Guitar riffs are some of the most memorable parts of songs that we have all come to love as musicians, especially when they are catchy and easy to learn. There are several guitarists who have played amazing guitar riffs over the years like Jimi Hendrix, Dave Grohl, and Alex Lifeson. Let’s face it: as a guitarist, you want to be able to rip out those riffs and eventually be able to create riffs that your fans will remember for decades. I have found that playing riffs is a great way to perfect your guitar, especially if you know the songs where the riffs originated.
I have played the guitar for years, and many of the riffs that we are going to look at in this guide are riffs that I have played in the past and continue to play today. I have done a lot of research into each one of these songs to break down the tabs and make them easier to learn. I have even discussed the list with other guitarists that I know, and we all agree that these are some classics that any guitarist should learn.
Of course, you are not going to learn them all right now, but this list is a great place to start. If you are a beginner, you can choose a slower riff to start, and then progress to something more difficult as you learn. Before we take a look at our list, let’s discuss what makes a good guitar riff and what you can do to improve your skills so that these riffs become easy.
What Makes a Guitar Riff Good?
One of the main things that make a guitar rift awesome is the fact that it is remembered by your fans. It does not need to be long or contain a ton of notes; the most important thing to remember about a guitar riff is that it needs to be catchy. I have found that many of the classic riffs that we have come to love are played on air guitar or hummed along to by fans. The best part is that these riffs are fun to play, so they help you learn to play better before you realize that your guitar skills have improved.
Way to Improve Your Guitar Skills
Of course, you are not going to be an awesome guitarist the moment that you pick up the instrument, but playing guitar riffs can make the learning process fun. However, there are some things that you can do to make playing these riffs easier.
Practice Scales – Scales can be tedious to play, but they also help you to learn where you need to place your hands to play notes in the scale. You are not going to want to practice scales all the time because when you are not playing actual songs, practicing is not as fun, but it is essential to have a basic knowledge of scales that you will use the most so that you can learn how to position your fingers properly.
Practice Timing – Some songs have riffs that are easy to keep in time, while others go much faster than most beginners can grasp. This is why it is important to be able to keep time when you are playing the guitar, especially if you want to learn to play with a band. One way to do this is to slow down the riff that you are trying to learn so that you can learn the fingerings. Once you have the fingerings down, you can work on your dexterity and bring the song up to tempo.
Get Familiar with the Fretboard – Most guitars have at least 22 frets, so it is essential for you to be able to move from the third fret to the 12th without difficulty. There are little tricks that you can learn like the fact that the 12th fret has two fret pips on most guitars, which makes it easier to find the fret.
Practice Left- and Right-Hand Coordination – To play guitar properly, you are going to need to be able to strum and position your fingers on your fretboard at the same time. One way to practice this is to practice doing different things with your hands at the same time.
Perfect Alternate Picking – Some of the songs that you are going to want to learn are going to have a fast tempo that is difficult to keep up with when you strum in one direction. One way to speed up your strumming is to pick up and down as you play so that you get two notes in where you would only get one in if you were strumming in one direction. The notes will sound different when they are strummed this way, but it is also a great way to add some flair to your picking style to make the song your own.
Some of the Songs with the Best Guitar Riffs to Learn
1) YYZ – Rush
As an instrumental song, Canadian band Rush’s seminal YYZ (pronounced YY-zed) is an amazing song from start to finish. It starts with a two-note section that is punchy and quick and then quickly progresses to a section that requires lightning-quick picking and fretting. My favorite part of the song comes in at 0:42 – this riff has several notes that progress quickly. If you want to learn this iconic part of the song, you’re going to have to put some practice in, especially considering that it’s easy to forget to link a section here that uses both the G and D strings in quick succession. You’ll even be playing this convoluted part on both the second and fourth frets as well as the fifth and seventh.
2) Misirlou – Dick Dale and His Dell-Tones
This is an absolutely iconic song, especially if you’ve ever watched the cinematic classic Pulp Fiction. Misirlou is an ancient song that has origins in the Middle East, but in Dick Dale’s hands, the song becomes pure surf rock. The riff that stands out utilizes the high E string and will require that you hit several frets in fairly quick succession. The riff comes in at around the 0:26 mark, and has some open string usage as well as a lot of movement up and down the fretboard. Despite the need for fast fingers and accuracy, if you can master this section, you’ll have your listeners eating out of your hands.
3) Highway Star – Deep Purple
The first time I played this song, I was amazed at how cool the muted E and A strings sounded and how it added a real highway-friendly tone to the whole song. In fact, for me, it’s this riff, which is present at many points throughout the song, that’s one of the essential riffs in Highway Star. In my opinion, since it’s relatively simple, it’s also an excellent choice for a beginner that’s learning to strum fast, especially considering that it mixes up with some other notes from time to time, which can help you learn the board.
4) Jessica – The Allman Brothers Band
Another iconic instrumental song, Jessica by the Allmans is one of the better cruising songs, and there are plenty of noteworthy riffs throughout the piece. For an experienced guitarist, this isn’t one of the toughest songs, but there are plenty of points that can mess up a playback with relative ease. If you’re looking for a definitive riff to learn from this song, I suggest you take a look at the riff that starts around 4:15. While I know this comes late in the song, it’s important to remember that Jessica is a song that goes on for more than seven minutes, but this one sticks out because of its complexity and tone.
5) The Trees – Rush
I love a song that tells a story, and you don’t get a better story than the one that’s presented in The Trees. This song is another famous one from Canadian band Rush, and outside of the narrative that tells the listener about the trouble with the trees, there are more than a few riffs that are just excellent to hear. The main riff in this song stands out the most and begins around the 0:07 part and sounds even better than the power chord section of the song that starts at the one-minute mark. Just beware: this is an Alex Lifeson riff, so expect complexity.
6) Eye of The Tiger – Survivor
If you’ve ever watched Rocky, you understand how the riffs in this song can get anyone in a fighting mood. Outside of the cool-sounding muted A, some of the best riffs in the song come in the chorded section where you’ll have to play Cm and Bb alternately and progresses to finish up the riff with a sustained Ab. This section provides a one, two, three punch that sounds bombastic and really will get you amped up. This section of the song happens about 10 seconds in and continues throughout Eye of the Tiger.
7) Iron Man – Black Sabbath
Another riff that starts early on, the main hook that everyone associates with Iron Man comes in around 25 seconds into the song. You’ll be using the low E and A strings for this, and it has a very simple chord progression that will still test your coordination and speed. That being said, this riff is highly recognizable, so playing this for your friends will have them all doing their best air guitar while you do all the actual strumming.
8) Song 2 – Blur
One of the best parts of Song 2 is that it is very simplistic to learn; in fact, this is one of the first songs that I picked up because, outside of the main riff, you’ll just be strumming a simple chord that falls between the 11th and 13th frets. That being said, the main riff is absolutely fun to play and is one of those riffs that just about everyone knows, so if you’re playing it, you can assume that someone around you is going to scream, “Woo Hoo!” The main riff begins at 0:14, so check it out.
9) Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
The song that launched the Grunge movement in music in the 90s has more than a couple of licks that sound great. The primary riff that everyone knows starts out less than five seconds into the song and combines F5, D5, A#5, and G#5 chords into an awesome-sounding riff that has become absolutely iconic. This may take some time to learn, but being able to play it will make you the guitar player that everyone will want to hear.
10) Samba Pa Ti – Santana
If you feel like you’ve mastered bends, hammer-ons, and pull-offs, then you should give Samba Pa Ti a try because the riffs throughout this song require more than a few techniques that may take time to master. The killer riff in this song begins at the 2:58 point and depends on the G and B strings in the higher sections of the fretboard. As I said, you’ll be bending and using other techniques for this riff, so be ready to work your fingers. Don’t forget; this is Carlos Santana, so understand that this is a bluesy riff that will take a lot of practice.
11) Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple
Another Deep Purple song, Smoke on the Water is famous for its impressive intro that is a combination of power chords that just about every listener has heard throughout their lives. The chorded riff is the first thing that you hear when you’re listening to the song, and playing it isn’t super tough, but you’ll definitely feel rewarded when you’ve played it back perfectly. In fact, this riff has made it onto several lists of the greatest guitar riffs of all time, so take the time to learn it.
12) Sweet Child of Mine – Guns N’ Roses
The rumor states that the chunky riff that is featured in this song was developed by slash during the band’s jam sessions, but thank goodness that it was. This is one of my favorite riffs, and the solo that Slash executes around the 2:43 part of this song is a modern-day marvel. In addition to this solo, the primary riff that starts the song out is also very well-known, and while it lasts for a full 40 seconds, you might want more as you listen. This part of the song requires a repeating sequence of single notes that may be hard to learn at first, but once you got it, it’ll fit nicely in your repertoire.
13) Crazy Train – Ozzy Osbourne
Now I’m not going to lie to you, there are parts of Crazy Train that will test any guitarists, but fortunately, the riff that most people are most familiar with isn’t super hard. This riff actually starts the song up but can be found throughout the entirety of Crazy Train. If you’re going to learn this riff, just remember that you’re going to be using the E and A strings primarily, and you’ll be fingering frets two through five with a few open strings thrown in. Once you’ve mastered this riff, you’ll be a star at parties and playing around at gigs.
14) Frankenstein – The Edgar Winter Group
The 70s were loaded with more than a few iconic riffs that launched more than a few guitarists’ careers, and one of the more famous riffs came from The Edgar Winter Group’s Frankenstein. Double stops are the name of the game if you’re going to be attempting this legendary riff. This means that you’re going to be hitting two sets of notes at a time, so it may take a bit of practice. This riff plays throughout the song; in fact, learning it means that you’ll have almost mastered the entirety of the piece.
15) For All the Cows – The Foo Fighters
The Foo Fighters are one of the modern bands that have become legend around the world, and while this unique song isn’t one of their more famous tracks, I love the riffs that they use, and I also love how the song goes from relatively slow-paced licks to super hard and fast riffs. The riff that is the most fun to play is the opening licks. This opening riff combines open notes, with single notes, and even throws in some chords for variety, so needless for me to say, it’s a bit on the advanced side of things but very rewarding once you learn it.
16) Scar Tissue – Red Hot Chili Peppers
There are few bands that are as successful as RHCP, and Scar Tissue comes off of one of their most successful albums. This song has sections that use a lot of complex chord progressions, but for me, the best riffs can be found in the single-note sections. Around 2:03, a solo kicks in that’s probably one of the most West Coast, surf-style solos in recent years. This combination of riffs lasts until the 2:26 part of the song, and since it only uses the B string and some slides, you may find this to be a great beginner riff to learn.
17) Sultans of Swing – Dire Straits
Dire Straits is an English band that was predominantly popular in the 1980s, and while Money for Nothin’ was one of their biggest hits, the popularity of Sultans of Swing can’t be understated either. When you’re playing this song, there are a lot of parts where you can easily get tripped up, but when you’re thinking about this song, invariably, the riff that happens at 0:30 will probably pop in your head. This is not an easy to play part, but if you know your double stops and bar chords, you’ll be amazed at how good it can sound.
18) Baba O’Riley – The Who
Many casual listeners know baba O’Riley as Teenage Wasteland because Pete Townsend frequently mentions the phrase throughout the song. No matter the actual song title, the riff combination that comes in right after the “Teenage Wasteland,” is nigh-perfect because of how catchy it is. You can find this riff around 2:23, and snare drums accompany it. To play this riff, you need to play three chords: F5, C, and Bb, which combine excellently.
19) Aqualung – Jethro Tull
When most people think Aqualung, they think of the six-note riff that made the song famous. While there are chords to be played after these notes, just playing these will bring people back to the heyday of Jethro Tull. The riff only uses E and A notes from the third fret to the sixth, but once you’ve mastered the unique picking, you’ll have more than a few people singing along. The main section of this song is much more chord-based, but the intro lick is a great place to get started.
20) Barracuda – Heart
One of the coolest parts of Barracuda is the galloping guitar riff that starts up in various parts of the song, including the beginning. Getting the timing on this section is crucial, and for the right staccato tone, you will have to mute both the notes that you’ll be strumming. Once you’ve mastered these aspects, the riff will really come together, and you’ll love how it sounds. To finish off this riff combination, you’ll also have to incorporate harmonics towards the end, so take a second to learn how to make those sound best.
21) Seven Nation Army – The White Stripes
This song by the White Stripes is widely considered a modern day classic due to its blues-influenced style and frantic tone. The main riff for this song is relatively easy to pull off even if you are somewhat new to playing the guitar. You start out by strumming the seventh fret of the A string, progress to the 10th fret of the same string, come back to the seventh, then to the fifth, the third, and finally the second fret. Once you’ve given it a few tries, you should be able to pick it up quickly.
22) Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd
This song doesn’t have many notes to play, but you can still expect to need to use a wide variety of playing techniques to create the deep sound originated by Pink Floyd in the 1970s. To play the most famous riff successfully, you’ll need not only to play single fretted notes, but you’ll also be strumming open notes as well as chords throughout to complete the section. In my experience, this riff is one of the most well-known by just about any audience, and it’s also a good skill builder for intermediate guitarists.
23) Ace of Spades – Motorhead
For those of you who like a bit of hard rock, the song Ace of Spades by Motorhead is an excellent option for you to learn. It starts out with a very recognizable guitar riff that seems quite intense to play, but it is one that is quite rewarding to master. In fact, it only uses two strings and two frets, so it is not as challenging to learn as it may sound.
24) Crazy on You – Heart
I adore Crazy on You because of the powerful lyrics, the fantastic guitar riff, and the complete package that you get from Heart with this song. The song was released in 1976, but it is still known as one of the songs with an iconic intro guitar riff. If you are a beginner, you will find it to be a problematic riff to master, but when you do, you will see that it was well worth your time to learn this iconic riff.
25) Beat It – Michael Jackson
Beat It was released with Michael Jackson’s hit album Thriller, and it is still one of the most iconic songs that he released today. The guitar riff that the song is most known for begins at about 54 seconds into the song. It is not a difficult riff, but it is one that will always be remembered. Starting on an open note, the riff uses frets two through five and then goes back to an open note before repeating itself. This song is truly a classic; in fact, it was ranked 81 on Rolling Stone’s list of “100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.”
26) Back in Black – ACDC
The guitar riff that opens this song was designed as a tribute to Bon Scott,who had passed away before the song was written. It is a simple riff that any guitarist can play with practice. It starts on fret two and three, and by the end of the riff, you will be playing notes on the seventh fret. ACDC was always one of my favorite bands, and this riff is a part of the song that is often remembered by fans. In fact, since it is at the beginning of the song, it is one of its identifying factors.
27) Sunshine of Your Love – Cream
Sunshine of Your Love was Cream’s most popular song, and it’s not hard to see why. The song starts off with this amazing riff that you hear throughout the song. It sets the whole tone for the song and makes you want to get up and dance. The riff is mainly played between the 10th and the 12th fret. It looks quite tricky to play at first glance, but the chords that make up the riff actually use the same fingerings, so positioning your hand does not take a lot of effort once you learn how to place your fingers.
28) Clocks – Coldplay
When I first heard this song in 2002, I fell in love with the second lead guitar part. This song has a simple guitar riff that you can listen to at the beginning of the song as well as at about a minute into the song and again at the two-minute mark. The riff is simple to learn because it only utilizes frets eight through 11 and it merely repeats, which can easily be done by shifting your fingers slightly on the fretboard. This is a riff worth learning, especially if you were ever a Coldplay fan.
Wrapping it Up
Nothing makes a song more original than an epic guitar riff that your fans love. In fact, many of these riffs are the reason that I began playing the guitar, and I am sure the same is true for many of you. In this guide, I have laid out 28 of my favorite guitar riffs for you to try. This list is not nearly complete because there are hundreds of great guitar riffs, but these are some of the best, and they can be a great place to start when you are learning to play guitar.
- McCraw, C. (2018, August 13). Personal Interview
- Emond, T. (2018, August 13). Personal Interview
- GP Editors. (2016, August 30). The 100 Greatest Guitar Riffs of All Time. Retrieved from https://www.guitarplayer.com/technique/the-100-greatest-guitar-riffs-of-all-time