Top 10 Rock Guitar Riffs

What are the greatest rock guitar riffs of all time? Your votes have been counted - did your nomination make the top 10?

Ultimate Guitar

What are the greatest rock guitar riffs of all time? That's what we asked UG readers in our poll this week, which became one of our most hotly-contested votes ever.

It takes a lot for a part to achieve legendary riff status. First, it's got to be on guitar - you can't have an epic rock riff on a flute, obviously. Second, it's got to ooze cool. In fact, it's got to spray cool out of your speakers like a damn super soaker. Third, and most importantly, it's got to be fun to play - because that's what guitar is all about. To help with this, we've added a tab link after each song title so you can spend the weekend brushing up on your guitar hero status. Have some fun with it!

After hundreds of nominations and thousands of votes, the results are in. So what are the best rock guitar riffs of all time? It's time to find out...

10. Red Hot Chili Peppers "Can't Stop"


The distant opening riff might remind you of vintage rock, but it's the funkadelic verse hook that keeps guitarists coming back to this song.

9. Nirvana "Smells Like Teen Spirit"


Guitar shops around the world famously banned this song after hearing it being played by newbies so often - an honor only bestowed to Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" before. That doesn't mean it sucks, though. This riff is the sound of teenage fury, packed into four simple chords.

8. The White Stripes "Seven Nation Army"


You think that's a bass riff? Nope, that's just a super-detuned guitar string. Or you can stick to the old adage "don't bore us, get to the chorus" and play the full-volume chorus guitar attack instead.

7. AC/DC "Back In Black"


Perfection is slapping on a leather jacket, putting this track in your headphones and stomping down the street to the tempo. Oh, and if it wasn't bleedingly obvious, you need a BLACK leather jacket for this one.

6. Eric Clapton (Derek and the Dominos) "Layla"


This unmistakable Clapton riff isn't just technically hard to perform - it's all in the way you play and bend those strings. Make it sing, and Layla will sing with you.

5. Deep Purple "Smoke On The Water"


If this wasn't one of the first things you ever played on guitar, you missed an important rite of passage, like falling off your bike the first time you ride it - it's just something you have to do one day.

4. Jimi Hendrix (The Jimi Hendrix Experience) "Purple Haze"


The sound of an era. Hendrix's "Purple Haze" performance is a psychedelic sweep through his creative mind, and has been picked up by weed fanatics as a cannabis anthem. Hendrix always insisted it was a love song, strangely.

3. Rage Against The Machine "Killing In The Name"


Rage's defining political song made a stunning comeback in 2009 when it led a Facebook campaign to block a Christmas "X Factor" from the No. 1 chart slot at Christmas in the UK. Radio stations were stuck with a unique decision: "do we play the song in full, or not?" Listen to the NSFW ending if you're in the 0.1% of people who don't know why...

2. Cream "Sunshine Of Your Love"


Eric Clapton's second entry in the top 10 is well-earned. Interestingly, he was inspired by a night of watching Jimi Hendrix playing a show in London and Clapton wrote this riff the moment he got back.

1. Led Zeppelin "Black Dog"


Jimmy Page might have all the glory for playing this epic rock riff, but it was actually bassist John Paul Jones who wrote it. His goal: to write a riff that kept winding round without a clear groove.

"I wanted to try an electric blues with a rolling bass part. But it couldn't be too simple," he later said. "I showed it to the guys, and we fell into it. We struggled with the turn-around, until [John] Bonham figured out that you just four-time as if there's no turn-around. That was the secret.

That's the end of our top 10 rock guitar riffs - but what's your top 10? Do you think UG readers have voted a perfect list, or would you tweak it? Post your amendments in the comments, and share your love for other great rock riffs down below.

Oh, and hit 'Like' if you want your friends to have a rock education. It'll be good for them.

274 comments sorted by best / new / date

    My Last Words
    Shitstorm incoming in 5.. 4.. 3.. 2..
    do people really like pearl jam that much? i don't think i've listened to a full pearl jam song on purpose in like 5 years
    ...The fact that you haven't listened to a full Pearl Jam song in 5 years is maybe why you don't understand why Pearl Jam are great.
    This is certainly not a terrible list because each of these songs had a huge impact on music, but as far as the best... idk if I would go that far.
    You could have made a top 100 and still be missing loads of awesome riffs.
    This guy's opinion obviously matters more than ours. I think we should all stop liking Pearl Jam immediately.
    Except for the fact that he didn't ask that any of us do that. If he doesn't like Pearl Jam, he should be able to go out and say he doesn't like Pearl Jam.
    This is all that needs to be said
    This list is a bit inconsistent. ie: Sleep Now in the Fire > Killing In The Name Of, and "Can't Stop" is RHCP's best riff? And Black Dog is Zeppelin's?
    Crazy Train should be on there, As well as Paranoid!!! Not Seven Nation Army.....Mainly do too the fact the title of this post is Top 10 Rock Riffs, In what world is Seven Nation Army a great riff?????
    And even now, people still fail to realize that it said in the rules of the contest "No metal, or punk songs", despite being repeated 1,000,000 times by a certain Mr. N-D...
    Paranoid riff is a rip off Led Zeppelin anyway and Seven Nation Army is far more recognizable than Crazy Train to the average listener
    I was thinking the same thing with black Sabbath getting shunned. I also woulda liked to see maybe sweet child o mine, or something Pantera, but I guess they were to metal.
    Dude, I agree that the riff in the middle of this song is EPIC. But I think "The Song Remains the Same" takes the cake...
    im sorry but jethro tull never gets any credit
    Rex Inclitus
    Martin Barre recorded the solo in one take at the studio for Aqualung so it remains pretty impressive in my opinion. I am becoming quite sceptical of how many members actually play guitar, ( and I mean proficiently, laughed at so many people who thought they were guitar players ) so I would not put any credence in these lists unless actual musicians were the only people allowed voting. The world has enough armchair quarterbacks as it is.
    Black Dog.. my favourite riff ever. I remember the first time I heard it... I was like WOW, WHAT IS THAT??? Definitely deserving, so memorable and so much power, coolness, sex and groove all in one.
    Can't argue with this list, there is literally hundreds of riffs that could've been here.
    pretty awsome list, though correct me if im wrong but didnt jack bruce write the sunshine of your love riff?
    him and that other bloke, Pete Brown had a long song writing session, which hadn't been very productive, then Jack Bruce randomly played the sunshine riff and Pete said it's getting near dawn (because it was) That's what I heard anyway
    Good list. Not saying this is top 10 material but this riff is pretty tasty Rock Bottom by UFO
    Was hoping to see Paranoid Android, but the inclusion of RATM justifies that loss to me
    Really wish UG wouldn't post so many opinion or opinion poll articles and presenting them as fact. Music is entirely subjective and whilst I agree these are probably the best known classic rock guitar riffs I really don't think that makes them top of anything. P.S. Feel free to publish the opinion I just expressed as fact, I would be fine with that.
    Im not a huge fan of Pearl Jam, but youre making yourself look like an idiot, dude.
    good list
    Not bad. But it really needs Johnny B. Goode. Greatest Rock n Roll song ever written. I've still never heard a bad version of it.
    I have yet to here a good version live. the singers always exaggerate the gravelly voice, and the guitarists turn up too loud, and the drummers think it's much faster.
    link no1
    The Judas Priest cover? It tends to be one of my favorite covers of all time just because they made it their own rather than straight up note for note copying the original. Plus yano...Back to the Future is the greatest trilogy ever (Screw you Star Wars)
    Nearly perfect, if you ask me. I was upvoting Cant Stop, Seven Nation Army and Black Dog; no complaints here!
    Okay list in my opinion, don't get me wrong, all the riffs on there are sick. I think something from Eddie VanHalen's archive could fit there
    Where does Alice In Chains fit in? I'm pretty sure Jerry Cantrell wrote the best riffs.
    I'm pretty sure you are wrong about that.
    You have a System of a Down avatar. Your opinion, therefore, like hemorrhoids: it sucks arse.
    I don't have a System of a Down avatar and I'm also pretty sure he's wrong about that. I'm also pretty sure your comment is very unfunny and stupid.
    @Jazz1992 - I wasn't being serious with that comment, you Einstein. Also... "and I'm also pretty sure he's wrong about that." Good to know your opinions are facts, now we can just throw centuries of science down the drain and listen to your words! First question: is God real?
    Same avatar I've had since I joined the site 10 years ago. Don't care to change it because it makes my posts easy to find, and SOAD is a great band. A band who wrote far more interesting music than AIC. AIC always just sounded like loud Pearl Jam. Turning up the gain doesn't make you any less boring. I'd have to say the man that you took your SN from wrote the best riffs. Your attempt at humor was pathetic, but I'm not surprised by that considering you think Jerry Cantrell wrote the best riffs of all time.
    I like how you kept going on with the "argument", even though I've already stated I was nowhere near being serious. Dat butthurt. But what should I expect, that's the very definition of SOAD's fanbase - angry kids cussing on the internet.
    I was just replying to what you said to me. I didn't take the time to read all the other stuff. I'm willing to bet you were serious until you got such a negative reaction.
    I'm really far away from being the regular music elitist, relax. (Although it's funny to pretend to be one just to take the piss out of the whole thing, sometimes.)
    I find the lack of Rolling Stones songs disturbing.
    King Bluesy
    yea Keith is one of best riff writers and there isn't one on here. But it is a pretty good list
    So what you're saying is "you can't get no satisfaction" with this lists lack of the rolling stones.
    The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man, Satisfaction, Start Me Up... the list is decent though.
    Stones and Sabbath missing off this list, and White Stripes on it makes it a bit of a joke. Still think that Brittany Spears song on the Punk Song list shoulda been on there with the amount of stupid votes it was getting.
    I feel like no matter what the Wednesday question is, the same artists and sometimes even the same songs appear on mostly every list.
    *Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Deep Purple* It becomes annoying after the first 35 weeks, indeed.
    Peeps need to get out some more. Try new things, change something a little, get out of the safe zone.
    Guns N' Chains
    Exactly. I must say I am SO shocked to see Led Zeppelin at number one.....Give credit were credit is due, but anyone could have guest that.
    In UG, If we make a top ten songs that didn't make it to the top ten guitar riffsit would still be these ten songs...or at least the same bands.
    Metallica, Megadeth, AC/DC, Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Zeppelin, Sabbath, QOTSA, Rage, and RHCP Wouldn't be a UG list if it didn't have at least half of those.
    " can't have an epic rock riff on a flute, obviously" Jethro Tull's "Bungle in the Jungle" would have to disagree.
    Surprised that there was no ZZTop mentions. Just got paid is one of the catchiest riffs of all time (at least I like to think that).
    Nice list but too short to keep everyone happy it was bound to cause arguments lol this wouldve been my vote if I had gotten here on time haha
    I love that song, but it doesn't have any one part in particular that stands out as being in the same league as the ones on the list.
    Just a personal opinion you know how it is "league" is only decided by opinion what I mean by that just to avoid any unessesary confusion is when you say its not in the same league as the other songs you could be referring to popularity or technicality or artistically so it really depends on what you mean for sure
    in any case pearl jam is seattle sound grunge, not rock also i like pearl jam
    Grunge =/= rock? o.O
    grunge is really a subgenre of metal and punk.
    No, Grunge is a subgenre of alternative rock.
    Both of you are right. For bands like AIC, metal was a huge influence. Nirvana was strongly influenced by bands like the Pixies, who were more of an alternative, post-punk outfit.
    Out of all the bands to come from Seattle at that time, I always though Pearl Jam was the least grunge-sounding, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
    Rage Against The Machine is more alternative metal. I love them but they are metal.
    Rage, hell yeah . . . but substitute "Soul to Squeeze" if you are gonna us the Chilli Peppers
    In my opinion the best riff in the world is the riff from No Quarter - Led Zeppelin
    Good list, only 2 things I don't like about it. 1. Back in Black is too low 2. Killing in the Name? Fairly decent song I guess, but is the riff really that memorable?
    If a Rage song were to make the list I would have guessed "Bulls on Parade" given that the main riff is what almost everyone plays the first time they encounter a wah pedal. Much more memorable.
    This list is weak as ****. It's impossible to name the top 10 guitar riffs of all time.
    DEAR ULTIMATE-GUITAR, Get an actual poll function. Seriously. You can't call this shit a poll when most of your voters don't make it to the bottom of the comment section, and if they do, it's likely before all of the "entries" have been "submitted" Jesus.
    It's an ok list, nothing awesome. This will always be a generational thing I feel. Classic rock is Zeppelin, Ac/Dc, Cream etc. It's like they are the mainstream in our Rock and Roll community. I can go as to say in 15- 20 years we will see more of the bands from the 00' era that made an impact on rock with some of the classic bands intact.
    21 To 1
    I can't really complain about this list. Black Dog is definitely my favorite rock guitar riff. It was actually the first thing I was really proud of myself for learning to play when I was younger.
    solid list considering how many awesome riffs there are out there. but why is killing in the name above smoke on the water?
    Yeah its good, but where are Guns n Roses? Sweet Child O' Mine or Mr Brownstone are surely better than Can't Stop
    Jimmy Blue
    Great list. I'm a huge huge Clapton fan... but he didn't write the Sunshine riff - it was Jack Bruce! (Sorry C-man)
    as striking as the video for seven nation army is, the constant motion always hurts my eyes and i have to take a part by the second verse
    Insufficient love for the Rolling Stones; Jumping Jack Flash, Brown Sugar, SATISFACTION and more
    Hoped Plug In Baby would appear but that's a fair list I guess.
    Ah, no love for Rainbow as usual... sad, but otherwise the list is pretty decent.