9 Unique (and Memorable) Guitar Riffs

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There was a delicious squabble a while back on the Internet: Kinks guitarist Dave Davies was livid that his brother Ray took credit for the earth-changing guitar sound Dave devised for “You Really Got Me.”

Any follower of The Kinks – especially one cognizant of the sibling struggles over the years between Ray and Dave – was barely surprised by the kerfuffle. Without a doubt, Dave’s story is the one to be believed.

Consider “Louie Louie.” In its first incarnations, its riff is a fiddle-thin piano plink transcribed to guitar; admirable in composition, but pale in execution, especially when held up to the Kinks’ sonic blasts to come. For all intents and purposes, the riff era begins in 1964, when Dave slugs out those hefty F to Gs.

And by “riffs,” I am talking about something fairly specific: a sequence of bar chords played on the guitar in a repetitive fashion, with a significant element of the song introduced or sung over the chord sequence. For instance, “I Can’t Explain” by the Who is (what I call) a riff; the (nearly as arresting) “Mississippi Queen” by Mountain is not (great part, but too much single-note diddling and not enough bar chords).

Got it?

9) “Sweet Jane” by The Velvet Underground

Stately, patient, majestic, instantly embracing, not so much a swagger as a confident, straight-backed march to the table that’s been waiting for you at the hippest club in the city. Would love to know where this came from; an earlier memorable VU riff, “There She Goes Again,” was appropriated lock, stock and barrel from Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike,” but I can find no source for this.

8) “Making Time” by The Creation

An angry, arty, chunky interpretation of what The Who, Small Faces and The Move were doing, only The Creation do it perfectly. There’s something decidedly odd about the chord selection, making me think that perhaps it was composed backwards. It’s a shame Hendrix never covered this; there’s a deeply beautiful drunk on a tightrope snarl here that he would have nailed.

7) “Farmer John” by The Premieres

It’s curious that this riff appears nowhere in Don and Dewey’s original version of “Farmer John” (a wonderful, but riff-less dose of amphetamine R&B via the Everlys). This is a slightly more elaborate, more syncopated and less drunken variation of “Louie Louie.”

6) “Roadrunner” by Jonathan Richman

A lot of great riffs are re-interpretations of earlier classic riffs; “Roadrunner” was a taming of the Velvets’ world-ending and feral “Sister Ray,” but they replaced the drug beast howl with an overlay of Fabs/Big Star sensitivity. It’s one of the great stompy-fisty riffs of all time, “Autobahn” transcribed by the Dave Clark Five.

5) “I Want You” by The Troggs

Clearly, just a re-write of the “Wild Thing” riff that had made The Troggs famous, but because they’re, well, The Troggs, they couldn’t help but make it dumber, fiercer and more threatening.

4) “Grim Reaper” by Detective

Let’s say someone gave Led Zeppelin an IV-drip full of pure Costa Rican coffee beans, then told them to spit out a riff based on the “Odessa stairs” sequence in the movie Battleship Potemkin, with the further instruction to make it sound like “You Really Got Me” played sideways by someone describing the Running of the Bulls, and you have this strange, aggressive, gorgeous riff.

3) “Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll” by Blue Öyster Cult

Yes, I know it’s a rewrite of Black Sabbath’s “The Wizard,” but it’s a superior rewrite. It almost disqualifies itself due to its single note-to-bar chord ratio, but those first three chords just announce the Fall of Man as well as anything ever recorded.

2) “Jailbreak” by Thin Lizzy

Phil Lynott is one of the great rock stars of all time. “Jailbreak” is “I Can’t Explain” re-written by Free, it’s “Gloria” running for a subway, it is almost dreamlike in its weird mixture of gigantic and intimate.

1) “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks

In 1964, when Dave Davies stuttered and distorted the bar chord that Bo Diddley had fiddled with a decade or so earlier, he literally invented an entirely new avenue for rock music; it is one of the fundamental moments in the history of the guitar.

20 Comments so far

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  1. Brocephus
    #1 Brocephus 29 July, 2015, 23:06

    This is a no-win proposition bud, because you know some arshlock is going to come along and say this: Your list sucks you goob.

    Reply this comment
  2. Press
    #2 Press 29 July, 2015, 23:10

    The list sucks.

    Reply this comment
  3. mr.dfleming57
    #3 mr.dfleming57 21 November, 2015, 11:59

    The songs remembered mean more today then yesterday’s today. really. The music is closer, stronger even more understanding. Listen !

    Reply this comment
  4. Austin
    #4 Austin 22 February, 2016, 18:28

    For God’s sake. How can you entitle an article “10 greatest riffs of all time”, set the parameters (power chords are in, single-note doodling is out), and then break your own rules?! (Detective). And not even include “Smoke On The Water”?!?!?!


    Reply this comment
    • Ross
      Ross 30 March, 2016, 23:35

      Or layla, purple haze, sweet child of mine?

      Reply this comment
    • fred
      fred 26 April, 2016, 18:21

      Agreed. But thanks for turning me on to the detective tune. Pretty cool. There are a million great riffs. Have you ever heard the first montrose album? Alice cooper, Sweet, Pat travers., Aerosmith. It goes on and on. In my opinion is one of the top ten greatest albums ever recorded. It is tasty riff and drum beats one after the other.

      Reply this comment
  5. Numby
    #5 Numby 16 April, 2016, 08:01

    Your kidding right?

    Reply this comment
  6. JohnnyCNote
    #6 JohnnyCNote 11 May, 2016, 17:48

    A bass player and self-proclaimed “expert” on virtually everything related to rock music would always mispronounce “riff”, turning it into “rift”. Even now, nearly 40 years later, just thinking about it rivals nails on a chalkboard in terms of its ability to cause intense irritation…

    Reply this comment
  7. Boogerman
    #7 Boogerman 20 May, 2016, 11:31

    Obviously this list is somebody’s opinion, and as noted, horribly incomplete – but I do love that riff in Jailbreak, lol. Best riff ever? I’ll stop short of that, but it’s a killer!

    Reply this comment
  8. rockin' rob
    #8 rockin' rob 23 June, 2016, 01:43

    oh come on…not even close…obtuse and anemic but I loved the Farmer John party background that has been ripped off by Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye and Thicke.

    Reply this comment
  9. Replicant
    #9 Replicant 4 August, 2016, 17:56


    Reply this comment
  10. Statchcook
    #10 Statchcook 6 August, 2016, 20:30

    Wow this is a shit list

    Reply this comment
  11. RichardNose
    #11 RichardNose 28 August, 2016, 12:37

    These aren’t riffs, they’re chord progressions.

    Reply this comment
  12. Mkaz
    #12 Mkaz 4 January, 2017, 20:08

    I think you are trying so hard to find things that are somewhat obscure that you have missed nearly all of the truly great guitar riffs that were in popular songs – Reeling in the Years, Stairway to Heaven, etc etc.

    Reply this comment
  13. Rollbert
    #13 Rollbert 4 February, 2023, 08:54

    Yea Creation made me take up electric guitar. Making Time is a early earworm. Alas even after these years i sound more primitive as in Troggs or Cramps.

    Reply this comment
  14. Les
    #14 Les 4 February, 2023, 19:24

    Where is Gloria by Them?

    Reply this comment
  15. Rob
    #15 Rob 4 February, 2024, 01:08

    For me, the ultimate renditions of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” is the live version found on the 1973 album Rock and Roll Animal. The “dueling” guitar intro by Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner before Reed comes on stage is truly memorable. All the riffs you’d want…and so much more!

    Reply this comment
  16. Banman
    #16 Banman 4 February, 2024, 11:30

    How could Go All The Way by the Raspberries and Baby Blue by Badfinger, not be included?

    Reply this comment

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