10 Famous Guitar Riffs and The Story Behind Them

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By Guitar Pick Reviews

Guitar riffs are those instantly recognizable melodies that have shaped the landscape of popular culture over decades. They are the infectious hooks that make you tap your foot. Hum along and inspire legions of aspiring guitarists to do better every day.

From classic rock to heavy metal, these famous guitar riffs have become ingrained in our collective musical consciousness as examples of excellence on the six-string instrument.

In this article, we look at ten iconic guitar riffs that were crafted by some of the best guitarists of all time. We’ll uncover their origins, how they were created, and what makes them so memorable today!

1. The Rolling Stones – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (1965)

Keith Richards discovered one of rock’s most recognized guitar riff quite literally in his sleep. It was during The Rolling Stones’ 1965 U.S tour. He woke up from a dream with an idea for something special, he quickly grabbed his trusty Les Paul and taped it right away. Then, he went back to bed without any knowledge or hints about what was happening there!

The_Rolling_Stones_Summerfest_in_Milwaukee_-_2015
Jim Pietryga, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As time went on, “Satisfaction” became renowned worldwide. Not only due to its incredibly catchy melody, but also because it showcased Keith Richards’ ability to turn random inspiration into extraordinary musical moments while demonstrating just how unpredictable creativity can sometimes be when least expected. Ringing true to the idea that you should never let a good opportunity slip away.

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2. Cream – Sunshine of Your Love (1967)

Sparked into existence from a Jimi Hendrix concert, Jack Bruce crafted an electrifying bassline for “Sunshine of Your Love.”

Eric Clapton then added his unforgettable guitar layer, blending perfectly with Bruce’s foundational piece and ultimately resulting in one timeless rock masterclass.

What’s more intriguing is that even after all these years, Jimi Hendrix himself had no clue how much he’d been directly responsible for inspiring such a revolutionary song!

In some ways, this serves as proof that music has its way of connecting artists across different generations, genres, and cultures. Allowing ideas to flow freely between them while highlighting what can be achieved when two or more musicians come together united under the same creative vision, something only possible through collaboration.

Cream in 1967. From left to right: Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, and Eric Clapton.
Cream in 1967. From left to right: Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, and Eric Clapton.

3. Jimi Hendrix – Purple Haze (1967)

A well-known classic from psychedelic pioneer Jimi Hendrix, ‘Purple Haze’ sparked imaginations around the globe. This is largely due to its opening riffs inspired heavily by what is known as the ‘Hendrix Chord’… Yes, quite a mouthful.

But in all seriousness, these revolutionary sounds demonstrated not only Hendrix’s innovative approach to guitar playing but also his creative genius and ability to transport people into other dimensions of music through his artistry, which is still appreciated by generations today!

4. Led Zeppelin – Whole Lotta Love (1969)

With Jimmy Page being called the ‘Riff Master’ amongst rock circles, it should be no surprise that he was responsible for one of the most famous guitar riffs ever recorded with, “Whole Lotta Love.”

Combining blues influenced with heavy metal components, this classic piece became sought after worldwide since its release over 50 years ago. It sparked admiration from musicians everywhere who strive towards mastering such unbeatable songwriting mastery.

Thanks to Page’s deep understanding of pairing street-level musicality with technical know-how, he created some truly memorable works.

The members of Led Zeppelin
The members of Led Zeppelin

5. Black Sabbath – Iron Man (1970)

Like clockwork, you didn’t have to go too far into discussing legendary guitar riffs without someone mentioning Tony Iommi and the Black Sabbath track ‘Iron Man.’

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The main riff is, without a doubt, one of the founders of heavy metal, laying down an almost eerie foundation.

It’s no surprise that generations have been inspired to pick up their guitars and unleash their variations on this classic!

Despite its intimidating nature, Iommi brings forth his signature blend between speed and melody. Combined with Ozzy Osbourne’s chilling vocals, make for what some consider the ultimate doom rock anthem.

6. Deep Purple – Smoke on the Water (1972)

‘Smoke On The Water’ chords remain instantly recognizable amongst guitarists everywhere. This is mainly due to Ritchie Blackmore’s decision to keep this riff simple and impactful.

There is a myth saying that it was originally a song by Jimi Hendrix, but it was disproved many times. It is often discussed on online forums, but there’s no base to it.

It is widely adopted as the first riff most people learn on an electric guitar. Making these Smith-penned lyrics all too familiar across any household that had someone strumming inside them!

7. Aerosmith – Walk This Way (1975)

Joe Perry and Steven Tyler team up to make this good-time classic. ‘Walk This Way’ fills the room with a funky bluesy bounce that encourages listeners to groove. Something you can only achieve when your guitar playing is on-point!

Aerosmith Performing in Las Vegas on April 13, 2019
Aerosmith Performing in Las Vegas on April 13, 2019 by David W. Baker, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With its power chord extensions, riffs, and solo, it’s easy to see why this has become such a timeless anthem. Another example of what happens when two creative minds come together, working in unison toward producing something greater than singularly possible.

8. Ozzy Osbourne – Crazy Train (1980)

The late great Randy Rhoads brightened our lives one final time before his passing. We were blessed not just with intense technical proficiency but also melody prowess, all from within the same four minutes piece via ‘Crazy Train.’

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Composed largely around minor riffs, backed by equally impressive shredding skills later during the song’s epic solo conclusion. It goes without saying how much influence he had over rock music during his short life, despite being gone far too soon. He left behind many memories, however, most notably some outstanding musical pieces still appreciated worldwide today!

9. AC/DC – Back in Black (1980)

Something so special and iconic happens when Angus Young steps to his mic and shouts out the first few words of ‘Back In Black’. Just like clockwork, the chord comes in at full force, bam!

Its power alone is enough to make any rock fan stand up in attention. Almost as if being summoned across the seas for one big loud celebration!

And since its release 40 years ago, this heavy hitter has become widely known as a testament to the timelessness possible through pure guitar riffs.

It shows how far impact can travel with just a simple yet effective soundwave. Resonating with learners on the primal level and becoming a symbol or strength for the entire musical genre.

10. Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)

Kurt Cobain’s Fender Mustang made an influential mark in 90s music via the intro riff from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’

These four chords were then propelled into the stratosphere and were behind the smashing success the single gained upon its mass release.

Kurt Cubain of the front cover of the Rolling Stone magazing in Germany
Kurt Cubain of the front cover of the Rolling Stone magazing in Germany

Musically, it was a groundbreaking time. What made this classic smash hit lasting legacy lies within the fact these lyrics spoke directly to teenage angst and disillusionment during the era, allowing them to find their sense of belonging through Cobain’s songwriting genius, something which still true to this day over 30 years after it first released!

Conclusion

These ten famous guitar riffs and their origin stories give us a glimpse into the creative process of some truly iconic songs.

From dreams turned into reality to collaborations gone right, they show how powerful an idea can be when combined with passion, innovation, or just plain luck.

And although times have changed since the authors behind these tunes created them back in the earlier days, their impact continues to live on for centuries to come, inspiring generations to pick up instruments themselves and continually push the boundaries of music forward better than ever!