Top 10 Riffs Of The '80s

Here are the 10 most totally awesome riffs of the 1980s.

Ultimate Guitar

Somewhere deep in the primordial ooze of rock and roll there exists a phenomenon known as the "riff", with the power to make a decent song great, and a great song an all-time classic. There were a handful of great riffs in the '50s ("Susie Q" comes to mind), but the form really began to flourish in the '60s, at the hands of Dave Davies, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards and other, predominantly British, guitar heroes. In the '70s, it was part and parcel with "classic" rock. You couldn't throw a pet rock without hitting some axeman coming up with his own "Iron Man" or "Sweet Home Alabama". The '80s kept the tradition running, with guitarists from decades past, like Keith Richards and Tony Iommi, still flexing their muscles, along with a new breed of riffmasters like Slash and Vivian Campbell.

It's tough narrowing down the decade of Reagan and Rubik's Cubes and when all-stars like Eddie Van Halen, Tony Iommi and the boys from Iron Maiden don't make the cut, you know you've got a tough list but here are the 10 most totally awesome riffs of the 1980s, as compiled by Michael Wright from

10. Rush, "Limelight"

You've got to love Alex Lifeson. Blessed (or cursed) with sharing trio space with one of the best bass players on the planet and probably the best drummer on Earth, Lifeson still manages to stand out with imaginative solos and, in the case of this Moving Pictures tour de force, major league riffage his best since "Passage To Bangkok".

YouTube preview picture

9. Guns N' Roses, "Sweet Child O' Mine"

"Appetite For Destruction" ushered in a new age of stripped down, rip-out-your-throat rock and roll. And while the album was stacked with heavy hitters like "Welcome To The Jungle" and "Mr. Brownstone", it was the ballad of the set that had the most unique and memorable riff. Kudos to Slash, Izzy and company for finding a way to wrap a love song around this torturous hand exercise.

YouTube preview picture

8. The Clash, "Should I Stay Or Should I Go"

Sometimes you only need two chords to kick an audience in the teeth, and certainly Mick Jones and Joe Strummer did just that with this "Combat Rock" fave. Beginners, if you need a showpiece for that school talent show but only know a handful of chords (no pun intended), you could do a lot worse.

YouTube preview picture

7. Michael Jackson (featuring Steve Lukather), "Beat It"

Even metal dudes had to cop to the fact that this Michael Jackson track freakin' rocked. Yes, it had that insane guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen, but the engine driving the song was a weighty bounce by session whiz Steve Lukather.

YouTube preview picture

6. Judas Priest, "Breaking The Law"

Priest fans might argue that "Livin' after Midnight" or "Heading Out to the Highway" are more deserving fair play, I actually prefer "Highway" but it's hard to deny the brutal simplicity of this "British Steel" classic. Kinda makes you want to rob a bank with your guitar, doesn't it?

YouTube preview picture

5. Def Leppard, "Photograph"

There's a bit of alchemy on this one, not unlike the opening chord of The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night". There are actually two guitar parts interwoven on this seemingly simple blast from "Pyromania". It proved to be a memorable entrance for Phil Collen into the band, just as their career was about to kick into overdrive.

YouTube preview picture

4. Scorpions, "Rock You Like A Hurricane"

Maybe the heaviest combination of simple power chords ever, Rudolf Schenker's five-chord opening on this "Love At First Sting" track is instantly memorable the key to any great riff. Case in point: I defy you to attend an air show and not hear this song 10 times!

YouTube preview picture

3. Ozzy Osbourne (featuring Randy Rhoads), "Crazy Train"

In the 1980s, you couldn't throw a dead cat in a music store without hitting some kid playing this Randy Rhoads warhorse. The churning, sinister opening section hurls the song forward and creates a momentum that never lets up, even as Ozzy takes it off the rails.

YouTube preview picture

2. The Rolling Stones, "Start Me Up"

Twelve years after "Honky Tonk Women", Keith Richards could still conjure an open-tuned gem like no one else. This 1981 classic is so stirring that nearly 30 years later you're still unlikely see a football stadium not use it to psych their fans up for a kickoff.

YouTube preview picture

1. AC/DC, "Back In Black"

Perhaps the greatest riff-oriented album of all time is the band's 1980 farewell to dearly departed singer Bon Scott. Brothers Angus and Malcolm Young cooked up some of the greatest riffs of their career on this magnum opus (including "You Shook Me All Night Long", "Hell's Bells" and "Have A Drink On Me"), but none is more memorable than the hard and heavy title track.

YouTube preview picture

Do you agree with the choice or is there something missing? Let us know in the comments.

241 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Master of Puppets?
    the chalky one
    I'll be shocked when I see a list where no one complains about who they thought should have been there... Just saying.
    We know that's what you we're "just saying." No need to put that in there. Doing so is like a song writer who ran out of lyrics and starts singing la la la. It's flat out annoying.
    You know, I even told myself not to read this article knowing full well I would get mad. And without fail, here I am.....and I'm mad.
    An iconic riff, but not sure if it is top 10 material compared to the others listed.
    o come on dude...every metal player around the world at some point learns that is 'THE' metal riff...
    you're a puppet...get over it and listen to something other than metallica
    And you're another douche bag Metallica hater. Do you feel special? Well, you're not. You're probably just butthurt because you really know deep down that Metallica is far better than any of the shit you listen to. Master of Puppets was a ****ing groundbreaking riff, and you know it. Fucking hipster piece of shit.
    Metallica in general?
    1983-1991 metallica, you mean?
    1983-1988, you mean? Because it's top 10 riffs of the '80s. But I don't know any other Metallica riff that should be on the list. Maybe Seek and Destroy. They are the most well known riffs of '80s Metallica. I mean, I like the riffs but do they belong to top 10 riffs of the '80s? Also Peace Sells by Megadeth could be here. Accept - Balls to the Wall should be here. That's a bitchin' riff.
    Face R1pper
    That's a very ambitious list to propose. It would make more sense to do a list of the top ten riffs per year.
    Master of Puppets? That was groundbreaking. But hey, good list.
    I agree that Master eats all these riffs up and then spits them out but maybe UG was going for that 80's sound. Can you imagine an 80s montage with Metallica blaring behind you?
    Looking at this video of Back In Black makes me think the next poll should be "Top 10 Best Replacements in Rock"
    1. Bruce Dickinson 2. Brian Johnson 3. Phil Anselmo 4. Marty Friedman 5. Rick Wakeman 6. Bill Bruford 7. Kirk Hammett 8. Zack Wylde 9. Ringo Starr (A lot of people don't know that he replaced Pete Best in The Beatles) 10. Dave Grohl
    Gilmour wasn't actually a replacement. He joined the band during the Piper At The Gates of dawn sessions, but since he didn't write anything and since the band was well-practiced enough to record the songs, he didn't record anything on the album. As a member of the band he toured with them as a guitarist while they were promoting Piper at the gates of dawn and started writing songs with them that would appear on A Saucer Full of secrets. The fact that Syd Barrett quit the band and Gilmour seemed to fill the void left by him is just a coincidence. Gilmour and Syd, along with the rest of the band, all played on A Saucer full of secrets.
    John Frusciante? He made the band what it was/is. Without him RHCP never would have had the success they did.
    They WOULD have had the success, but I think the band was at its best with John.
    Andy Summers... I imagine if he hadn't joined The Police modern rock could be entirely different.
    Jordan Rudess in Dream Theater and dare i say it...Mike Mangini?
    For a list about riffs in the 80's there seems to be a lack of metal!
    What about Panama by Van Halen?
    Thought Dr. Feelgood would be on here, not the Crue's best in my opinion, but a lot of people seem to love it.
    I'm surprised Seek and Destroy or Tornado of Souls didn't get a mention. I'd expect at least one song from the Big Four. This list is okay. Not all of these riffs exactly come to mind when I think of amazing riffs.
    Tornado of Souls is a 90's song.
    Yeah that's a good call. I just saw 80's and thought of the Big 4. My bad.
    How about Peace Sells or Hook in Mouth? I'd say Blackened or ...And Justice for All or Battery. No Master is legit.
    She Sells Sanctuary-The Cult Blister in the Sun-Violent Femmes list completed
    Yeah, She Sells Sanctuary's riff rocks. I think there could easily be some Maiden on here - Hallowed Be Thy Name? The Number of the Beast? The Trooper?
    Eclectic Lizard
    I've always found that Iron Maiden's riffs are alright but there songs are amazing. The riffs don't really stand alone too often but when you add in Bruce's vocals and Steve's bass, the solos etc etc the song becomes ****in amazing
    Sweet Child O' Mine? For ****s sakes, even Slash hates that riff... Anyway, I'll go with the riff that starts at 0:31 here:
    And yea, bring on all the downvotes.
    Why are you always such a dick?
    I'm not a dick at all, I don't have testicles on my feet.
    Very cool riff. But not a lot of people know anything about Sonic Youth. Which is a shame. And I heard the story about Slash playing the Sweet Child riff as a joke and Axl liked it.
    You probably don't even know why...
    Why Slash dislikes it? Because he played that riff as a joke while rehearsing and thought it was crap, but Axl liked it. I don't like that intro either, but the guitar solo makes it up for me. That's just, like, my opinion, man.
    I do find Sweet Child's intro to be one of the most irritating riffs ever to be honest, but considering it's only gone downhill since it's so overrated and so mainstream, what I really am suprised is how it isn't in #1 place. Then again, it's not at #1 so I'm glad, but I still don't know why it's even up here. This is a top 10 list, not a most popular list, so why put it in the list at all? Every other riff sounds better then that songs beginning.
    My favorite 80's riff is main riff in The Headmaster's Ritual by the Smiths. Just such a great riff (the main one that comes in after the intro chords). Got me to check out open tunings too.
    The fact that Metallica's four best albums came out in the 80's and not one of their 35 songs from that point made this list is disgraceful. Master Of Puppets? Seek and Destroy? Blackened? Creeping Death? Battery? Do any of those songs ring a bell? How do Def Leppard, The Rolling Stones, and The Clash make the list but Metallica does not? Or Megadeth? Or Slayer? I usually don't complain about these list but this is horrible.
    Slayer "Angel of death" (somewhere in the middle, one of the best riff of the century) King's X "Over my head" Killing Joke "Eighties"
    This list is shit; just saying.
    No kidding. Top 10 overrated/ overplayed riffs of the 80's.
    The fact that they are "overplayed" is actually saying that they were the coolest and the most catching riffs of their time. Just sayin'.
    I'd leave Rush - Limelight, the Stones - Start Me Up, & AC/DC - Back in Black, but replace the others with: Candlemass - Demon's Gate Celtic Frost - Jeweled Throne Dinosaur Jr - Freak Scene DRI - Mad Man Suicidal Tendencies - Institutionalized Great Britain Hardcore - Vietnamese Blues Husker Du - It's not Funny Anymore Iron Maiden - Number of the Beast Megadeth - The Conjouring
    Should I stay or should I go is just plain boring. This could have easily been replaced bu pretty much any other rock or metal song.
    I don't understand why the metal community can't acknowledge the difference between stuff that is iconic/recognisable to the masses and stuff that is iconic within metal. You can't make a top 10 list that is only relevant to metal fans. I'm so sick of the "Where is *metal band*" spam.
    There's a larger amount of riffs in a metal song than in a rock song, depending obviously of the band in question. The repetitive radio friendly approach of some songs, like Back in Black for instance, is not nearly as interesting as something a little more variate or elaborated like a King Crimson song, or a Megadeth song. Being iconic or popular has nothing to do with the aforementioned situation, this is mostly about quality, not impact.
    not 1 metallica riff on the greatest riffs of the 80's list? are we joking people? and you put rush in there? hahahahahahhahaha
    Hmm....I have sneaking suspicion that these groups made the list because they play Gibson guitars, seeing as though it was compiled by someone from, I'd say its a fair guess
    the riff of the 80's is before all this list money for nothing.This song is the 80's, it's MTV