People of the Sun" to "Killing in the Name".

I'd agree with "Louie Louie".

I'd add Joe Walsh's "Funk 49", Led Zep's "Heartbreaker" and/or "Black Dog", and Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love"

(I think the list is way too heavy on metal. The classic rock riffs have been around longer and are more engrained in the American collective musical psyche.)

Interesting side note about "Smoke on the Water". Just about everyone who learns to play this as a kid plays it wrong. They play it in fifths (power chords), but the actual riff is in fourths.

No Mark Knopher?

Oops. Just noticed Black Dog was on there.

Mark Knophler - sorry!

Yeah, Mary, I'd love to see some Knopfler on there, too. I think just about everyone would recognize the Sultains of Swing riff.

China Grove by the Doobies
Freeway Jam by Jeff Beck
Long Time by Boston
Helter Skelter by the Beatles

Sweet Child O' Mine is a real good one IMHO.

Kinks - You've Really Got Me

Creedence Clearwater Revival -- "Suzie-Q".

I agree with Sultans of Swing. Also, Hotel California. Any long guitar riff you can actually sing is a damn fine extended guitar riff.

"Frankenstein" by the Edgar Winters Group. It should be way near the top.

"American Woman".

I like No-One Knows and all, but top twenty? And I've never heard of "Plug in Baby".

Yeah, I wouldn't count Teen Spirit as a "riff" either. OTOH, every song on that list you know exactly what song it is immediately. The list makes a LOT more sense from that angle.

Ooh, and "Owner of a Lonely Heart". I'm thinking of riffs that I could picture Beavis & Butthead "singing".

If we're going with the Beavis and Butthead method of choosing, then definitely Iron Man and Breakin' the Law.

No Stevie Ray Vaughn??

No ZZ Top? Cheap Sunglasses.

You know what's missing here, don't you? PUNK!

"Should I Stay or Should I Go" by the Clash.
"Teenage Lobotomy" or "Blitzkrieg Bop" by the Ramones

other suggestions?

Hi -

Well, Voodoo Chile (slight return) is what I've been using to "start me up" for almost 5 years now...

But: For a truly fantastic riff, Lark's Tongues in Aspic Pt 1 from King Crimson. Slow build up to a fantastically lush lick. Pt. 2 isn't bad either.

And Johnny Rivers "Secret Agent Man" is one of the first licks my daughter picked out on her Fender acoustic.


Roadhouse Blues - The Doors
Rebel Rebel - D. Bowie
Wild Wild Life - Talking Heads

I'll have to second Roadhouse Blues.

"Life in the Fast Lane"

Folks, there wouldn't even BE such a thing as rock & roll guitar without Chuck Berry. This entire list added together doesn't equal the guitar work in Johnny B Goode...

I don't agree with the list mostly because I differ on what a 'riff' is. A riff to me is really a progressive chord like in 'Start Me Up' or 'HighWay To Hell', whereas songs like 'Sweet Child O' Mine' and 'You Shook Me All Night Long' are licks.

I'll expand more on this on my blog.

No Dick Dale? Arghhh!

Allman Brothers?

I'd add When Doves Cry, by Prince, which has that instantly identifiable opening riff.

Aaron -

"Ramblin' Man" for sure.

How about "Jailhouse Rock"?

Throw a few in:

I know Michele disdains Bruce, but really: Born to Run. Seeds is also a much-underrated riff, and I'm also partial to the opening strains of Cadillac Ranch.

Satisfaction and Jumpin' Jack Flash. (And don't forget Gn'R's version of the latter, short-lived though its airplay was).

Speaking of versions, the Jimi Hendrix BBC version of Day Tripper.

Lenny Kravitz, Are You Gonna Go My Way

The basic Bo Diddley riff; my favorite take is George Thorogood's cover of Who Do You Love?

Petty, Runnin' Down a Dream.

And as to Knopfler, there are few more breathtaking moments in rock than when that long buildup at the beginning of Money for Nothing breaks into the guitar riff.

I must stand up for my heritage here: "FREEBIRD!"

Virtually anything by the Allman Brothers. The Outlaws and "Green Grass and High Tides Forever."

Also, some of the Bon Scot era AC/DC stuff had great riffs notably the somewhat obscure "Whole Lotta Rosie" and the classics "Highway to Hell" and "TNT."

Hendrix: "Purple Haze."

Def Leppard: "Pyromania."

Jesus! Where's "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll?" No Lou Reed fans left in the world?

I have three. Mississippi Queen by Mountain, Rocky Mountain Way by Joe Walsh, and Brown Sugar by the Stones have to be on the list.

Jay, I found a music site that described riffs thusly:

A riff can be thought of as a clearly defined phrase that is unique to a song. The riff in "Day Tripper," for example, is instantly recognizable as an important part of the song; it's the hook, the musical catchphrase.

Licks (to me) are what you find in solos and improvisational playing, rather than repeating part of the song structure. The beginning of "Back in Black" would be a riff that strongly defines the song, the guitar solo would be licks that are more freeform and expressive.

That's my take anyways.

"Breaking the Law" and "Living After Midnight," by Judas Priest. And I second "Iron Man," to displace "Paranoid."

. . . 'bout "Manic Depression", by Jimi Hendrix -- the first waltz (3/4) time in rock music?

Not even. The Beatles were regular users of 3/4 before Hendrix even recorded Are You Experienced? So, to my recollection, were Pink Floyd.

Umm, I know it's cheesy 8/8 crap built for early disco beat but... Start Me Up doesn't get mentioned for the most recognizable opening riff ever?

"Cheap Sunglasses"? Gimme a bleedin' break, already. If we're talking riffs, and we're talking ZZ Top, then we're talking "Just Got Paid".

Phil: The Beatles, I could see, although I would be interested in the cite. If Pink Floyd did it before Hendrix, though, it needs to be on "Piper At The Gates of Dawn" because that was the only one of their records to drop before Jimi's "Experienced?", by a mere eighteen days.

All this discussion and no one has mentioned "Satisfaction"? Maybe the criteria should be riffs that most people would recognize within the first 4 beats. Can you hum it without hearing it? I would include many in the original top 20, but change about half out. Any rock fan should instantly know these riffs (in no particular order):

Smoke on the Water
Day Tripper
Brown Sugar
Start Me Up
One Way Out
Highway to Hell
Crazy Train
Whole Lotta Love
Walk this Way
Gimme Three Steps
Black Dog
Stairway to Heaven (more a chord patten than a riff, but again, who wouldn't recognize it immediatly)
Sweet Child O' Mine
Wish You Were Here
Back in Black
You Shook Me All Night Long
Jumpin Jack Flash

Good call on "One Way Out". Not that it's in the same class, but bonus points for Inna-gadda-da-vida, since any riff good enough that the band feels compelled to make up nonsense to sing along to it has to be good.

Lawrence, your hearing may not be as bad as you think. It's a very funky sound...two basses, one with bright sounding new strings, and another with flat string on a delay.

Crank, as the legend goes, Doug Ingle was so messed up he couldn't pronounce "in the garden of Eden, baby".

Riff, or break? This is all moot, of course.
But the long end-break on Hotel California is absolutely devastating.
And Stevie Ray Vaughn just may be the best blues guitarist, ever.

Great post, great comments. I particularly second "Start Me Up" and "Barracuda". Now give me a second while I rack my brain and my record collection to make an origingal contribution.

Midgard, the part that makes a song easily recognizable from the musicians I talk to is the 'hook'.

I guess it's pretty open to interpretation.

"Heart Full of Soul" - the Yardbirds.

The theme music for KOMA - in its day.

When I think Yardbirds, I think Train Kept A Rollin'.

Quicksilver's version of "Who Do You Love"

Link Wray "Rumble", The Stooges "I Wanna Be Your Dog", Television "Marquee Moon".

You and Me
Ride my Seesaw
Lovely to See You
---Moody Blues

Queen, "Keep Yourself Alive." I'm sure someone other than me remembers that, though it never got the airplay it deserved.

And if we're going to do ZZ Top, make it "Sharp Dressed Man."

The Van Halen should be "Finish What You Started."

Mark Knopfler?--I'll take "Tunnel of Love," from the Making Movies album.

Heart--"Barracuda" (or possibly "Magic Man").


I'd go with Muse - Muscle Museum. It's out of the ordinary, melodic and emotional. Plus: it rocks!

Doobie Brothers - Long Train Runnin

I think they at least need another Van Halen tune up there! Come on!

de gustibus non es disputandum

more ac/dc and iron should be up there and more zeppelin and smoke on water should be first