The Greatest Guitar Riffs In The World (Better Than Sweet Child O’Mine)

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

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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