7 Iconic Classic Rock Guitar Riffs

Jan 15, 2020

Most modern music from the 1960s onward has pioneered and featured the instantly recognizable guitar “riff,” that catchy melody that introduces the song, and has fans dancing in the aisles before a single lyric is sung.

Learning to play these iconic riffs offers some incredible insights into how simple – or complicated – note patterns can make a song come alive with excitement. So, with that in mind, we’ve picked out our 7 favourite well-known riffs you can start with – and have a lot of fun learning!

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – The Rolling Stones

After performing for over fifty years, The Rolling Stones have stayed pretty much the same band as when they started. One of the ways they have managed to keep their music so fresh over the decades comes down to their legendary guitarist, Keith Richards, and his well-known habit of experimenting with playing songs in alternative tunings.

If you’re trying to learn a Rolling Stone’s riff and it doesn’t sound quite right, check to see if Richards used standard tuning or not. That said, the Stone’s classic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” one of their earliest hits, is in EADGBE tuning. The opening riff is quite simple – just a three-note progression – and has become one of the band’s most recognizable trademarks. Apparently, the riff was originally supposed to be for the horn section – we think it’s better this way!

House of the Rising Sun – The Animals

This song features one of those opening riffs that has been covered, adapted, and re-invented by countless bands and artists over the decades, but the original, by The Animals, will likely forever remain the most well-known. But if you believe historians, The Animals version might not actually be the original! In fact, it may have been around for two hundred years before The Animals turned it into a hit. It’s actually based on a traditional folk song, which explains the right-had, cascading strum style the chords should be played with.

As a side note, if you’re hoping to learn to both play and sing “House of the Rising Sun,” you might be in for a little surprise – the key and starting pitch is surprisingly high, and sometimes beyond the reach of aspiring singers!

Day Tripper – The Beatles

The influence The Beatles had on modern rock music is, in a word, undeniable. The argument could be made that, along with a few other popular acts that debuted around the same time, The Beatles started pretty much everything. Even so, with the sheer amount of copy-cats and self-styled proteges that have produced enormous amounts of similar material, their truly innovative approach to song writing can sometimes be overlooked.

The opening riff and lead guitar by John Lennon is a masterpiece. No one else was creating music like this at the time, and what’s more, he wrote it under pressure, trying to come up with another smash hit quickly.

Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple

Not only is “Smoke on the Water’s” opening riff iconic, it’s incredibly easy to play – which is why we couldn’t pass it up. Thousands upon thousands of musicians over the years have tried to learn this opening riff – and usually end up over-complicating things.

That’s easy to understand. It can be hard to imagine Deep Purple’s legendary guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore, playing the whole thing on just two barred strings. But the thing is – that’s pretty much the essence of this riff.

Beat It – Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson was a brilliant musician on his own, but he managed to elevate even his iconic talent further by surrounding himself with other brilliant musicians for his studio sessions. Jackson was known for expecting nothing but the best, from himself and those he was working with. So, it’s no surprise that the guitarist most associated with this smash hit is none other than Eddie Van Halen.

But Van Halen only plays the solo about halfway through the tune. That classic opening riff was actually created by Steve Lukather from the band Toto. At the time, Toto were the hottest studio session musicians in LA. Lukather has said that there was at least one member of Toto on just about every serious recording that came out of LA during that time.

Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin

No list like this is complete without Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” even if its extreme length and complexity probably rule it out as a “riff” by most definitions. Learning to play the opening chords can be quite challenging, before the song switches to more standard chord shapes, but it is still something that beginners can learn slowly. Make sure to take your time, and don’t expect to get it right for a long while.

Even Jimmy Page played with small variations and techniques all the time (as a matter of fact, you might recognize the live version we’ve included as a little different from the studio recording), so you shouldn’t treat any particular version as the “real” one. Have some fun with it – Jimmy Page certainly does.

Apache – The Shadows

Okay, so we’re ending with one that requires a little bit of a deeper dive into rock and roll history. Though not very well-known today, The Shadows were a popular British band at their height, but are still better known for being Cliff Richard’s backing band. The important thing to know about them is that they were an instrumental band that relied heavily on lead guitarist Hank Marvin’s riffing melodies instead of a vocalist.

What’s most notable about “Apache” is that is was a breakout single for The Shadows – one that knocked The Beatles off the charts! While that’s impressive in its own right, the song is also often listed as among the top 100 guitar tracks of all time. If you’re looking for the Godfather of modern rock guitar riffs, you’ll find him in Marvin!

With so much music produced since the riff entered rock mainstream, we’re sure to have missed some of your favourites! Let us know which rock riffs you love or are working to learn!

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