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The Freedom of Music: Greatest Guitar Riffs

January 23rd, 2011

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One likes to believe in the freedom of music.
Rush – Spirit of Radio.

What are the best riffs in rock music? Satisfaction? Smoke on the Water? OK, how about Iron Man? What’s that you say: not a riff, a chord pattern. Not according to Spinner Magazine, which released a list of top 50 riffs and Iron Man made #3.

OK, forgetting for a minute that Iron Man is not a riff, who wrote this, a 13 year old boy? The list is littered, absolutely littered with bad choices, or strange choices. If I was doing a top 50 list, and had such a broad definition that Iron Man was included, it wouldn’t be on my top 100. If Iron Man is a riff, so is Taking Care of Business, which isn’t on the list.sidebar-2

Number 2 is Jimi Hendrix’s Vodoo Child (Slight Return), which although a great guitar part, again wouldn’t actually qualify as a riff in my book.

Then there’s Johnny B Goode at #5. Don’t mis-read me here, it is a great song, and one of the most important in Rock ’n’ Roll. When Bob Seger sings about clubs full of “Chuck’s children playing his licks,” he means Johnny B Goode. But what riff? It has two great solos, agreed. They are chock a block full of little licks, but there is no one riff in Johnny B Goode.

For our purposes, here’s a definition: a repeating melodic guitar line played harmonically. It cannot just be a chord pattern, like Takin’ Care of Business or You Really Got Me. It can, however, have a chord wthin it, like Jumping Jack Flash or Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. And it can be a lick that works around a chord. This is a little delicate, and is really a matter of personal choice, but Money For Nothing is in, Vodoo Child is out. And yes, Vodoo Child is one of the finest examples of electric guitar playing ever, I get that. I love it, and can’t pick up my guitar, turn on my wah-wah pedal and not riff on it. But not a riff.

Even bearing in mind my little rule, the Spinner list is odd. Look at the bottom half of the list: 43 In-a-Gadda-da-Vidda, 42 Beat It, 40 Sweet Home Alabama, 38 Life in the Fast Lane, 37 Pretty Woman. Does any rational music fan think Iron Man is a better guitar part than Sweet Home Alabama or Pretty Woman? And if you’re a metal, Ozzy, Sabbath kind of guy who thinks I‘m just being pissy because they only allowed one Led Zeppelin song, justify Crazy Train at 27. Go ahead, try it. Get stoned first, you still can’t do it.

And while we’re on the subject, what’s with this one Led Zeppelin song rule? Is it or is it not the top 50 guitar riffs? Not 50 riffs by 50 guitar players (excluding Eric Clapton). But if, as you say, you can make a convincing argument for most of Jimmy Page’s riffs, make it. Don’t just pick one – oh and Kashmir is a chord pattern, not a riff. Really, if I were making a list…

What, you thought I wouldn’t? To start, here’s Spinner’s top 10:

10. Enter Sandman
9. Money For Nothing
8. Back in Black
7. Sweet Child O’ Mine
6. You Really Got Me
5. Johnny B. Goode
4. Heartbreaker
3. Iron Man
2. Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
1. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

And here’s somebody who has at least a vague idea what he’s talking about:

10. Jumpin’ Jack Flash – A better riff than Satisfaction, it is one of those great Keith riffs with a cool groove that provides the impetus for the rest of the song.

9. Day Tripper – Is there a more instantly recognizable riff than Day Tripper? A classic in every sense.

8. Oh, Pretty Woman – Not the Roy Orbison version. That’s a good riff, and certainly on any sane persons list, but Eddie Van Halen took that simple riff, sandpapered a rough edge onto it, and made it so much more.

7. Sweet Child of Mine – One of the great songs of rock ‘n’ roll starts up with a riff that is more complex, both technically and harmonically, than most without losing it’s rock appeal.

6. Sweet Home Alabama – First line in this song? Halfway through the intro, Ronnie Van Zandt simply says, “Turn it up.” Who hasn’t? Infectous is the obvious word to describe Sweet Home Alabama’s guitar riff.

5. School’s Out – Name any other riff that sounds great blasting through a cheap, tinny school PA system.

4. Aqualung – A riff so cool Ian Anderson based the melody of the song on it. If you were singing this lick to someone you wouldn’t mimic a guitar sound like you would most, you would sing “snot is running down is nose.”

3. The Ocean – One Led Zeppelin song? What kind of rule is this? Jimmy Page had so many, how can you settle on one. Hearbreaker, Black Dog and Trampled Underfoot could easily be on the list. I thought of dipping into the more obscure catalogue and picking a favourite, Out On The Tiles. But The Ocean is an almost perfect riff, laying out a great groove and riding it.

2. Crazy Train – Manual dexterity and a great rock and roll lick, how can a sane person put this riff anywhere but their top five. It is an almost perfect technical example of what a rock riff is. Randy Rhoades was one of the greats, and this is his very finest moment.

1. Whole Lotta Love – You didn’t think I was really going to stick with the one Led Zeppelin song rule, did you? Jimmy Page played this riff from the top of a double decker bus during Olympic closing ceremonies, and at the New York Stock Exchange to open the trading day. That makes it not just the greatest riff in rock history, but the most cultured.


    Honourable Mentions

  • Smoke on the Water – When they invented the fuzz pedal, someone said, “one day they’ll write the perfect song for this thing.” They did, and this is it.
  • Money – Pink Floyd’s coolest guitar line. Not really a riff based band, but this one is so smooth it belongs.
  • Funk 49 – Joe Walsh at his best.
  • Walk This Way – A great riff is singable. Walk This Way is the exception that prooves the rule.
  • 25 or 6 to 4 – The second riff kids learn on the guitar. Simple and singable the mark of a great riff.
  • Fire – Not technically a guitar riff, but a bass one. None the less, the Springsteen classic has such a slow, cool hook.
  • Tush – A song about checking out sexy women with the sexiest riff going. Perfect.
  • Free Ride – One of those can’t sit still riffs.


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  1. Ron
    January 23rd, 2011 at 15:46 | #1

    “Money” for an all-time great guitar riff?
    Isn’t it the the bass line that everybody recognizes?

  2. January 23rd, 2011 at 16:04 | #2

    You are right Ron. I’ve played the riff on the guitar for years so I kind of think of it as one. Not the only bass riff in the honourable mention category, so I can live with it.

  3. January 24th, 2011 at 08:58 | #3

    Wow, great list. Hard to disagree with any of your choices. There are so many Led Zeppelin tunes to choose from, but I think Black Dog or Travelling Riverside Blues (again, probably not a riff…) would be in my list.

    Eagles tunes would have to include the Hotel California intro, and for sure Life in the Fast Lane.

    I’ve always liked the guitar riff in Neil Young’s Powderfinger too.

    For the bass guitarists in the crowd, I’d vote for Soul Man (Blues Brothers version).

    Now I have to spark up Media Player… 🙂

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