The 10 most iconic and influential riffs of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal

By Sergio Ariza

Maybe John Lennon was right and hard rock started in 1964 when the Beatles released I Feel Fine over an incredible riff that gave us, before its beginning, one of the first instances of feedback, but the fact is that the two clearest antecedents of the genre and its transition to Heavy came when Hendrix and his Experience and Clapton and his Cream turned up the volume of their Marshalls to 11, making all guitarists take note. Next came the two fundamental pillars on which the whole building would be sustained, Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi, responsible between them for the largest number of memorable riffs in history; influencing all subsequent bands. In between, another immortal riff sneaks in, that of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly, played by Erik Brann, who turned 71 this August 11th, and in which the drums were played by the recently deceased Ron Bushy. To celebrate it from Guitars Exchange we are going to talk about the riffs that set Hard Rock and Heavy Metal in rock. 

Jimi Hendrix Experience - Purple Haze (March 1967)

As said, among the antecedents of the genre we could talk about I Feel Fine or the explosion of electricity that was You Really Got Me (equally influential in punk) but it is clear that it was Hendrix who put the electric guitar and the heaviest riffs at the forefront of rock. Perhaps the best example remains his immortal Purple Haze, from its two-note beginning to the explosion of the riff, rock was entering a new phase of brutal volume and distortion that anticipates the sound of the 70s. Hendrix brings in new sounds, dirtier and more distorted, using the Octavia and also a Fuzz Face for the first time, and mixing also oriental sounds and his own technical prowess. It could be said that March 17, 1967, the day of its appearance as a single in the UK, marked a before and after in the history of rock.


Cream - Sunshine Of Your Love (November 1967)

Eric Clapton had been the Guitar God until the appearance of Hendrix but he too fell under the influence of the wild blue angel. On January 29, 1967 he took Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker to see a Hendrix concert at the Saville in London. Bruce was also amazed, that same night; possibly still shocked by the performance he took his bass and composed the mythical riff of Sunshine Of Your Love. Clapton added his famous woman tone, with his SG 'The Fool', and in November of that same year this song was released, which already anticipated the sound of Led Zeppelin and other British bands from which, starting from the blues, Heavy was going to grow.


Iron Butterfly - In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (June 1968)

Before the appearance of the Sacred Triad of bands on which the whole genre was built - Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple - there were two bands that were at the forefront of Heavy: Blue Cheer and Iron Butterfly. The latter with a mythical theme that went over 17 minutes and occupied an entire side of the album of the same name, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. The song was written by the organist and singer of the band, Doug Ingle, after drinking several liters of wine, when he sang it to the drummer, who transcribed the lyrics, a totally drunk Ingle mumbled more than sang, making his drummer, unable to understand that Ingle said "In The Garden Of Eden", write down what he thought his singer was saying, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida". The fact is that the band hardened psychedelia with this song, thanks to Erik Brann's guitar, and became a reference in the birth of Heavy.


Led Zeppelin - Whole Lotta Love (November 1969)

Assisted by Eddie Kramer, Page pulls out the wand and gives Zeppelin their definitive sound, with the mythical riff of Whole Lotta Love, simple and wild, played, this time, by the guitar that would define his career, his mythical '59 Les Paul Standard Sunburst that
Joe Walsh got him. It's a flare that demands your full attention, like an alarm signal for what's to come next. The funny thing is that Page had already used the riff on a recording of French icon Johnny Halliday, A tout casser, but without achieving the revolutionary sound he does here. From the moment it appeared, in November 1969, it became the beacon of all 70's hard rock.


Free - All Right Now (May 1970)

The story is well known - after a bad gig the members of Free were moping in the dressing room when Andy Fraser started singing "All right now, baby, it's all right now". Instantly his bandmates were clapping their hands in unison and Fraser decided there was a song there. He put some chords on the piano and Paul Rodgers, the singer, added the verses. The two co-signed the song, but the big star was another, guitarist
Paul Kossoff who, when he turned those piano chords to guitar, emerged with one of the most important riffs in history. Over a simple drum beat, his guitar attacks the chords with equally important silences, making the whole rock world take note - mainly some Australian brothers, surnamed Young, who would build their sound on that riff.


Black Sabbath - Iron Man (September 1970)

Black Sabbath and Tony Iommi had already defined their sound, heavy and dark, with the band's first album - it was that sound that defined the genre and gave it its name - but it was with their second album, Paranoid, that they delivered their true masterpiece. There may be no other man who has done more and better riffs than Iommi, so it's only natural that his best riff is a true barbarity. Black Sabbath's songs were built on Iommi's gigantic riffs that served as the foundation for Geezer Butler's lyrics, while Bill Ward and Ozzy Osbourne put the icing on the cake. To keep it going, the band needed Iommi to keep delivering those cathedral-like riffs. As a result they used to prod him by telling him he wouldn't be able to top the last one. So it was during a rehearsal when Iommi found the ultimate riff, Ward was playing something when something clicked in his head and the RIFF came out, one where the only possibility is surrender, one that sounded, in Ozzy's definition, "like a big iron bloke walking about". Of course, Iommi being Iommi, completed it with other wonders from his catalog to show his boys that the fountain was far from running dry. 


Deep Purple - Smoke On The Water (March 1972)

One of the things that this list makes clear is that many of the best riffs in history are simple. And there are few more iconic than this one in which Ritchie Blackmore with four notes gives us his most remembered riff, demonstrating that the Fender Stratocaster can also build riffs carved in rock, just like its Gibson rivals.


AC/DC - Highway To Hell (July 1979)

Angus and Malcolm Young's grandiose riffs were falling out of their hands. Their formula was simple and effective, based on All Right Now, but amplified to the maximum. They already had a good amount of great riffs between them when in 1979 the younger Angus came across the definitive one, Highway To Hell, a sort of improvement on Malcolm's Problem Child. When they heard it they knew they had a bomb in their hands, something that was confirmed when Bon Scott put the perfect lyrics to fit the spirit of a hellish riff.


Motörhead - Ace Of Spades (October 1980)

had already lived more lives than a cat and drank more whiskey than anyone else when he created the riff that would define Speed Metal and give way to Thrash. With the bass of his Rickenbacker at zero and the treble at maximum the bassist and singer proves that he has been listening to punk but is still more rock & roll than anyone since the death of Elvis. With breakneck speed, this riff could be the announcement of the end of the world...


Metallica - Seek & Destroy (July 1983)

We can't end this list without mentioning a riff from the most important band of the genre of the last four decades, Metallica. Master Of Puppets may be their definitive riff and Enter Sandman the best known, but in this Seek & Destroy, from their first album Kill 'Em All, their sound is already defined, a riff of pure metal in which the aggressiveness of punk and the strength of Heavy are mixed. To this day you can still hear the roar of approval from the crowds every time they play it in one of their multitudinous concerts.