My fascination with guitar riffs goes back a long way. I was still only playing the air-guitar and washing dishes in a restaurant when I ordered a tape from TV called “Guitar Rock.” It was a riff-laden collection of sixties and seventies guitar tunes. It really smoked on that back kitchen tape player. Around the time I gave up my job washing dishes I also gave up my air-guitar for a real guitar. In my mind I could still hear all those Guitar Rock tunes calling me. There was Smoke on the Water, All Right Now, Layla, Purple Haze, and so many more.
It was an early and pleasant surprise as a guitarist to find that many of these songs were some of the easiest ones to play. They were a great starting point for me as a beginner because I developed a repertoire of recognizable and popular songs in a short time. With this lesson I hope they can do the same for your playing as they did for mine.
The great thing about rock guitar riffs is that once you learn them you can amaze your friends. Everyone can recognize and appreciate a good riff if you play it right. Also, playing riffs takes a detour around learning to play an entire song, which can be a daunting and sometimes impossible task for a beginner who is probably playing by him or herself. Fortunately, some of the most recognizable guitar riffs of all time are also the easiest ones to play. Here are some catchy rock riffs straight from “Guitar Rock.” Every rock guitarist should have these songs in their repertoire.
Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple (1972)
Layla – Derek and the Dominoes (1970)
Aqualung – Jethro Tull (1971)
Heartbreaker – Led Zeppelin (1969)
Whole Lotta Love – Led Zeppelin (1969)
Iron Man – Black Sabbath (1970)
Paranoid – Black Sabbath (1970)
Sweet Emotion – Aerosmith (1975)
All Right Now – Free (1970)
Purple Haze – Jimi Hendrix (1967)
Where to go from here
Once you have a large catalog of riffs you can play I recommend you start trying to come up with some of your own. Who knows, maybe you will be responsible for the next Takin’ Care of Business or Satisfaction. You will find some guidance in terms of writing songs using riffs in David Hodge’s column “A” Before “E” (Except After “C”). Here is a sample of what David has to say:
Most songwriters tend write the music first, either by coming up with a riff or chord progression or by harmonizing a melody. A-J discusses creating chord patterns in his latest article (A Simple Song). Riffs tend to follow the same idea, which makes sense because a riff is simply a pattern of notes (usually) derived from a chord or a scale within a given key. Some “riff” songs consist of the same riff played repeatedly over changing chords. Eminence Front by the Who or Blue Oyster Cult’s (Don’t Fear) The Reaper are examples of this style of writing.
Another method of “riff writing” is to come up with a cool riff and then transpose the notes to fit the chord changes. This is nowhere near as complicated as it sounds. Let’s look at the Beatles’ Day Tripper as an example (and I’ve copied this version straight from the Guitar Tab site). You can see (or hear) that riff two is exactly the same as riff one except that riff two is played in A while riff one is played in E.
Day Tripper – Beatles (1965)
If you are interested in learning more about riffs you can read the entire lesson A Before E (except after C).
If you are looking for help on the subject of writing songs there is more than enough information on the songwriting page.
You have probably noticed that many of the riffs shown here are from the late sixties and early seventies. If you would like to see a lesson on riffs from more recent years just let me know which riffs you would like to learn.
On February 11, 2010 we received a letter from lawyers representing the NMPA and the MPA instructing us to remove guitar tab and lyrics from this page. You can read more about their complaint here. Alternatively, you can still find this complete article with tab and lyrics archived here.