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

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    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
    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.
    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?
    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.
    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
    Can't argue with this list, there is literally hundreds of riffs that could've been here.
    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