8 More Classic Rock Guitar Riffs

Jan 29, 2020

There are thousands of guitar riffs out there, but only a select few have become deeply ingrained in the subconscious of popular culture. They’re the ones you can’t wait to learn to play; the ones you find yourself absent-mindedly humming to yourself; the ones that are revered by musicians and non-musicians alike!

Over the last few weeks we’ve been exploring these genre defining licks with 7 Iconic Classic Rock Guitar Riffs & 8 More Iconic Rock Riffs, and this week we’re putting the cherry on top! So let’s dive into 8 more of the most iconic classic guitar riffs of all time!

La Grange – ZZ Top

Ah-how-how-how-how. This 1973 ZZ Top classic features a one-chord blues trick musically inspired by the John Lee Hooker tune we covered a few weeks ago, Boogie Chillen. But beyond that bit of inspiration the song is all ZZ Top. The story for the song was inspired by a somewhat less-than-reputable establishment just outside the town of La Grange, Texas. The tune is mostly just made up of iconic guitar riffs, so drink it all in!

For Whom the Bell Tolls – Metallica

It may have taken until bassist Cliff Burton joined Metallica for the band to begin to appreciate that “speed” and “heaviness” were not necessarily the same thing, but what a realization! For Whom the Bell Tolls is played at a fraction of the speed of their previous hit Whiplash, but its dark, atmospheric drama creates genuine gravitas, perhaps for Metallica’s first time. The chorus riff is stunningly simple, based around palm-muted E-string chugging and fat, ringing power chords, but it has a particular weight and force that helped forge the ‘90s Metallica sound.

Voodoo Child (Slight Return) – The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Voodoo Child (Slight Return) is the epitome of iconic. The freewheeling blues jam that ends side one of Electric Ladyland, Voodoo Child makes a statement with its riff. The album closed with the riff that fades in a wah-wah’d chug before exploding into something full of menace. It sounds like a riot breaking out – and hadsbeen used throughout film to depict exactly that.

But if the riff sounds like the end of the world, the lyrics were designed to match – the last line is: “And if I don’t meet you no more in this world, then I’ll meet you in the next one/Don’t be late.” They would be the last words Jimi Hendrix ever sang in public.

Black Dog – Led Zepplin

The opening track on Led Zepplin IV features a unique call and response riff that ended up becoming the perfect way to open one of rock’s most iconic albums. The unique rhythmic swing of the track (4/4 time set against 5/4) makes it almost impossible to duplicate and showed just how far ahead of the rest of the rock world Led Zepplin really was. Many bands that have come and gone, like Grand Funk Railroad, were hailed as successors to Led Zepplin’s heavyweight belt, but none have had the grace and timing of something like Black Dog. Pure genius.

Highway to Hell – AC/DC

Few opening riffs are as instantly recognizable as the always arresting guitar-drum intro of Highway to Hell. Originally demoed with guitarist Angus Young grinding away on his guitar while his brother Malcolm smashed the drums, all was nearly lost when a sound engineer took the only tape home, where his young son gleefully unraveled it! Fortunately, Bon Scott, the band’s lead singer, was always rewinding his worn-out cassettes, and was able to put it back together the following day. The fact that the intro sounds similar to Free’s All Right Now wasn’t lost on AC/DC’s producer Mutt Lange, who decided to hire Free’s old engineer Tony Platt to help him mix the song. “He was looking for someone that would give it that kind of dry, punchy rock thing,” says Platt now. “That feeling of time and space.”

Thunderstruck – AC/DC

Another iconic riff from the powerhouse group AC/DC came on 1990’s The Razor’s Edge album. Producer Bruce Fairbairn took Angus Young aside one day and said, “I want you to sound like AC/DC when you were seventeen.” Nowhere was this mentality captured more effectively than the album’s introduction, Thunderstruck. The song opens with a trademark impressive Angus Young riff, played entirely with his left hand, comprised of hammer-on and pull-off fingering on an open B string. The track builds momentum dramatically with terrace chants and drummer Chris Slade’s simple but driving percussion and has become one of the quintessential stadium rock songs.

Iron Man – Black Sabbath

Not that’s what I’m talking about! The incredible force that was Black Sabbath could groove then they needed to, but heavy metal really came into its own as a genre when Sabbath took the roll out of rock’n’roll. Iron Man is as if the members of Black Sabbath listened to Led Zepplin’s “fancy-dan” folk-and-blues mashup of complexity, and said, “Nah!”

Defiantly cool, Iron Man  was written by bassist Geezer Butler, and actually is not named for the Marvel character with the same name. As a matter of fact, the name was almost something a little different; “I can’t exactly recall what Ozzy said,” Geezer told Classic Rock, “but it was something like: ‘Why don’t we do a song called Iron Man, or maybe Iron Bloke’.”

Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses

Okay, but is that really a riff? According to the dictionary definition, a riff is “a short repeated phrase in popular music and jazz, frequently played over changing chords or harmonies or used as a background to a solo improvisation.” And Total Guitar magazine describes the perfect riff as “short, repeatable and memorable enough to form a standout guitar hook” – and if that doesn’t describe Sweet Child O’ Mine I don’t know what does.

Slash once described the intro to this tune as a “circus theme,” and “a joke,” but the combination of it, Izzy Stradlin’s bold opening chords, and Axl Rose’s tender, love-struck poetry written for his then-girlfriend Erin Everly, was pure sunshine in a bottle. Axl would later admit, “It’s the first positive love song I’ve ever written… But I never had anyone to write anything about before.”

Once they finished recording their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, manager Alan Niven thought it could go gold with half a million sales. The producer on the album, Mike Clink, thought Sweet Child O’ Mine would be Guns N’ Roses secret weapon: a hit single. He predicted to A&R guy Tom Zutaut that the album would sell 2 million copies. Zutaut disagreed, predicting 5 million sales.

It ended up selling 30 million albums and becoming the biggest-selling debut of all time – a record it still holds.

Did we miss any of your favourites? Let us know which rock riffs you love or are working to learn!

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