Ten Indispensable Rock Riffs

An admittedly biased guide to the ten greatest rock riffs ever

The opening riff of a rock song is often its defining characteristic. It’s those few opening notes that you instantly recognize, even after just a few listens. Those few notes can bring on a level of excitement and emotion every time you hear it, and many elevate a song from merely good to legendary.

While many great songs could be included on a list of the best, we are going to boil it down to just a handful for the sake of time. Here, in no particular order, are the 10 best:

Smoke on the Water — Deep Purple

This opening to Deep Purple’s defining song, which begins the second half of the classic MACHINE HEAD album, is referred to by many rock historians simply as “The Riff.” The song is based on a real-life event, when a concert venue chosen by the band for recording burned down. But it hardly matters. With that simple riff, the song could have been about anything.

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction — Rolling Stones

This is the song that put the Stones on the map outside of their native England. Guitarist Keith Richards dreamed up the now-iconic riff as something for horns to play. He envisioned the song as a soul song. Ironically, Otis Redding would soon have a hit with a cover of the song, with the riff being played by horns.

Layla — Derek and the Dominos

This album, which featured the inspired guitar dueling of Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, was a largely laid-back affair. This song was definitely one of the exceptions, a molten metal exorcism of Clapton’s pain. Redone in the 90s as an acoustic blues shuffle, the opening riff simply didn’t have the bite of the original.

Oh Pretty Woman — Roy Orbison

The Big O’s most popular (did someone say best?) song starts with a hard drum beat and one of the most recognizable and beloved riffs ever, before settling into a beautiful piano-tinged melody and some of Roy’s most emotive singing. But the menacing riff never goes away.

Iron Man — Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath carried the heavy metal banner for over 40 years, and no riff defined the dark, sludgy sound of Ozzy and his friends than the opening to Iron Man, a watershed moment in metal’s history.

Johnny B Goode — Chuck Berry

Elvis was called The King, but Chuck really was the true architect of rock. The opening riff of this song has no equal and solidified Berry’s position in the music hall of fame.

You Really Got Me — The Kinks

After several underperforming and so-so R&B covers, which nearly cost them their record contract, the Davies brothers tore the roof off with this song, whose riff essentially set the blueprint for hard rock. Dave Davies achieved the distorted sound by cutting one of the speakers in his amp.

Day Tripper — The Beatles

As great as their songs were, the Beatles were not known for being “riff masters.” Their songs were often too simple or complicated to be based on a primary riff. However…the opening to this song is one of the all-time great riffs by any band.

Heartbreaker — Led Zeppelin

Jimmy Page’s genius shines throughout Zep’s second album, and this riff is a highlight among highlights.

Walk This Way — Aerosmith

The Bad Boys from Boston hit the commercial high point of their “first era” with this song, which includes Joe Perry’s infamous opening riff. This riff would make pop history over a decade later when Perry and vocalist Steven Tyler banded up with rap group RUN-DMC for a remake which broke across stylistic barriers and became an even bigger hit.

Wanna argue?

It was incredibly difficult to narrow this down to ten. What riffs do YOU think should be on this list?