Turn It Up - My 12 Favorite Rock Guitar Intros!

Writer Ian Alterman, and his brothers Eric and Tony, create email threads that have left me intoxicated, annoyed, and most often in a mental frenzy as they suck me into all sorts of music minutia. But boy can they wax poetic; always an education. Ian's latest thread continues that trend:

"The following are arguably the dozen most recognizable opening guitar riffs in rock.  I've arranged them alphabetically by band.  However, I would be interested to see what order each of you puts them.  You can use any criterion: favorite, most influential, most important, chronological, etc."

While I appreciated his list -- a very fine list, a list I could find very little fault with, and certainly a worthy email chain (that continues) -- I wanted my own list. That's the problem with lists, they are never definitive and almost never complete. Someone always feels slighted.

So I decided I would compile my own rock riff intro list. I did find merit in a few obvious choices from Ian's "Classic Rock" list, but most were a tad too pedestrian for my "garage rock" leanings. And I purposely left off The Beatles because I could have filled all twelve slots with their opening riffs. Ditto for Zep's Jimmy Page, early Kinks, The Who, Clapton (Cream, Derek & The Dominos), Hendrix, and a few other obvious omissions.

  1. "The Little Black Egg" - The Nightcrawlers hailed from Daytona Beach, Florida and probably launched many a garage rock band in the mid-'60s in Akron, Ohio. Some critics maintain that the tune was a overt homage to Afghani black hash. Regardless, it is the first lick I  learned on my Sears acoustic git-tar way back when, and still my favorite riff.
  2. "There She Goes" - The La's succeeded in defining a generation of Brit Guitar rock with one jangly McGuinn-style opener that remains as good as anything I've ever heard. And one of my favorite singles of all time.
  3. "Hey, Little Girl" - Syndicate of Sound wrote this timeless Nuggets (Lenny Kaye's garage rock album compilation) staple and another one of my favorite jingle jangle rock riff git hooks. No doubt it cops a similar lick borrowed off of The Nightcrawlers (see No. 1 above). Punk rockers Dead Boys recorded a way boss cover version, too.
  4. "Rock Lobster" - The B-52's party anthem has a psycho surf riff that is so freakin' infectious that you can't help but move your feet to it. Nearly 7 minutes of new wave wonder.
  5. "Satisfaction" - The Rolling Stones got nasty on this original that boasts one of the meanest and rudest guitar riffs of all times. Borrowing heavily from Link Wray's "Rumble" it still evokes a mandatory volume increase when I hear it on the radio. I know we've heard it a million times, but it's worth repeating a million more.
  6. "All The Young Dudes" - Mott the Hoople's axe man Mick Ralphs may have had larger success with Bad Company, but damn if his stint with Ian Hunter didn't produce some tasty FM licks. This may have been his crowning string-bending moment.
  7. "Sweet Home Alabama" - Lynyrd Skynyrd's southern rock sing-along always gets a whoop in any bar with a jukebox (remember them?). This was the most glaring omission from Sir Ian's "Classic Rock" list.
  8. "Secret Agent Man" - Johnny Rivers' descending/ascending riff is so simple and so sweet that you never want it to end, something he claims he "worked up with P.F. Sloan." Eddie Van Halen says he learned to play guitar to this 1966 tune as well.
  9. "Enter Sandman" - Metallica's crushing hard rock guitar anthem intro has been used to accompany NY Yankee badass closer Mariano Rivera from the bullpen for years. An ominous, timeless riff regardless.
  10. "What Difference Does It Make" - The Smiths' Johnny Marr (image above) created this timeless Rickenbacker riff back in the '80s. In fact, he wrote many timeless guitar riff hooks that framed their Manchester sound and vision.
  11. "Little Sister" - Elvis Presley's 1961 recording had the rockabilly snarl thanks to guitarist Hank Gallard's memorable snaky guitar riff. One of the few guitar riffs I've nearly mastered. T.C.B.! Long live the King!
  12. "Walk This Way" - Aerosmith's Joe Perry hit it out the park with his timeless riff. Just ask Run-D.M.C. as they co-opted it into a huge rap crossover hit. And thankfully more rock riffage would filter into rap because of it.

Steve, our CC music editor, probably has some interesting choices too. Maybe we try country, R&B/soul, and jazz next?

peace, Dusty


Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 4 solo CDs, and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was a William Morris agent.

some stuff...

I agree with Steve that one could do a full list on Stevie Wonder alone. However, since Wonder plays piano and keys, that would create a whole new list: great opening piano/keyboard riffs. (Among the top would have to be Edgar Winter's Frankenstein...)

I agree with Tony re Cities Aflame; a superb riff. Also, obscure though it may be, Fidgety Queen is another excellent choice. (Though it is possible that Roye Albrighton could have a list of his own, too...)

I also agree with Dusty re the vocal hook on "Western Union." One of my faves of all time. Anyone care to sart THAT list? LOL.


Nice post and nice list,

Nice post and nice list, Dusty. "Rock Lobster" is a great call. Re: "Hey Little Girl", that is an interesting one. If that counts as an opening riff then I think you've got to give credit to another McGuinn-style opening line, the one in "Western Union" by The Five Americans. Not to rehash the whole list (no pun intended) but the two riffs I would have to insist on for their inherent power if not for fame or influence are "Cities On Flame With Rock and Roll" by BOC and "Fidgety Queen" by Nektar. The opening lines alone are enough to make those great songs, even if they weren't anyway.

Sweet Nektar

Tony, Quite agree with you about BoC. Classic riffs. I lean more towards  "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" but then I might be getting us into a new list -- "more cowbell" as an opening riff. "Western Union" had a terrific vocal hook, too. (Another list? Vocal hook at the top of the song?) I don't know all that much about Nektar apart from what you and Ian have shared. I couldn't find "Fidgety Queen". Most curious to hear that riff.


If funk doesn't count, I think I may have to do another list. I think I could do a whole list of just Stevie Wonder riffs....



Thanks for the plug. (LOL).

You say, "That's the problem with lists, they are never definitive and almost never complete." While your list is certainly excellent, you are mixing apples and oranges here. The list I provided claimed only to be the "most recognizable opening guitar riffs in rock." I suppose I could have added "broadly" after "most," but I felt it was clear. In that regard, the list I provided was, in fact, "definitive" (with room for perhaps a very small number of additions) with respect to what it claimed to be. For the benefit of your reading audience, the dozen were (if memory serves...which it increasingly does not! LOL) Day Tripper, Sunshine of Your Love, Smoke on the Water, Layla, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, You Really Got Me, Jumping Jack Flash, Satisfaction, Aqualung, Kashmir, Stariway to Heaven, Whole Lotta Love.


Missing two big ones...

Gotta include the Meters' "Cissy Strut" and Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men"!

I'll weigh in later with lists of rock keyboard riffs and jazz riffs.

More Riffage

Status Quo's classic riff, one that I mastered at a very tender age, nearly made my top 12. And other notable riffs in my top 20 included "One Way Out" by The Allman Brothers, "Funk 49" by the James Gang and "For What It's Worth" and "Mr. Soul" by the Buffalo Springfield. But again, I could only pick 12. I suspect that if you asked me next year to do this again, I would have a different list.

I would argue that "Cissy Strut" is funk. To keep my list pure, I stayed within the world of rock, and pop-rock. And there are plenty of Stax, James Brown, and Motown riffs that I could have included had I expanded on Ian's original email.