Jan 22, 2020

Some of the greatest music of modern culture can strike you just as much for their powerful lyrics as their distinctive riffs. The guitar riff, which usually opens a song, forms the main repetitive melodic anchor, has been a core element of the blues, rock ‘n roll, punk, and more for decades. What’s more, the best guitar riffs have changed the very shape of music as we know it.

Some of the early jazz guitarists, like the great Charlie Christian in Benny Goodman’s pre-war sextet, were pioneers and paved the way for the legends that followed – from Chet Atkins, and Jimi Hendrix, to Van Halen, The Edge from U2, Alex Lifeson from Rush, and countless others.

Over the decades, hundreds of guitarists have laid down classic guitar riffs that deserve to be placed among the best of all time, but we’ve only got limited space here. We began this journey last week with The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Beatles, Deep Purple, Michael Jackson, Led Zepplin, and The Shadows.

We’re continuing our trip through rock’s greatest riffs with these 8 classic riffs.

Boogie Chillen – John Lee Hooker

John Lee Hooker, the legendary blues master whose introduction and hook on 1962’s “Boom Boom” is so incredible, had 13 years before created the ringing amplified guitar riff for “Boogie Chillen.” He would later say, “I wrote that song in Detroit when I was sitting around strumming my guitar. When I was a little kid I heard my stepfather Will Moore do it years and years before. It had that beat, and I just kept that beat up and I called it ‘Boogie Chillen’.”

The song became a powerful influence on other musicians, especially one named BB King, as he was starting out his career as a radio DJ.

Mannish Boy – Muddy Waters

If you can say only one thing about Muddy Waters it would have to be that he had a sound that was all his own. His classic blues song “Mannish Boy,” recorded on a Telecaster guitar in 1955, would go on to inspire generations of musicians, including none other than The Rolling Stones themselves. The repetitive guitar line that starts “Mannish Boy” is stirring electronic blues at its very best, and has been copied and imitated countless times since, ensuring that it will remain one of the best guitar riffs in music history.

Johnny B Goode – Chuck Berry

This timeless classic about a country boy who can play the guitar “just like ringing a bell” swings from the opening note. It’s not surprising that Chuck Berry’s enduring classic has been played on Spotify nearly 100 million times. That said, even Chuck gave credit where credit was due – he acknowledged that he was imitating the opening riff to Louis Jordon’s “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman (They’ll Do it Every Time),” which was played by Carl Hogan in 1946. That said, Chuck Berry’s inventive genius, as a singer, songwriter, performer, and all-around musician, was changing the rolling rhythms of Jordan and T-Bone Walker into the first foundations of rock ‘n roll.

You Really Got Me – The Kinks

Following a few false starts and unsuccessful singles, the young London band going my the moniker The Kinks were feeling the pressure to produce a hit. And they succeeded in spectacular style in August 1964 with “You Really Got Me.” Written by Ray Davies as he was playing around on the piano at home, guitarist Dave Davies added the distinctive riff by ripping the speaker cone of his amp to create the iconic distorted guitar sound.

Layla – Derek And The Dominoes

“Layla” was unquestionably one of the high-water marks of ’70s music. Eric Clapton was inspired to write the first part of the song after receiving a copy of the Persian classical poet Nizami Ganjavi’s Book The Story Of Layla And Majnun. The song was, of course, written as love ballad to Pattie Boyd, who was, at that time, married to The Beatles’ George Harrison, though she would later marry Clapton. Clapton used a unique multi-layered guitar to create a riff that is both timeless and distinctive. The creative genius of Clapton was also behind the riff for Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love.”

Killer Queen – Queen

Many Queen songs have wonderful chord progressions and potent solos by guitarist Brian May, and most of their biggest hits have memorable riffs. But perhaps their finest riff of all can be heard on “Killer Queen.” “I was in hospital and almost dying when I heard that. They brought me in the harmonies and waited for me to finish the song,” said May. He would, of course, use his trademark Red Special guitar for a solo that was multi-tracked to produce that iconic cascading effect.

Walk This Way – Aerosmith

Joe Perry’s “Walk This Way” riff is still imitated by young guitarists hoping to master their instruments. He came up with the distinctive sound during a soundcheck in Honolulu when he decided he wanted to do something a little more adventurous than a “normal boring chord progression.” But one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in rock history (later sampled by Run-DMC for their rock/hip-hop crossover classic) had to wait for the band to come up with some lyrics. It wouldn’t take long, though, only a viewing of the comedy classic Young Frankenstein,  which includes a line where a limping and humped Marty Feldman tells Gene Wilder to “walk this way.” Singer Steven Tyler heard the line, and immediately began writing lyrics to go with Perry’s seminal creation.

Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana

Let’s end this week’s list with a popular riff that’s a little more modern! And though it’s nearly 30 years old at this point, Nirvana’s signature single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is still exciting and raw. Kurt Cobain had set out to write the “ultimate pop song” when he landed on the riff. He also wanted to pen something in a similar style to the Pixies, telling Rolling Stone magazine in 1994, “I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it.” The simple four-chord pattern of the riff is admittedly unoriginal, but the quiet-loud dynamic contrasts of the song, and Cobain’s unique, visceral delivery, add to the power of one of the best guitar riffs of the 1990s.

Let us know which rock riffs you love or are working to learn!

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