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The Greatest Guitar Riffs In The World (Better Than Sweet Child O'Mine)
Joel McIver , January 24th, 2010 06:49

Profoundly depressed by a new poll which supposedly “reveals” the nation’s taste in rock riffs, Joel McIver – who is such a guitar geek that he wrote a book last year called The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists – provides 20 far more interesting alternatives

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I read a press release today, oh boy, about a lucky man who made the grade… in this case a man called Saul ‘Slash’ Hudson, the top hat-sporting ex-Guns N’Roses guitar player. Slash, who is a highly affable chap with an admittedly godlike knack for a blues bend, has been hailed by the British public as the creator of the best riff of all time – the intro to GNR’s 1987 hit 'Sweet Child O’Mine'. It’s a pleasant song, for sure – but by Satan, that’s an unimaginative choice of Best Riff Ever.

According to the frothy press release, the poll was commissioned by film studio Universal to tie in with their new film, It Might Get Loud, which features Jack White, Dave ‘The Edge’ Evans and Jimmy Page chatting about their adventures on the guitar. I haven’t seen the film yet so I have no idea what it’s like, but I hope it’s more interesting than the poll results, which also place Led Zeppelin’s 'Whole Lotta Love' and Jimi Hendrix’s 'Voodoo Chile' near the top. Again, these are highly digestible songs – but who among you hasn’t heard them 5000 times too many already? The Led Zep tune alone is so irrevocably attached to the 1980s Top Of The Pops that any reasonable person will cover their ears in despair on hearing it now.

I don’t know who the sample demographic were who supplied their choices of best riff, but my immediate reaction is to assume that they’re a bunch of dadrock-loving sales reps and middle managers who spend their working days driving along the M4 listening to fucking Toploader. They buy their CDs at service stations and boast in the pub that they like “a bit of rock”.

They feel in their heart of hearts that they’re different. Younger. More open-minded. Not like their boring mates… when the reality is that they’re just wankers.

So here’s a list of 20 riffs which are cooler, more memorable and fresher than anything you’ll hear in connection with It Might Get Loud. Listen to these songs, I implore you. Each of them says more about the electric guitar and how it is played than 99% of the music you hear on mainstream radio or on the shelves at Asda. And you won’t find them on K-Tel compilation albums called things like 100% Classic Driving Anthems.

This isn’t just some list of obscure riffs put together to show how alternative I am. You can find any of these songs on Youtube or Spotify. And why is that? Because enough people have sufficient taste in music to know that the world doesn’t revolve around major film studios and their cretinous opinion polls.

[FYI: the IMDB review of It Might Get Loud is awarded 9/10 by a critic who claims that he doesn't usually like documentaries due to the "abundance of information" they contain. Ed]


'Parabola' (from Lateralus, 2001) Starting at 8’42”, the doom-metal riff that closes this equally huge song is immense. Do not watch this video while on acid.


'Let’s Go Crazy' (from Purple Rain, 1984) I don’t care if you think Prince is a sexually depraved midget dipped in a bucket of pubic hair. The opening riff of this song, after the iconic spoken-word intro, makes me smile.


'I Want You (She’s So Heavy)' (from Abbey Road, 1969) Inventing dronecore years before its time, this riff comes into its own at 4’37” by building to an apocalyptic finale that never fails to satisfy, even though Paul McCartney’s bass-line is far too busy. Just for a change.


'Dittohead' (from Divine Intervention, 1994) Listen to the intro. Two and a half minutes later, listen to the ending. Then you’ll understand why people listen to Slayer.


'We Care A Lot' (from Introduce Yourself, 1987) Funk-metal was great for about three minutes in the 80s. This is that three minutes. The riff leading into the chorus combines a popped bass string with a guitar hammer-on and sounds phenomenal.


'Cello Song' (from Five Leaves Left, 1968) Before the late Drake was reduced to soundtracking dinner-parties in Highgate, he wrote songs based on super-slippery fingerpicking like the figure which opens this song.


'Blood On My Hands' (from Covenant, 1993) Groove-metal and death metal don’t always work in combination. However, this riff (which begins at 0’45”) does, and will worm its way into your head and stay there.


'What Difference Does It Make?' (from The Smiths, 1984) Defining the indie jangle of the day, the first riff of this immortal song transcended such petty descriptions and was Johnny Marr’s first real bit of genius.


'White Room' (from Wheels Of Fire, 1968) It’s psychedelic and descends like a bit of purloined Bach. What else do you need?


'I Walk The Line' (from I Walk The Line, 1964) This sounds like it was recorded in a room the size of a suitcase, 50 years ago. Because it was. The simple line that anchors the Man In Black’s signature tune says all you need to know about country guitar done the right way, which it so often isn’t.


'Biotech Is Godzilla' (from Chaos AD, 1995) Mean, punky and raw, the simple chromatic riff which starts this piece of environmentally-aggravated sonic violence reinforces sometime Seps leader Max Cavalera’s belief that rhythm guitarists really only need four strings.


'Fat Bottomed Girls' (from Jazz, 1978) Forget Freddie’s other hits: in guitar terms, Queen never went bigger.


'Hammer Smashed Face' (from Hammer Smashed Face EP, 1993) See the point I made earlier about the groove and the metal. The funky little riff that starts at 0’37” on the studio version of this gory classic will get even the dourest metalhead a-twitching.


'Stigmata' (from The Land Of Rape And Honey, 1988) Some form of studio trickery went into this riff: no guitar sounds like that. Whatever they did to it, it sounded terrifying in Hardware when sequenced against a GWAR video.


'Axiom' (from Antichrist, 2007) There is no better British extreme metal band than the Ak, apart from maybe Carcass. The opening riff of this single is executed on two acoustics, one a 12-string, and is both sinister and beautiful.


'Hysteria' (from Absolution, 2003) You don’t have to read Twilight or be a teenage emo to like Muse. The key riff here is actually played on a bass and echoed on guitar, but who’s counting?


'Cromlech' (from Soulside Journey, 1991) Darkthrone are a cult, which you get or you don’t get. This song opened their sole death metal album before they discovered black metal ,and to this day its opening riff makes me want to uproot trees and scream.


'Thumb' (from Blues For The Red Sun, 1992) The sound of the Coachella desert. If you think that sounds corny, why not go and listen to Maroon 5?


'Walk' (from Vulgar Display Of Power, 1992) There are better and heavier songs by Pantera, but none so insistently catchy as this one. “Respect!” and so on and so forth.


'Alice' (from Some Girls Wander By Mistake, 1992) Ben Gunn or Gary Marx’s opening riff, a single-string affair, was so thin that it shouldn’t have worked in a one-guitar band. But damn my eyes if it didn’t, and it no doubt pays his bills to this day.

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Jan 19, 2010 12:02pm

I could listen to 'Voodoo Chile' another 5,000 times before ever getting bored of it.

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Jan 19, 2010 12:34pm

I'm sure these riffs are all killer, but the author clearly hasn't listened to Zeppelin's How the West was Won!

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Jan 19, 2010 1:09pm

Tool DOOM metal? Please! Anyway that aside:

This is one of the greatest guitar riffs in the world!

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None More Goth
Jan 19, 2010 1:21pm

The 'Alice' riff is probably played by Gary Marx. Hussey didn't join until the 'Body & Soul' single.


The Quietus Goth

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John Doran
Jan 19, 2010 2:16pm

In reply to None More Goth:

Dear Quietus Goth,

Good call. I updated it to Ben Gunn - for some reason it didn't update - but Gary Marx is probably closer to the mark.

It certainly wasn't Hussey anyway.


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Joel McIver
Jan 19, 2010 2:49pm

In reply to seacrest:

Actually the author has listened to HTWWW. Your point is?

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Jan 19, 2010 3:09pm

I'm sure that if Joel has chosen THESE riffs, it's because he loves them...seriously, none will ever be able to DECIDE the best riffs of all times, it's useless, anyone likes certain styles of guitar playing more than other...I, for example, freak out with thrash/death metal ultraspeed riffs, but this surely doesn't mean that those I like are the best riffs of all bunch of wankers should stop criticizing everyone who chooses HIS favorite riffs...

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Jan 19, 2010 3:13pm

In reply to Daimonos:

Of course with "bunch of wankers" I exclused Joel, OK, man? You're not a wanker! I couldn't tell it to the man who wrote one of my favourite book!

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Jan 19, 2010 5:41pm

Some of my favourite songs of all time are on here. Clearly I've got a much bigger cock than I realised.

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Jan 19, 2010 7:20pm

i swear that is tricky in the tool video...

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Jan 19, 2010 9:08pm

it's official. I love this blog.

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Jan 20, 2010 1:39am

Alice is great, though I'd also chuck in a mention for Nine While Nine.

My list would also contain Love Like Blood by Killing Joke.

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Jan 20, 2010 2:12am

In reply to Laurence:

...bass riff, obviously. Not sure if that counts.

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simon brown
Jan 20, 2010 6:02am

Yeah I agree with you. Sweet child is a good riff but nothing like whole lotta love. In 1969 this really was a killer riff. No one had heard anything like it. And I must say your selection is very good

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Jan 20, 2010 9:16am

OK list, but what about:

Pistols' 'No Feelings'
X-Ray Spex's 'Art-I-Ficial'
Sabbaff 'Black Sabbaff'
Goree Carter 'Rock Awhile' (the first guitar rock'n'roll record, it's where Chuck Berry nicked his whole style)
Zep's 'Custard Pie'
Sonics' version of Louie Louie

I could go on ....

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Joel McIver
Jan 20, 2010 10:34am

In reply to carlos:

Yes Carlos -- that is the Tricky Kid.

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Jan 22, 2010 1:29am

Slaughter of the Soul by At The Gates typifies the death metal/groove concept better than any song I know...

I was explaining this very concept to a friend the other day, nice to know it's not just me :)

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Jan 22, 2010 3:04am

LOL @ 13!

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boob plop
Jan 22, 2010 6:12am


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Jan 22, 2010 6:14am

In reply to Ash:

admirable, castles in then sand is better guitaring tho

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the encrusted green
Jan 22, 2010 5:56pm

I Can't Stand It by Velvet Underground

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Johnny Nothing
Jan 29, 2010 9:36pm

Suprisingly varied choices. Was that deliberate or did it just turn out that way, Joel?

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Jan 31, 2010 6:00pm

A lot of these suck

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Mar 23, 2010 11:38am

How does one include Pantera and not Helmet? After all, Pantera is essentially swallowed, whole, and then regurgitated Helmet.

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May 11, 2010 1:26pm

Much kudos for the Sisters and Tool inclusions.
For your consideration:
The Jesus Lizard - Mouthbreather
Killing Joke - Eighties
Godflesh - Avalanche Master Song (in lieu or any Big Black or Swans in there)
Sonic Youth - White Kross
Jane's Addiction - Mountain Song
Shellac - Watch Song

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flavio antonio ponce bacco
Nov 10, 2010 2:35pm

muinto locooooooooo esse som de voceis nota 1000

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Mar 29, 2012 6:03pm

Sisters of Mercy!? Muse??? Well, I actually do prefer Maroon 5 to Muse and so does everyone who's not a complete musical imbecile.

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May 28, 2012 1:58am

Hysteria is a bass, not a guitar.

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Dec 5, 2012 9:22am

I agree but i doubt there is a riff in history more famous & a massive impact from the Sweet Child riff.

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Doc Rokk
Jan 23, 2013 7:55pm

Er, listen again, this time a bit more closely - that's not a guitar riff at the start of Cream's "White Room." It's voice, keyboard and drums, plus bass of course. There are guitar "chords" but not in any usual sense of a "riff."

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Jan 24, 2013 5:33pm

In reply to Doc Rokk:

THE CULT and KILLING JOKE. Not Muse. Ever.

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Kev Moore
Jan 24, 2013 5:39pm

Oh dear. I can't believe the glaring omissions!! here's four:
"Victim of changes" Judas Priest - the second big riff in the song, sounds like somebody's chopping logs with a small industrial town.
"Muscle and Blood" - Hughes/Thrall. Find me a better riff!! Go on - I dare ya!!
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath: What a gargantuan riff, from the market leaders of, er...riffage.
But really, 'overplayed' can't be used to diminish the greatness of a riff, therefore , the ultimate riff, the economy of style, the epitome of groove and power, HAS to be AC/DC's "Back in black". There is no better. ever.

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Jan 24, 2013 5:52pm

Television-marquee moon, HELLOOOOOO???!

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El Coco
Jan 26, 2013 2:52pm

There's a lot of bog standard, forgettable metal riffing in that list. What about something more memorable such as Death From Above 1979 - Little Girl (ok so technically it's a bass riff), Soundgarden - Flower or Jose Gonzalez's cover of Heartbeats? Just my opinion of course.

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Apr 4, 2013 5:56pm

great riffs great post. more cool stuff about riffs
"Rock Guitar Riffs" Inverted Harmony

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Simon E
Jul 12, 2013 9:44pm

'I Want You' is amazing isn't it? I mean, the Beatles have become so 'heritage' that I forget how inventive and unpredictable they were. Has any band subsequently moved so far in so few years?

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Oct 13, 2013 1:47am

This list was already good, for its variety.

This list was GREAT,for the line "Prince is a sexually depraved midget dipped in a bucket of pubic hair."

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Gram Edgar
Oct 13, 2013 8:21pm

In reply to Glyph:

I'm here to remind you all that Chartered Trips by Husker Du is an almighty riff

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Chris Thatcher
Feb 10, 2014 4:50pm

Great list! And nice to see some love for the power of non metal riffs.

I'd put the riff about 2:24 into 'Traffic' by The Workhorse Movement (below) somewhere in my list entitled 'Favourite riffs: a list that very few people are ever likely to ask me to compile'.

It also kicks back in to play the song out.

I want 'Saturnine' by Electric Wizard and 'Blood, Milk and Sky' by White Zombie played in full at my funeral. They'd make the above list too.

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Cooper Aaxton
Jan 2, 2017 6:29am

Anyone ever heárd of Joe Bonamassa? He's a riff master, a riff magician.

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Jan 2, 2017 9:29am

Quite clearly the top voted ones are historically popular.some of these bands you claim are better have put more into there starting riffs than the lyrics or the rest of the songs such as kyuss.

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Frank Pangallo
Jan 2, 2017 11:54am

A generally obscure list to the average rock ears apart from tbe obvious ones.All subjective and yet quite scholarly by someone who knows his stuff..Why not include riffs from the 50s that actually defined the eras to follow?I Walk The Line over Chuck Berry Bo Diddley Les Paul BB King Scotty Moore Buddy Holly Carl Perkins...just for starters? What about Keith Richards? Gary Moore?
An interesting read nonetheless!Thank you.

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Frank Pangallo
Jan 2, 2017 11:54am

A generally obscure list to the average rock ears apart from tbe obvious ones.All subjective and yet quite scholarly by someone who knows his stuff..Why not include riffs from the 50s that actually defined the eras to follow?I Walk The Line over Chuck Berry Bo Diddley Les Paul BB King Scotty Moore Buddy Holly Carl Perkins...just for starters? What about Keith Richards? Gary Moore?
An interesting read nonetheless!Thank you.

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Jan 2, 2017 12:25pm

Sounds asskicking oldman g

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Jan 2, 2017 12:27pm

No Sabbath?!?!

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Jan 2, 2017 1:19pm

Whoops forgot the Zappa catalog.

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Jan 2, 2017 6:00pm

Slayer, enuff said.

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James Spencer
Jan 3, 2017 3:41pm

A lot of great riffs but how can you put out a list of great riffs without including one of the greatest rhythm guitar player / riff creator James Hetfield. I mean c'mon now. Hell anything from Master of Puppets could easily be high on that list imo and I'm sure a lot of others.

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Pete Smith
Jan 3, 2017 7:10pm

In reply to James Spencer:

Cathedral - North Berwick Witch Trials
Sabbath - Into the Void (end riff)
Carcass - Empathological Necroticism end riff
Pantera - Cowboys From Hell end riff
Clutch - 10001110101 1:30 in
Napalm Death - Copulating Snakes
Machine Head - Davidian (chorus riff)
Alabama Thunderpussy - Wage Slave
Orange Goblin - They Come Back
Candlemass - Well of Souls

Each of those bands has many amazing riffs. Thumb and Biotech were good choices in the original list. Walk is overrated and popular like some of what you mentioned in the very funny opening paragraphs, though still awesome. Subjective when all decent bands though.

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Apr 2, 2017 6:29am

In reply to Cooper Aaxton:

He sucks!!

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