We worship classic guitar riffs. Like a rock and roll baptism, a great intro riff will plunge you into a song and make the world stop around you. That’s even after you’ve heard it thousands of times before. It’s also pretty handy that some of the best riffs are also some of the easiest to play (i.e., “Smoke On the Water”). Here we turn up the volume on five opening guitar riffs that make us remember why we love the guitar, and rock and roll, so much. We’re opening the floor for debate, we’re throwing ourselves to the wolves: Tell us which amazing riffs we left out. Just leave your feedback in the comment section below.
AC/DC “Back in Black”
Unleashed in 1980 on the album of the same name, “Back in Black” signaled AC/DC’s return after the sudden death of singer Bon Scott six months earlier. The album was dedicated to Scott but, to be sure, there were no dirges on this tribute. The title track and its chugging guitar riff let everyone know that, if anything, the band had channeled its profound loss into a more furious rock sound than ever before. In a 2009 interview with MOJO magazine, Brian Johnson revealed that when the band asked him to write a lyric for “Back in Black,” they stipulated that it “can’t be morbid, it has to be for Bon and it has to be a celebration.” Johnson also said, “I just wrote what came into my head, which at the time seemed like mumbo jumbo: ‘Nine lives/Cats eyes/Abusing every one of them and running wild.’ The boys got it though. They saw Bon’s life in that lyric.”
Deep Purple “Smoke on the Water”
This Deep Purple tune and its simple but incredibly commanding opening guitar riff — from the English band’s 1972 Machine Head album — have become so ubiquitous in American pop culture that one can scarcely watch a fireworks display or attend a baseball game without hearing it bellow from the loudspeakers. A staple for most beginner guitarists, the riff is a four-note “blues scale” melody that’s easy to learn to play. “That was just a riff I made up on the spur of the moment in Switzerland,” Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore has said. “It was a case of keeping it incredibly simple. I remember Pete Townshend saying to me, ‘You better keep things simple and take the audience with you.’ That was very profound.” If there’s any doubt about the song’s widespread appeal, let the history books tell the tale. Three times now, an extraordinary number of guitarists have convened to play the song simultaneously — first in Vancouver in 1994, then in Kansas City in ’07 and most recently in Wroclaw, Poland on May 3, 2009, when 6,346 guitarists performed the song together.
Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine”
Guns N’ Roses’ swirling opening to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” captured the grandeur of ’80s rock within seconds. The centerpiece of the band’s 1987 debut, Appetite for Destruction, the song introduced the guitar stylings of the one-and-only Slash. Though it’s not the easiest riff to play, the “Sweet Child O’ Mine” intro is no less beloved for guitarists of all ages. It was reportedly tossed out jokingly by Slash during a songwriting session with Axl Rose, but no one else found it funny, just inspiring. Bassist Duff McKagan told Hit Parader magazine, “The thing about ‘Sweet Child,’ it was written in five minutes. It was one of those songs, only three chords. You know that guitar lick Slash does at the beginning? It was kinda like a joke because we thought, ‘What is this song? It’s gonna be nothin’, it’ll be filler on the record.’ And except that vocal-wise, it’s very sweet and sincere, Slash was just messing around when he first wrote that lick.” The song was the band’s first and only No. 1 single.
Led Zeppelin “Heartbreaker”
It was 1969 when Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” (off the band’s second LP, Led Zeppelin II) first walloped us with the aggressive power chord arrangement that’s been stuck in our heads ever since. More than 40 years later, guitarists are still taking to their instruments to hammer out the song’s opening riff, to recapture the sound of Zeppelin in its heyday. Jimmy Page has said that “Heartbreaker” was the first Led Zeppelin recording to feature his aggressive and now-iconic Les Paul and Marshall stack duo; we can see why he stuck with the combo thereafter. Today, the song is celebrated largely for its guitar parts — not only that instantly recognizable intro riff, but also Page’s unaccompanied guitar solo, which comes in mid-song and steals your breath away.
Cream “Sunshine of Your Love”
Reportedly inspired by a 1967 Jimi Hendrix concert, Cream bassist Jack Bruce and lyricist Pete Brown went home that very night and cranked out the band’s most popular song during a late night jam session. “I picked up my double bass and played the [opening] riff,” Bruce has said. “Pete looked out the window and the sun was coming up. He wrote ‘It’s getting near dawn and lights close their tired eyes.’” Bruce’s riff is based on the D “blues” scale — a D minor pentatonic scale with the added flat 5th. Included on the band’s Disraeli Gears album, “Sunshine of Your Love” ended up capturing one fan of particular note: Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix even included a souped-up cover of the song during many of his concerts in 1968 and 1969.