Some songs have riffs that are so iconic, they’re instantly recognizable for even the most casual of music listeners. You might find yourself singing the riff, rather than the words!
Check out this list of what we think are some of the most memorable riffs of all time.
“Back in Black” was AC/DC’s tribute to their former singer, Bon Scott, who died suddenly in the same year the album was released. It was AC/DC’s first album with Scott’s replacement, Brian Johnson.
One of The Hendrix Experience’s best known songs, “Purple Haze” features Jimi Hendrix’s use of his signature chords and a blend of blues and Eastern modalities.
Famously, Guns ‘n Roses guitarist Slash came up with the riff for “Sweet Child O’ Mine” as a joke, playing what he called “a circus melody” during a jam session warm up. Lead singer Axl Rose wrote lyrics for the song by the next day.
Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain said that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a result of trying to write a song that sounded like The Pixies. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band,” Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1994. “ We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”
Guitarist Greg Leon (Motley Crue/Quiet Riot) said he helped Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist, Randy Rhoads, come up with the riff for “Crazy Train” after showing him the riff for “Swington” by Steve Miller. “I said: ‘Look what happens when you speed this riff up.’ We messed around, and the next thing I know he took it to a whole other level and end up writing the ‘Crazy Train’ riff”, Leon said in a 2012 biography on Rhoads.
“Killing in the Name” – Rage Against the Machine
RATM guitarist Tom Morello wrote this iconic drop D riff while giving a guitar student a lesson in Drop D tuning. He told Triple J in 2009 that he briefly paused the lesson to go record it.
White Stripes singer and guitarist Jack White wrote the riff that would become “Seven Nation Army” while on tour in Australia. White originally wanted to save the riff in case he ever was called on to write a song for a James Bond movie – but thinking that the chances were slim, he incorporated it into a White Stripes song instead. Five years later, he did write a song for a Bond movie (“Another Way to Die” with Alicia Keys).
English band Free’s drummer, Simon Kirke, said that their hit “All Right Now” was written following a lackluster gig. “. We finished our show and walked off the stage to the sound of our own footsteps. The applause had died before I had even left the drum riser,” Kirke told a newspaper in 2008.. It was obvious that we needed a rocker to close our shows.”
“Beat It” – Michael Jackson
Jackson and producer Quincy Jones tapped Van Halen guitarist Eddie Van Halen to add a guitar solo for a “rock song” for Thriller. The resulting riff is not only “fire” for how cool it is – according to a 2010 BBC piece on Jones, while Van Halen was recording his solo, the sound of his guitar caused the control room’s monitor speaker to catch fire. “This must be really good!” one of the sound engineers exclaimed.
“No One Knows” – Queens of the Stone Age
According to Queen of the Stone Age founding member Josh Homme, although the song “No One Knows” came out in 2002, the song’s iconic riff was created about five years prior. “We have patience with music, a year or five years down the road it may kind of rewrite itself and become what it’s supposed to be,” Homme said in a 2005 biography of the band.
RHCP guitarist John Frusciante utilizes a reggae style – strumming only on the upbeat – during the bridge of this 2002 hit.
The riff for Pearl Jam’s debut single predates the formation of the band. Guitarist Stone Gossard, who was then playing in a band called Mother Love Bone, wrote the music for the song, which was then called “Dollar Short”. The band unfortunately dissolved following the overdose death of Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood. Gossard, bandmate Jeff Ament and guitarist Mike McCreedy recorded the song along with four other tracks on a demo in hopes of finding a singer and drummer. Vocalist Eddie Vedder, who was then working as a security guard, got a hold of the tape, recorded some vocals, and sent it back to the band in Seattle. The rest is rock history.
“Walk This Way” was created during a soundcheck, while Aerosmith was opening for The Guess Who in Honolulu in 1974. Guitarist Joe Perry was fooling around with riffs, and singer Steven Tyler began scatting over the groove. They had the basics of a song by the time soundcheck was over.
Cream bassist Jack Bruce wrote the riff that would become the basis for “Sunshine of Your Love” after seeing Jimi Hendrix perform. “I don’t think Jack [Bruce] had really taken him in before … and when he did see it that night, after the gig he went home and came up with the riff,” Cream guitarist Eric Clapton told Rolling Stone in 1988. “It was strictly a dedication to Jimi. And then we wrote a song on top of it.”