Top 55 Guitar Riffs of All Time

Published on 15 May 2024


What it comes to guitar music, the riff is king. It’s the signature of a song, the calling card of a guitar hero and sometimes, a whole identity for a band. 

Riffs come in all flavours, shapes and sizes, but somehow, it’s always pretty easy to tell a great riff from a mediocre one. There’s just a ‘thing’ about an amazing guitar riff: we feel it right away and know instinctively of its greatness.

Yes, riffs can be great or mediocre and today, I am not concerned with mediocrity. I want greatness - as you do - so this blog is dedicated to only the very best riffs ever.


A Feast of Riffs

I’m happy to report that there are actually loads of great riffs out there. Too much, in fact, to go into detail about every single one, so with this blog, I’ll add some detail about the top picks, and then highlight a few of the rest as I make the journey through this world of riffs. It’s like uncovering gold! 

There’s no hierarchy here: riff number 47 is as good as riff number 8, for example. Have a look at the list, and make sure to check out any unfamiliar titles: your new favourite song could be only a click away!


The Greatest Riffs of All TIme

  1. Smoke on the Water - Deep Purple

When Ritchie Blackmore looked out across the Danube and watched Frank Zappa’s gig literally burning to bits as the venue went on fire, little did he know that he’d write the world’s most famous guitar riff using those scenes as inspiration. Apparently, the other Deep Purple members weren’t too fussed about the riff upon hearing it, so Blackmore compared its simplicity to Betthoven’s 5th Symphony. The others realised that arguing against Beethoven was a futile endeavour, so relented to make the tune. Just as well: it’s by far their most famous song!

It’s simple, it’s catchy, and it’s a rite of passage for all fledgling guitar heroes.


  1. Back in Black - AC/DC

Accessibility is key to the best guitar riffs, and this stomper from Scottish Aussies Acker-Dacker is one of the best-loved riffs ever written. The simplicity is deceptive - there are some deceptively complex rhythmic things happening towards the end of the riff - but there’s no mistaking it as the guitars lock in with the drums and bass to create what we know as ‘rock music’.


  1. Immigrant Song - Led Zeppelin

It’s a pretty tough thing to pick out just one classic Led Zep riff, since they were one of the originators of the art. This one, however - which is essentially one note - is so effective at summing up just how powerful a well aimed and well crafted riff can be.

Immigrant Song concerns itself with Nordic visions of conquering viking heroes, and the riff itself echoes those heroic connotations with ease: it’s a real Titan of a riff!


  1. Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love - Van Halen

Apparently this was written deliberately to be a punk song? Eddie Van Halen has a funny concept of punk, because this tune is anything but that, and his signature riff is more like a sci-fi stun gun than a sneering blast of punk. It’s not the simplest thing to play, either: you need to hit each note just right whilst palm-muting or it won’t sound right. And then there’s the most legendary use of the phaser pedal on just the last four notes that sends this riff into the stratosphere.


  1. Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana

It doesn’t get more simple than bashing out four chords in a relatively rudimentary fashion, but therein lies the genius. As a guitarist, Kurt Cobain can be polarising for people, but there’s no mistaking how effective this riff is, particularly when the band - and the distortion - kicks in. It’s a blast of energy like nothing else, and has been enormously influential since its release in 1991.


  1. Sweet Child o’ Mine - Guns ‘n’ Roses

Slash’s signature riff is the one you use to impress your uncle at Christmas parties. Easy enough to get under the fingers but busy enough to be impressive, this riff is worth everybody learning for the instant kudos it commands.

Is this the key to Slash’s universal appeal? He plays stuff that sounds impressive but it’s pretty straightforward to get under the fingers?


  1. Money For Nothing - Dire Straits

Is this the most ‘air guitar-friendly’ riff ever? The build up to this riff is immense, and the payoff is awesome: that tone is to die for! Mark Knopfler actually didn’t use that tasty ‘59 Les Paul that appears in the video (it was a Les Paul Junior going into a Laney amp), nor did he use a wah pedal, which many people believe to be the case. It’s just a great player with a nice guitar, a good amp and a talented engineer. We gotta move these microwave ovens!


  1. Enter Sandman - Metallica

Metallica are definitely another one of those bands with more than their fair share of grade-A riffs, and in some ways I’d even say that Enter Sandman isn’t their best. But…it’s just so iconic, so popular, and instantly recognisable. It’s one of the all-time great guitar riffs and we all love it, so it earns its place! Interestingly, this one was not written by riff-master Hetfield; this is a Kirk Hammett riff!


  1. Supernaut - Black Sabbath

No, Paranoid is not the best Sabbath riff! In fact, it’s not even the tenth best Sabbath riff, which says a lot about how many bangers Tony Iommi has given us. Hole in the Sky, Iron Man, Snowblind, Symptom of the Universe…the list could easily go on, but for me, Supernaut is so relentless in its use of its superlative riff that it just has to belong on this list.

Tune your guitar to C#, dial in the ‘hell tone’ and go for it!


  1.  Walk This Way - Aerosmith

Classic rockers Aerosmith (the American Rolling Stones to some) definitely have plenty of great guitar moments thanks to dual axe-slingers Joe Perry and Brad Whitford. Walk This Way is without a doubt their most memorable moment though, whether in its original guise or in the cover/collab with Run D.M.C.



  1. Layla - Derek & The Dominos

Is it ironic that many people’s favourite moment from guitar god Eric Clapton is actually by Duane Allman? It’s a well known thing that ol’ Slowhand didn’t actually have a hand (sorry) in this riff’s creation, but the fact remains that it’s a stonker of a line nonetheless. Who was Derek, by the way?


  1. Crazy Train - Ozzy Osbourne

Ozzy is one of the few rock giants whose solo career has been at least as successful as the iconic band he came from. The man certainly knows how to pick a guitarist, as this tremendous Randy Rhoads riff proves. A legend in the making whose time was cut unfairly short, Randy’s spirit lives on in the hearts of all rock fans, and his Jackson guitar remains in production.


  1. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction - The Rolling Stones

  2. Are You Gonna Go My Way - Lenny Kravitz

  3. Welcome Home - King Diamond

  4. You Really Got Me - The Kinks

  5. Holy Wars…The Punishment Due - Megadeth

  6. Rebel Rebel - David Bowie

  7. Sonne - Rammstein

  8. The Trooper - Iron Maiden

  9. Walk - Pantera

  10. Paperback Writer - The Beatles

  11. Zero - Smashing Pumpkins

  12. I Wanna Be Your Dog - The Stooges

  13. Holy Diver - Dio

  14. Tush - ZZ Top

  15. Diamond Eyes - Deftones

  16. Crystal Mountain - Death

  17. Bad Thing - Periphery

  18. (Don’t Fear) The Reaper - Blue Oyster Cult

  19.  Rumble - Link Wray

  20. Jesus Christ Pose - Soundgarden

  21. Bewitched - Candlemass

  22. Now I’m Here - Queen

  23. Beat It - Michael Jackson

  24. My Curse - Killswitch Engage

  25. Bulls on Parade - Rage Against the Machine

  26. Barracuda - Heart

  27. Bleed American - Jimmy Eat World

  28. Just One Fix - Ministry

  29. Free Fallin’ - Tom Petty

  30. Them Bones - Alice in Chains

  31. Mannish Boy - Muddy Waters

  32. Eighties - Killing Joke

  33. Painkiller - Judas Priest

  34. Alive - Pearl Jam

  35. Love? - Strapping Young Lad

  36. Kickstart My Heart - Motley Crue

  37. Pride (In the Name of Love) - U2

  38. My Girl - The Temptations

  39. 20th Century Boy - T-Rex

  40. Purple Haze - Jimi Hendrix Experience

  41. All Right Now - Free

  42. Oh Pretty Woman - Roy Orbison

  43. Davidian - Machine Head


Riff After Riff

So, how was that for a list? Did your favourite riff moments make the list? As I mentioned, I decided against allowing more than one entry per band, otherwise there would be loads of Sabbath, Zep, ‘Tallica and the rest. As you can see, there is no shortage of awesome riffs out there in the guitar world, and they are coming from all directions!

As this is a celebration of the art of the riff, there aren’t any ‘best’ or ‘better’ ones here, only well-known and better-known ones.

Now, as a purveyor of riffcraft, I put it to you that your next task is to check out all of the songs from this list that you don’t already know, and get those riffs learned! Add some new dimensions to your playing today! Have fun.


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I'm a musician and artist originally from the South West coast of Scotland. I studied Visual Arts and Film Studies at...

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