The Ten Greatest Guitar Riffs of All Time

Guitar Riff (n.): A cluster or sequence of notes or chords that is used in a song. It can be repeated over and over again, or it may only be heard once in, say, a lead guitar solo. Riffs can be minor decorative elements or they can be the basis of a song.

You simply cannot have a rock song without a riff. A riff is arguably the most important part; a successful riff will likely stay with the listener more than the lyrics, and can solidify a band’s sound. The clear distinction between The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin comes from the bands’ riffs. Riffs may also result in some energy-inducing sport team walk-ons.

Rock on Philly has created a definitive (albeit highly subjective and non-exhaustive) top ten greatest guitar riffs of all time. Choices were based on wide public recognition and originality.  See if your favorite made the list:


10. “Icky Thump” by The White Stripes

Sadly, this is the only song from the new millennium that made the cut. Many artists today do not indulge in the guitar like in past decades, but Jack White proves to be the exception.  This song from The White Stripes’ album of the same name has such an original sound, including this riff that is one of White’s best.

9. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

One second into this riff and 90’s nostalgia oozes into your mind. This extremely recognizable tune launched Nirvana and the grunge movement into the mainstream, and it all started with this riff.

8. “Enter Sandman” by Metallica

Metal fan or not, this riff is amazing, and this was the song from Metallica’s Black Album that helped propel the band into worldwide fame.

7. “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry

One of the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll, Chuck Berry had to make this list somewhere. This track contains his arguably most recognizable riff. It’s still a classic today, over 55 years after its initial release.

6. “Jumping Jack Flash” by The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones are known for having some of the most recognizable riffs of any rock band, thanks to longtime guitarist Keith Richards. Many songs could have been chosen, but the riff in this track really cuts through the soul.

5. “You Really Got Me” by Van Halen

Van Halen covered this song originally by The Kinks, but Eddie Van Halen brought it to fantastical heights with his virtuoso guitar skills.

4. “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns ‘n’ Roses

You probably have heard this riff at multiple sporting events, as it is guaranteed to infuse the room with high energy, thanks to the almighty Slash. Lucky for us, he is still releasing music with even more solid riffs to enjoy.

3. “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin

There has yet to be another song as sexy as “Whole Lotta Love,” because no one can top the orgasmic guitar riffs of Jimmy Page on this track.  All hail the mighty Zep!

2. “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream

Cream, the supergroup with guitar-wonder Eric Clapton, lasted only a few years but produced astounding quality tracks during its short tenure. The most recognizable of them all may be this one, with a riff so effortless yet utter perfection.

1. “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix is truly the king of the guitar riff. We easily could have created a top ten with just all of his songs (and maybe someday we will). It’s tough to choose just one, but this is the song you choose for introducing your friend to the wonder that is Jimi Hendrix, as it really sums up the man and the legend. On this track, Jimi not only kisses the sky, he enraptures it.


Honorable Mention

“Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple

It’s a simple riff, but a classic. This song probably was the first one you learned how to play on the guitar.

“A Punk” by Vampire Weekend

In the genre of indie pop-rock, “A Punk” probably has the most memorable riff. It’s simple, poppy, and extremely catchy. Guaranteed to make you feel all bubbly inside.

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