We've all had that moment during a song when the hairs on our arms stand on end. An innocent listening experience suddenly puts you on edge, and it wouldn't hurt to have a little holy water nearby. Even though our musical catalog might be jam-packed with prime riffage, most of them fall under the powerful or brutal category not necessarily the eerie or even evil. That instant that a riff does drift into otherworldly territory, you never forget it. With Halloween season upon us, it's the perfect time to dig into the memory bank and revisit some of the creepiest guitar lines ever written.
Ultimate-Guitar.com's list pays homage to the new and the old, the subtly chilling and the blatantly ritualistic. Whether utilizing diminished, minor, whole tone, or even a more exotic scale, these guitarists have left us with permanent goosebumps. Considering that our readers' tastes (and more specifically, fears) cover plenty of ground, we've selected riffs that don't just fall into one genre. Everything from drone metal to classic rock will get a nod and/or a shudder this Halloween. Our focus is on the guitar riff and not those ever-haunting synth lines (we're talking to you, Trent Reznor), so keep that in mind. Pull up a chair, cue up the stereo, and grab that crucifix.
Black Sabbath Black Sabbath
Guitarist Tony Iommi is arguably the king of eerie riffage. During his prolific career with Black Sabbath, Iommi penned some of the most chilling, memorable guitar lines ever recorded. And if there was one song that essentially started a whole new movement with metal, Black Sabbath would be thy name. But while we're at it, let's even throw in After All (The Dead), War Pigs, or the Dio-era Sign Of The Southern Cross. We could go on, but you get the picture. Fast-forward to 2010 and you can hear Iommi's influence on the majority of Doom Metal guitarists, whose primary riffs always bear a striking similarity to the trademark Sabbath gain-fueled groan.
Raining Blood Slayer
Much like Black Sabbath, Slayer has a knack for churning out the dramatic riffs. Guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman have more eerie examples than not, so we were hard-pressed to narrow it down to one. It's difficult not to feel a certain ominous presence to the main riff in Raining Blood, however. In fact, the site Metal-Rules.com once put it best by describing the album Reign In Blood as the soundtrack to hell. Coming in a close second could easily be the earlier track South of Heaven from the album of the same name. Never has there been another riff that so perfectly precedes the lyrics, Before you see the light, you must die!
Paint It Black Rolling Stones
Switching gears to a band that is not necessarily known for its affinity for the dark side, we present to you The Rolling Stones' darkest selection Paint It Black. A far cry from the bluesy goodness of Honky Tonk Women or the heartfelt balladry of Angie, Paint It Black represents more melancholy than one is used to hearing in the happy-go-luck, laid-back style of The Stones' catalog. The fact that Keith Richards' clean Telecaster is used to create such an unsettling effect makes this track all the more memorable.
Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) Marilyn Manson
It's true that this was originally a pop hit for The Eurythmics and relatively chilling in its own right, but the song took on a newly disturbing life with Mr. Manson and company. When you substitute the traditional synthesizer intro with Daisy Berkowitz's creeping guitar intro, it is transforms into something out of one of your nightmares. To be fair, The Beautiful People intro even with a fairly straightforward chugging approach comes close to tying for creepiest Manson offering.
Echoes Pink Floyd
David Gilmour was and is still is a master at eliciting emotions out of his seemingly inanimate guitar. From the effects-laden intro to the main riff sandwiching the verse and chorus, Echoes is chock-full of some of Pink Floyd's most ethereal guitar work. You'd swear his Stratocaster is sobbing in that one.
It Took The Night To Believe - Sunn O)))
When you want to create a disturbing mood via instrumentation, you'll want to go straight to drone metal connoisseurs of Sunn O))). It Took The Night To Believe, an instrumental except for, well, the intermittent groans and devilish-and-slightly-incomprehensible commentary is characterized by a fairly monotonous, tremolo picking. The track doesn't stray much from one musical format, but much like the insane quality to the screeching vocalist, the guitars are straight out of a horror flick that just won't end.
Meat Hook Sodomy Cannibal Corpse
Cannibal Corpse isn't known for its ability to cater to the sensitive-minded, and Meat Hook Sodomy is no exception. The intro riff comes across as an amorphous ball of crunch gain, with no known beginning or end. It's exactly that musical insanity that makes the track one of Cannibal Corpse's eeriest selections. Eventually a more defined riff enters into the composition, but it's that first minute that will do the most aural damage.
Dazed And Confused Led Zeppelin
Jimmy Page is arguably the most well known and adored guitarist when it comes to laying down choice blues rock licks, but the icon ventured into more sinister waters with Dazed And Confused. While it may not be quite as intimidating to listen to the main riff in a room of complete darkness as other riffs, there's still a certain spooky quality that resonates.
Her Black Wings Danzig
Glenn Danzig's lengthy career has bounced between punk and straightforward metal, and his smooth-as-silk vocals have always made for a striking and disturbing contrast against a grittier musical composition. It was guitarist John Christ in the project Danzig that produced some of the most chilling riffage, with both the self-titled debut and the follow-up Lucifuge oozing diabolic sexiness. The latter album featured an intro in Her Black Wings that doesn't take a guitar master to conquer, but its eerie simplicity provided a perfect build-up to the chorus.
Angry Chair Alice In Chains
This track could fall into that hazy area where art reflects life and vice versa. Given the tragic fate that was to befall frontman Layne Staley, the gritty, opening riff of Angry Chair is haunting to say the least. There is so much angst and discontent dripping from that one down-tuned guitar line aided by the haunting harmonies of Staley and Jerry Cantrell that it's hard to shake after the first listen.
Got A Bone On My Own Night Sun
If you haven't heard of Night Sun, do yourself a favor and head over to YouTube. The German prog/metal band only released one album titled Mournin,' but it delivered disconcerting riffs that takes some bands a lifetime to develop. And the eeriest? The track Got A Bone On MyOwn features a trippy, disconcerting intro and dark-yet-grooving lick at the halfway point from Walter Kirchgassner.
Cemetery Gates Pantera
Dimebag Darrell dished out a mighty helping of riffage during his lifetime, and his grooving sensibility always added a new level to the angry undertones of vocalist Phil Anselmo. Cemetery Gates was a unique venture, however, and the primary pinch harmonic-driven riff left a massive impression on fans everywhere. The track accomplished being simultaneously chilling and emotionally moving.
The Call of Ktulu Metallica
While the other entries usually pinpoint a specific section of the song, Metallica's instrumental off of Ride The Lightning could be deemed one badass, eerie riff all the way through. The Call Of Ktulu takes an uncharacteristic mellow turn on the band's second studio album, but that doesn't mean that it's not trumping the other seven tracks in terms of drama. It may not be as blatantly dark in terms of Slayer standards, but the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired track still leaves one unsettled.
The Black Flame Nile
Nile may not be as widely recognized as other metal bands, but guitarist Karl Sanders' dips into more exotic styles like the Persian scale to enhance his band's Egyptian themes. The Black Flame is more atmospheric and without any hint of music for a good portion, but Sanders' blazing, epic riff steals the show at about the one-minute mark.
Believer Ozzy Osborne
One could certainly choose Mr. Crowley or even the title track off of the Diary of a Madman record, but it was Believer that delivered the biggest impression riff-wise. Randy Rhoads may have passed too soon at the young age of 25, but his virtuoso composing skills were consistently epic and a fitting follow-up to Ozzy's catalog with Black Sabbath.