classic rock music


Top 10 Best Riffs


The Greatest Riffs in Classic Rock History




Top 10 Greatest Guitar Riffs in Classic Rock History


by Jim Esposito

Saw an article on the Internet which claimed to cite the Top 10 Greatest Riffs in Classic Rock History. It was way, way off. Figured we’d publish the official list, compiled by someone who actually knows what they’re talking about.

It is important to note when we say “The Greatest” we mean The Best – not the most popular, riffs in the biggest songs. Riffs from Number Seven to Number One are pretty much nailed into place. You might argue some of these should be moved up or down a spot or two, but frankly we don’t see how you can possibly say any other riffs should be ranked higher.

Incidentally, for those doing those other lists – no bands from the 80s or 90s are Classic Rock. There are bands from the 60s and 70s that played into the 80s and 90s. Those can be considered Classic. But bands that started in the 80s and 90s are NOT Classic Rock. Come up with a different term. Not going to insult those bands, those musicians. They are valid artists, represent their time, their era. Call it Post-Epochal or Gen-X Rock or something.

10. The Needle and the Spoon
Lynyrd Skynyrd


A great song built around a hot riff featuring Allen Collins on guitar. Gary Rossington gets a lot the notoriety, which he certainly deserves after that solo in “Call Me The Breeze,” but Allen Collins contributed much of what made Skynyrd great. If you don’t agree with this riff being in our Top 10, then give it to Collins for the riff that starts the guitar solo(s) in “Free Bird.”

Back in the day I asked Ronnie Van Zant how, with three good guitarists, they decided which got what solo? He told me they gave each a chance to play a solo in whatever spot they needed one, chose the guitar player whose solo they liked best.

That said, we don’t think it’s the case here. Allen Collins is listed as the co-writer for this tune.

Of course, Collins and Van Zant are also co-writers of “Searchin’” on Gimme Back My Bullets, which is pretty much the same song, starting with pretty much the same riff, but Rossington gets the main solo there. He and Collins trade off licks working toward the coda.


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The Needle and the Spoon

9. Mainstreet
Artist: Bob Seger. Guitar: Pete Carr


Through his Golden Age Bob Seger recorded 3-4 songs each album at legendary Muscle Shoals studios, backed by the famous Muscle Shoals Swampers and guitarist Pete Carr. On “Mainstreet” Carr’s guitar work is absolutely captivating: the soaring, haunting almost hypnotic intro riff becomes a recurring theme through the song, perfectly capturing the dreamy, poignant essence of the tune, the wistful longing, the lonely late-night city streets.


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Mainstreet, Bob Seger

8. Spooky
Mike Sharp, Classics IV, Dusty Springfield


This isn’t a loud, “in your face” riff. It’s tasty, and tectured, sets the mood perfectly for the song. But who doesn’t like this riff? It is universally revered, especially by guitarists.

Many don’t know this was a jazz instrumental by Mike Sharpe (co-written by Harry Middlebrooks) which hit the charts in 1967. Its signature riff was originally done on saxophone. The Classics IV released the hit single in 1968, adding lyrics. The guitar riff was undoubtedly adapted by the band’s guitarist J.R. Cobb, with songwriter and producer Buddy Buie contributing lyrics.

J.R. Cobb subsequently formed the Atlanta Rhythm Section, produced by Buddy Buie. They recorded a version for their album Underdog, released in 1979.

Still, for many, the best rendition of “Spooky” was Dusty Springfield’s, released in 1970. Dusty’s ethereal vocals fit the tune perfectly.


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Dusty Springfield, Spooky

7. Born to Be Wild


Like – DUH! The song that launched a million Harleys. Featured in the movie Easy Rider, “Born to Be Wild” pretty much created the entire (gentrified) Biker Culture. One thing about all these riffs – they elicit a visceral reaction, get your heart pumping. This is especially true with “Born to Be Wild.” The crashing chords of that intro riff literally gets your motor running.


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Steppenwolf, Born to Be Wild

6. You Really Got Me
The Kinks


Released in 1964, and followed quickly by “All Day and All of the Night,” the song(s) that invented Power Chord rock. Ray Davies and The Kinks do not get their due these days. Drives me nuts all people seem to play and/or remember is “Lola,” which is way (way, way, way) down the list of the band’s best songs. After “Sunny Afternoon,” “Apeman,” “Rock ’n Roll Fantasy,” “Victoria,” “Permanent Waves,” “Superman,” “A Gallon of Gas,” “Little Bit of Emotion,” “No More Looking Back” and a bunch of others.

As for where we stand on the rumours, i.e. controversy about then session man Jimmy Page playing guitar, specifically the solo on “You Really Got Me” - we don’t believe that. We’ve seen The Kinks in concert. Dave Davies was hot.


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The Kinks, You Really Got Me
The Kinks, All Day and All of The Night

5. Dust My Broom
Robert Johnson, Elmore James and/or Chuck Berry


With no-brainer necessities covered between Numbers One and Four we gotta get to the foundations of all guitar riffs. Perhaps the single-most stolen lick of all time is the Chuck Berry double-stop intro from “Johnny B. Goode,” which Chuck lifted from the Elmore James rendition of “Dust My Broom” (among other sources), which Elmore lifted from Robert Johnson’s original 1936 recording.

Robert used the riff as a fill. Elmore featured it as an intro. Chuck made it famous. Every guitarist in the world plays it when he wants an ovation.


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Elmore James, Dust My Broom


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Robert Johnson, Dust My Broom

4. Jumpin’ Jack Flash
Rolling Stones


Most people say it’s “Satisfaction.” Great riff, seared into your consciousness like a cattle brand, but “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is simply better, more enjoyable. Keith Richards was one of Rock’s great riffmeisters. Aside from those two tunes he also gave us “Heartbreaker,” “Miss You,” “Get Off My Cloud,” “Brown Sugar” and “Midnight Rambler.”

Interesting two different songs named “Heartbreaker” mentioned in our Top Four.


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Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Rolling Stones

3. Layla
Eric Clapton


We don’t know how it is even, possible to rate “Layla” any lower than Number Three. You could make a good case it should be higher. Back in the day of FM half the commercials on the radio started with the opening riff of “Layla,” ’cause the stations knew that was the best way to get everybody’s attention. Don’t know how many times we lunged for the volume knob just to have some DJ deke you with their pitch.

A lot of people cite “Sunshine of Your Love” as Clapton’s best riff, especially after it was nicked by J.J. Cale for “Cocaine,” but if it’s not “Layla” we gotta think it oughta be “Crossroads."


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Derek & The Dominos, Layla

2. Smoke On The Water
Deep Purple


If “Smoke On The Water” isn’t ranked Number Two we will be defending why it’s not. Of all the riffs on this list, it’s probably the simplest. That’s why it’s usually the first riff most beginning guitarists learn, including Jake on Two And A Half Men.

Of all the guitarists cited in this dissertation, Ritchie Blackmore is probably the guy who’s rep was built on riffs and solos. Early in their career (their second and third albums) Deep Purple flirted with the Progressive Rock movement. It was Blackmore who insisted on Heavy Metal Riff Rock.

Though it’s obviously Ritchie’s most recognizable lick, it is by no means our personal favorite. That honour must go to either “Pictures of Home” or “Highway Star.” .


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Deep Purple, Smoke On The Water

1. Whole Lotta Love
Led Zeppelin


Virtually defines Classic Rock. Jimmy Page created a number of legendary Riff Rock licks: “Communication Breakdown,” “Heartbreaker,” “Moby Dick,” “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll,” etc… Some of his best are not necessarily the main riff of the song. For instance: the opening lick of the solo in “Dazed and Confused:” the opening lick of the solo in “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” Page also deserves a lot of credit for his work in “Achilles Last Stand.” Don’t know you can call them riffs, but the way he plays the chord changes in “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Ramble On” are also great.

Any list of the Greatest Classic Rock Riffs that does not have “Whole Lotta Love” as Number One is frankly invalid.


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Whole Lotta Love, Led Zeppelin

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