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Top 5 Greatest Rock and Roll Guitar Riffs

I love Classic Rock. It’s called classic rock for a reason: it’s better than anything else!

Born in 1960, I grew up during the golden age of rock and roll. I was eight or nine years old when I heard rock and roll music for the first time. My friend’s older brother had a record player in their basement. He listened to Three Dog Night, the Beatles, Credence Clearwater Revival, Steppenwolf and the Guess Who. My little brother and I used to sneak the keys to my dad’s brown Ford station wagon. We would sit in the front seat, tune into WLS out of Chicago and listen to whatever the DJ had spinning. Despite the static, I still remember all the lyrics to Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, Joy to the World, Down on the Corner, Hand me Down World, Magic Carpet Ride and other great songs!

I bought my first album when I was 10 years old. It was Chicago II, a double album that cost $4 at a record store in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I had 45s of Hey Jude, Superstition and Foxy Lady. My parents had an old Magnavox record player/radio. When they were gone, I wore those records out.

When I got into high school, I had a running battle with my parents about the music I listened to. My dad came into my bedroom once when I was listening to Van Halen’s debut album. He shook his head and, struggling for words that emphasized his utter disdain, said, “This music is just...just...just...BUM!” I wasn’t allowed to go to concerts. When I was 16, Queen played in Madison. I tried to convince my mom they weren’t a hard rock band. I played her an excerpt from Bohemian Rhapsody – the melodic, operatic part. She wasn’t impressed. She knew I was trying to hoodwink her.

Over the years, my musical tastes have diversified. I like a variety of genres: classic rock, reggae, alternative, 90s grunge, folk and bluegrass. I’m not much of a country music fan. “But just listen to the lyrics!” all my country friends whine. Sorry, I’m not a lyrics guy, and I wouldn’t know a Luke Bryan song if it hit me over the head. I like raw guitar-driven rock and roll. Hence, my latest Skrive Top 5! These are personal favorites, by the way. My Top Five Greatest Rock and Roll Guitar Riffs! (In ascending order.)

#5Panama by Van Halen – For those of you who think this song is about the country of Panama or some big canal, you’d be wrong. David Lee Roth, Van Halen’s original lead singer, wrote the song about a car he’d seen at a drag race. He was goaded into writing it after being criticized for only writing songs about women, parties and fast cars. Since he had covered the first two topics extensively, he decided to write about the latter! The song is full of double entendres, open to interpretation. Me? I’m just here for the guitar riff! One of Eddie’s* best! She's blinding, I'm flying; Right behind in rearview mirror now; Got the fearing, power steering; Pistons popping, ain't no stopping now.....I know what you’re singing right now!

#4Back in Black by AC/DC – Whether you’re a fan of Bon Scot or Brian Johnson, can we just come together and agree that they were both awesome! From the opening dry licks on Angus Young’s guitar followed by a double kiss of the symbol, the opening riff of Back in Black is universally revered! Metal heads love it; rock fans love it; old grandmas love it; kids love it; air guitarists all play it! In a way, it brings together the two famed lead singers as the song was written by Johnson as a tribute to Bon Scot, his legendary predecessor. Nine lives. Cats eyes. Abusing every one of them and running wild. The boys from Down Under nailed it!

#3Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin – From the tightly wound opening of the first song on Zeppelin’s sophomore album, to Robert Plant’s wailing finish, Whole Lotta Love remains one of the greatest rock songs ever. Jimmy Page, who started with the Yardbirds before founding Led Zeppelin, came up with the opening riff on his houseboat in England. Page is regarded as one of the most innovative and influential guitar players ever. Way down inside; woman, you need, yeah; love..... By the time this quartet from England had completed their second album, Led Zeppelin III was already in the works and Led Zeppelin IV would make them worldwide superstars!

#2Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple – Rolling Stone magazine, among others, has referred to the four chord opening of Smoke on the Water as the most recognizable riff in rock and roll history. Who could disagree? While Ritchie Blackmore’s iconic riff is memorable, the story behind the lyrics is a bit sketchier. The band had traveled to Montreux, Switzerland, to record what would become their most successful album, Machine Head. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention played a concert at the Casino in Montreux the night before. True to the lyrics of the song, some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground. As a result of the devastating fire, Deep Purple had to relocate to a new recording venue. When it all was over, we had to find another place; Swiss time was running out; It seemed that we would lose the race. We traveled to Montreux a few years ago and there are two monuments in front of the Grand Hotel: one of Freddy Mercury and one of Deep Purple.

#1Rocky Mountain Way by Joe Walsh – At the top of my list, and my all-time favorite song, is Rocky Mountain Way! I don’t remember the first time I heard this song, but I do recall listening to it when I was a freshman in high school, and I still get chills whenever I hear that opening riff! Walsh had broken up his first band, the James Gang, and had moved to Colorado. He may have been struggling with some addiction issues at the time as well. As he tells it, one morning he walked outside and saw the Rocky Mountains in the distance. Looking at the stunning view, he determined that the past was over and from that day forward he would do things the Rocky Mountain way. He went back inside, sat down in the kitchen and wrote the song right then and there. And we don't need the ladies crying 'cause the story's sad; Rocky Mountain way is better than the way we had.

From Eddie Van Halen’s manic virtuosity to Angus Young’s weirdly out-of-sync gyrations to Jimmy Page’s effortless 12-string magic to Ritchie Blackmore’s Fender genius to Joe Walsh’s laid back slide guitar excellence, you’d have to agree that these are five of the best rock guitarists in history who’ve laid down five of the most memorable riffs of all time.

*Of the five guitarists featured above, only Eddie Van Halen is no longer with us. The other four are still playing! Angus Young (no pun intended) is 68; Joe Walsh is 75; Ritchie Blackmore is 78; Jimmy Page is 79.

**Rounding out my top ten personal favorite guitar riffs:

#6Should I Stay or Should I Go by the Clash

#7What I Like About You by the Romantics

#8Go All the Way by the Raspberries

#9Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones

#10Mississippi Queen by Mountain

I think I’m going to make a playlist with just these ten songs, put it on repeat and let ‘er rip!

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Thanks for the musical memory trip. Your top 5 seems to aim at opening riffs that are so signature, anytime the song is played live or off the jukebox, the audience knows instantly, nods or says "great song". Since your list is as good as anybody's including mine, I'll work with the same definition.

#5 Sunshine of Your Love - Clapton and Cream.

#4 Sweet Child of Mine - GNR

#3 Thunderstruck - ACDC

#2 Funk #49 James Gang - sorry Dan, this Joe Walsh riff beats Rocky Mountain Way.

#1 Can't You Hear Me Knocking - Stones

While you and your brother were jamming out in the car, I was humming to my transistor radio underneath my pillow at…


Karen Piro
Karen Piro

Ahhhhh! No Basia on your list?!! Ha Ha! Great article! I know ALL these songs and they are awesome!


Yeah, that'd be a no...😂

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