My Ten Favorite Guitar Riffs

by Michael Channing

I love rock and roll guitar. At any given time of the day, my brain echoes with the strike and chime of a Who power chord, trembles at the dinosaur stomp of Pink Floyd's “In the Flesh?,” soars through the Court of the Crimson King, or battles the Prince of Darkness alongside a scruffy snowdog. More than the solos or the other parts of a guitar line that I don't know if there are names for, it's the riffs that drive my engine. Those few second-long loops that catch and hold the brain like a vine of thorns. You probably have a few that bob to the surface of your mind unbidden: “Smoke on the Water,” “Back in Black,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Those are great riffs, but they don't make this top ten because it's my list, and my brain hums on a different frequency than yours. But that's okay. I hope we can still agree that these are some awesome riffs and still rock out together. Devil horns for unity.

10. “The Sign of the Southern Cross” by Black Sabbath

Mob Rules by Black Sabbath

“The Sign of the Southern Cross” is the best song from Sabbath's Mob Rules album, maybe even the best from the Ronnie James Dio era. The guitar line, from Tommy Iommi, is classic Sabbath: massive, meaty, and frightening. It's a riff so solid, you can lean against it. But even though it props up the song, it only plays a couple of times before giving way to the verses. It comes on, kicks your ass, then makes you wait, begging for more.

9. “Ziggy Stardust” by David Bowie

Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie

“Ziggy Stardust” is a song about an alien presence that takes on the form of a man who plays a righteous guitar. And to me, that's what this riff sounds like: something alien and familiar and wholly divine. A doubled attacked of acoustic and electric, jangly guitar, a stop and start rhythm that sounds like a panting animal: it's sexy beautiful and a little dangerous. Just like Bowie himself.

8. “Dirt” by Alice in Chains

Dirt by Alice in Chains

I'm a sucker for a wah-wah pedal. You hear on it disco, porno, and Jimi Hendrix. But in Jerry Cantrell's hands, what is usually a fun sound becomes goddamn foreboding. In a song about suicide, this guitar line drips pain and torment. It takes you to a dark place. But sometimes you just have to explore that darkness, dive down in there and see what you've been hiding from yourself. You touch the shadows. They smudge your fingertips, and you bring that to the surface for inspection. And you know yourself a little better.

7. “It Makes Them Disappear” by Pantera

Far Beyond Driven by Pantera

This is a brutal riff, full of storm and stress, the righteous rage of the wronged, the barbaric yawp of youth. After about 45 seconds of buildup, Dimebag Darrell drops the riff on you like six feet of graveyard earth. It's crushing. For me, the riff is all about empowerment. When I need to step away from the worries and failings of normal life, I plug into this song, and it makes it all disappear. I am alone in a world of which I am the god-emperor. I cannot be touched. I cannot be hurt. I cannot lose.

6. “Civilized” by Rollins Band

Weight by Rollins Band

This one reaches out of the speakers and punches you right in the gut. The riff is pure anger, distilled from headlines and heartbreak. Chris Haskett could sometimes trill and flit away at the strings like a bad performance artist on all the wrong drugs, but he hones this line down to the bare, jagged essentials. This riff is fuel, and you can burn all night, hot and bright, till all the fat and flash are gone, and you are a lean, hard warrior of virtue. Or you throw your back out and spend the rest of the day in bed. Either way, this song will kick your ass.

5. “Lord of the Last Day” by Dio

Magica by Dio

Dio have some fantastic riffs in their catalog: “Holy Diver,” “Rainbow in the Dark,” “The Last in Line.” But very few as dark and pulsing as this one. It drips evil, grinding forward with the surety and steadiness of death itself. It was recorded in 2000, but Craig Goldy's guitar has the squeals and whammy bar bends that were signatures of 1980s rock and roll. It is an wicked sound, out of time, unbalanced, thick and muddy, yet sharp and precise. An army of undead marching to war, unfaltering, unstoppable. This riff fully matches the lyrics and persona of the character delivering them. This song will play on the world's final day, as we all dance one last time to the rhythm of its dying heart.

4. “Mississippi Queen” by Mountain

Climbing! by Mountain

Oh,that fuzz tone. This riff is, fittingly enough, mountain-sized. Recorded in 1970, this is proto-heavy metal. This song paved the way for many of the musicians on this list. It is bluesy, ballsy, and loud as hell. Never have a few hits of cowbell filled me with such anticipation. Whenever I hear it on the radio, I get juiced, ready for Leslie West's heavy heavy tone to crash down on me like an avalanche.

3. “Walk” by Pantera

Vulgar Display of Power by Pantera

Two notes. That's what makes up the main line of this riff. Two friggin' notes on one string. Nirvana, as good as they were, steeped their songs in sadness and depression. Metallica cut their hair and started singing about ghosts, the Sandman, and werewolves and incorporated ballads. Pantera came along at almost the same time and gave metal back its balls. With a riff made of two notes. I can't stress that enough. It's simple in construction, complex in its timing, and heavy as concrete. It's an amazingly powerful riff, unlike anything that had come before it. And again, you only touch the fret board in one place. Minimalist perfection.

2. “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath

Paranoid by Black Sabbath

This is the granddaddy of heavy metal riffs, the original, evil-tinged churn of dread, manifest in sound. Sure, the roots of metal are many (Mountain and Iron Butterfly, the Beatles, even, with “Helter Skelter” and “Revolution”), but this is the song that wove the disparate threads into one, unholy tapestry. It is doom and destruction, the reckoning of the world. The gods themselves tremble at its intonation; the earth cracks and splits asunder; the fabric of reality thins and shreds. And you clutch the headphones tighter to your ears to feel the rumble of the end shake through your soul. It's a damn fine piece of guitar work is what I'm saying.

1. “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour

Vivid by Living Colour

This song changed my life. Let me see if I capture the moment for you. I was thirteen, just beginning to figure out what kind of person I was. I knew I liked science fiction, reading, writing, video games. I liked computers and astronomy. I liked Max Headroom and Batman, had posters of both on my wall. Music was a thing other people assured me was important, but I had to take their word for it. I tried to listen to the radio and to my granddad's classical collection, but nothing fit my needs. Then I heard a song. It opened with a man saying, “And during the few moments that we have left... we want to talk right down to Earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand.” I didn't know it at the time, but that voice belongs to Malcolm X. I imagined it was a space alien communicating to the people of our planet. Regardless, the song had my attention. I turned my ear to the radio. And that riff blew my brains out.

I was reborn. This is what music does to you? It makes your heart pound, your firsts curl, your eyes clench, your voice erupt in a spontaneous growl? I'll have more of that, please. I started paying attention to music from then on. I looked for songs with things to say. Politics, personal struggles, murderous metal men that travel through time. Scattered like horcruxes across the airwaves, they waited for me to find them. They gave me power, strength, escape. Had Vernon Reid not tore open my mind with his guitar, I might, to this day, not fully be able to enjoy music. I would be a rainbow in the dark, but I'd never know the joy of hearing Dio tell me so.

Let the Music Take Control


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