17 Famous Guitar Riffs You Need To Hear

Sometimes the riff in a song has more effect on the listener than the song itself. Nothing feels better than hearing big fat chunky famous guitar riffs. Or a riff that takes you to a golden memory. Without guitar riffs, the world would be a pretty boring place. Imagine no air guitar! 

To qualify for our 17 Famous Guitar Riffs it’s pretty simple. The melody has to be memorable and make us tap our foot.

It’s almost impossible to write one article on the best riffs of all time (i could create a whole website on it) so let’s look into some of the most recognized and enjoyable to listen to. Being a guitarist of 25 years myself, I’d like to share with you some of the most enjoyable riffs I’ve learned and played along with. Maybe you could share yours?

Let’s get influenced and learn some new riffs. I’ve left out the complete obvious riffs as I’d like to branch out a bit further. But only a little!

What Do We Like In A Classic Guitar Riff?

Firstly, it has to be memorable. Sometimes without even realizing it, we’re subconsciously taking the riff in. We’ll be walking around later humming it to ourselves. That’s where the genius of the guitarist has got you. The hook is what musicians call it.

Classic guitar riffs are a piece of music that is instantly recognizable or enjoyable to listen to. Some riffs are so powerful they can define a generation. Let’s dig a little deeper. A riff doesn’t need to be a sequence of single notes and a melody, it can also be a group of chords. You know Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ right? That’s a riff too. 

It’s scientifically proven that there are major benefits to playing guitar that affect your whole wellbeing. Yes, it’s true, check out the proof ‘The Fascinating Benefits Of Playing Guitar’.

There’s also a very important quality when playing riffs. You gotta look like a god playing them! Look at Jimmy Page, Slash, Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Brian May, Lenny Kravitz, Angus Young, and Marty McFly! Swagger, you can’t be taught that. Let’s plug you into some of the best guitarists doing what they do best. Banging out riffs.

Foot Tapping Rating

I’ve rated the riffs on my foot tapping scale from 1-10. They are in no particular order, just 17 riffs that make you wanna tap your foot or crowd surf through your lounge.

I’ve Separated our Greatest Guitar Riffs into three sections:

  • Acoustic
  • Soft Rock
  • Rock/Hard Rock

That’s enough talk, let’s get into some bangers:

Famous Guitar Riffs: Acoustic

Tears in Heaven-Eric Clapton

Foot Tapping Score: 5/10 

Everybody knows this hook. It’s a very sentimental song for Eric Clapton. The intro riff is so very memorable and the brilliant guitar playing continues throughout the song on his classical guitar. Definitely worth a watch.



Heart Shaped Box-Nirvana

Foot Tapping Score: 5/10

Nirvana could have made it onto all three of my riff criteria. This version of ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ is played on acoustic, unlike the original. Kurt picks through the chords and comes up with a very simple but memorable melody. This is a version that you need to hear. Ladies and Gentleman, the super talented Kurt Cobain.



Use Me-Bill Withers

Foot Tapping Score: 8/10

Trust me, you need this riff in your life.

I’m not sure there is a better groove in music. Although not a guitar riff, the groove and melody on the keys are truly undisputed. What a super talent Bill Withers was. One of my very favorite musicians. Within 5 secs I’ll have you tapping your foot, guaranteed. 

Press play and be enlightened



Shape Of My Heart-Sting

Foot Tapping Score: 4/10 

It’s been covered so many times, but there’s a reason for that, it’s an incredible song with a memorable hook in the intro. This is easily the most beautiful riff on the list. This version is a must-watch. Just Sting and his guitarist. Low foot-tapping score but the most peaceful song on our list. 



Solsbury Hill-Peter Gabriel

Foot Tapping Score: 7/10

What a great riff in the intro, the acoustic continues throughout the song in the same vein. Brilliant 12 string guitar playing by Steve Hunter (on the original record). It was difficult to find a good video of the acoustic, so this clip is perfect to show you how good the guitar playing is on this riff. Enjoy



*Its time to turn up!

Famous Guitar Riffs: Soft Rock

Paperback Writer-The Beatles

Foot Tapping Score: 8/10

In classic Beatles fashion, the fab four begin with tight 3-way harmonies, then burst into this meaty riff. Great tune from the best band ever. 



Crossroads-Eric Clapton

Foot Tapping Score: 7/10

Eric’s got more than a few riffs tucked up his sleeve. I just love the guitar playing on the intro to crossroads. It’s also a good listen for bass players as Jack Bruce is all over the fretboard.



La Grange-ZZ Top

Foot Tapping Score: 8/10

Is there a cooler riff out there? This is the essence of chill. Old School blues riff in A but when the band comes in its high on the foot-tapping richter scale. Texas Finest, these boys are still gigging. Heroes! I just love Billy Gibbons’s voice. 

You’ll need a shower after listening to this. The riff is so dirty:



Crosstown Traffic-Jimi Hendrix

Foot Tapping Score: 8/10

Nearly didn’t make it onto Electric Ladyland! Can you imagine if we’d of never been able to feast our ears on this riff from Jimi? Great tune, guitars doubling up on the intro riff. Did you know Jimi sang the “do do do do do dooo do’ through a comb with cellophane wrapped around it?

The unmistakable Rock God Jimi Hendrix. We’ve got a lot to thank him for.

Money For Nothing-Dire Straits

Foot Tapping Score: 7/10

Probably the hardest one to play (properly) on our list. A mixture of several fingers picking at different times and clever use of pinched harmonics make this riff so memorable and showcases Knopfler’s brilliant ability on the guitar. Truly one of the best guitarists ever. Not many people haven’t heard this beaut. He has a few more but this is probably Knopfler’s strongest riff.



Message In A Bottle-The Police

Foot Tapping Score: 8/10

It helps to have a brilliant drummer when you’re writing riffs in a band. One of the best live 3-piece bands ever. Superbly written, unorthodox riff by Sting. You gotta have long fingers to play this one. Here’s a live version I love. Stuart Copeland is the man on this footage!



HEALTH WARNING: Earplugs may be required for the following videos:

Famous Guitar Riffs: Rock/Hard Rock

Freedom-Rage Against The Machine

Foot Tapping Score: 8/10

Now, this is a riff! Start as you mean to go on. These guys were legendary in the riff department. Literally, one after another, sometimes five or six in one song! What a band, lifting roofs off venues since 1991. This may not be your cup of tea but RATM was the Daddy when it came to the guitar riff. Check out minute 2:34 & 3:40 for more beasty riffs! You get your money’s worth with RATM.

Here’s one beast ive chosen from many:



Beat It-Michael Jackson

Foot Tapping Score: 9/10

The Late great Eddie Van Halen played ‘that’ iconic solo for MJ’s monster hit, Beat it. This Riff is a monster in terms of popularity. Such good fun to play, it’s memorable, chunky and you’ve got the best vocalist ever singing over it. One of the best guitar riffs of all time. Amazing tune and well worthy of a mention. 



Stone Cold Crazy-Queen

Foot Tapping Score: 9/10

In my opinion, the best live band ever. What a belter from Brian. A super-fast riff and certainly no walk in the park to learn. These guys were as tight as a skin on a grape. Possibly the best frontman ever in Freddie Mercury. The man is English royalty. Here’s some powerful Queen footage back in the early days: 



Thunderstruck-AC/DC

Foot Tapping Score: 10/10

You didn’t expect a famous guitar riff article without Angus, did you? Any live footage of Angus is worth watching. The masters of the power chord, AC/DC had riff after riff. I decided on Thunderstruck but I could choose from 75+ riffs. It almost sounds like its played on a violin. If we ever needed a (National) Anthem for planet Earth, here it is. Angus, we salute YOU.



Foo Fighters-All My Life

Foot Tapping Score: 9/10

The more simple it is, the more it resonates with your audience. Dave Grohl starts off chugging on one note but when the band comes in, it’s HUGE. RIP eardrums. I actually prefer the muted riff on the verse but there’s some pretty powerful music here. 100mph band and soooo good live. Foo Fighters have many meaty riffs and are truly worthy of Rock Gods. I mean, Grohl’s been in not one. but two of the biggest bands ever. That’s just greedy.



Kashmir-Led Zeppelin

Foot Tapping Score: 9/10

By far the best band to play riffs along with (if you can!) About 150 riffs to choose from. Nobody can construct a riff like the master Jimmy Page. Undoubtedly one of the best guitarists of all time. Helped along by a brilliant drummer and bassist. They really are the creator of The Guitar Riff. Difficult to find footage suitable enough for this clip as its very old. That shouldn’t take away the fact Zepp was one of the biggest bands in the world. Rightly so. Special mention to Bonzo on drums, without him Zep’s riffs just wouldn’t be as meaty. Riffmiesters Supreme!



Eye Of The Tiger- Survivor

Foot Tapping Score: 10/10

Come on, you know you love it. Who doesn’t bang their head to this brute of a riff? I know it’s cheesy but I love it. Survivor created a riff so good, it’s used in many situations where energy, positivity, and guts are required. Would the Rocky films be as successful without Survivor doing the soundtracks? The 1980s is a gold mine for rock bands and riffs. Great band. There are some really nice mullets in the video. Enjoy



Winner

Lenny Kravitz-Are You Gonna Go My Way

Foot Tapping Score: 11/10 (Amps go up to 11 so why can’t my scoring system?)

From the very first note, you’re tapping your foot, I love this simplistic riff. Shades of Hendrix’s Voodoo Child, which makes me like it even more. 

I used to play this in a band. It was so much fun to play, for all the musicians. The doubled-up riff in the intro is right up there with the best riffs ever. Again, you all know it. Fast-paced, heart-thumping rock guitars and harmony riff. It has all the ingredients of a true rock riff (it helps to look as cool as Lenny too). 

Just a side note, Craig Ross’s guitar solo in this also got voted one of the best in history. Wow, what a tune. Go On Lenny! 

Here’s an awesome live version, it’s worth watching just to see Lenny’s jacket and shiny gold Flying V.  



That’s it, go give your ringing ears a rest! 

I apologize for missing out on so many artists, guitarists, and riffs. As I said, I could build a complete website around famous guitar riffs. These were the riffs that get me going. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on other riffs and musicians. Feel free to add yours. That’s the beauty of music. Opinion. 

If you’re still hungry for more, here’s a great selection of rolling stone top 100 guitarists and 100 more riffs here at 100 Greatest Rock Guitar Riffs

Our friends over at Listening Through The Lens do a great ‘Top 100 Most Essential Folk Songs’. Go check it out