In a special FiveBest edition, we present a full top ten list of the best classic rock guitar riffs. It must be ten rather than five because of the great breadth of options. To minimize the parameters, classic rock is defined here as music from a band that were at the top of their game during the 1970s, when rock changed from Beatles to Black Sabbath. A riff can be considered either a specific combination of chords that are repeatable and immediately recognizable, or an off-the-chart guitar solo that makes the song. This still leaves much room for different types of bands, so there will be three categories: Southern Rock, Theatrical, and Heavy Metal . Hopefully everyone will find a favorite among these.
There is an undeniable country flair to some classic rock. This could be partly a left-over from the more folksy 60s music, but it took on a life of its own.
Our top ten starts with an instrumental that you may not know you know, but you know it. The Allman Brothers are known to some as the architects of Southern Rock, and when they released the album Brothers and Sisters in 1973, Duane Allman’s catchy, bluesy sound became an immediate classic. His death shortly afterwards made him an icon of his time, and the Allman Brothers band has a place in music history due to their new approach to old music.
9Pride and Joy
Stevie Ray Vaughn was a beloved guitarist who was killed in a helicopter crash following a performance in Wisconsin in 1990. He had already made a name for himself as a studio musician playing with the likes of David Bowie on his Let’s Dance album and became one of the most popular southern rock/blues musicians of his time. Pride and Joy features big sound from the first note, with the riffs flowing flawlessly from his fingers.
Lynyrd Skynyrd captured the hearts and minds of a generation with their anthem Freebird, which appeared on their debut album and may be one of the most requested songs in bars and small venues across the country. Another tragic ending, the band was immortalized when their plane went down in 1977, killing Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines, and horribly wounding the other members of the band. Although the band could not go on (until 10 years later when surviving members came back as Rossington Collins), Freebird lived on. The power ballad starts off slowly, sadly, and builds to a frenzy for the second half when the guitar screams its part, bringing the song and audience to life.
70s bands came out big, with shows that were major productions rather than your typical music concert. While the styles are not categorically the same here, these songs have some of the most dramatic guitars in all of rock & roll.
Black Sabbath had a devoted following, mostly due to singer and front man Ozzie Osbourne, who went on to create second generation classics with unforgettable riffs such as Crazy Train. But in their heyday, Black Sabbath was a force to be reckoned with on a musical level. From their second album, Paranoid, the opening chords of Ironman precisely resonated with the theme of the song; scary, threatening, and certainly something you couldn’t ignore. Tony Iommi’s driving guitar set the pace for the man plotting his vengeance. Today, Ironman is heard in movies and commercials – a head banger’s paradise.
6The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
David Bowie was already the embodiment of dramatic style when he released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, a story in music about his alter ego, in 1972. He was well known for Space Oddity … “Ground Control to Major Tom” … probably some of the most well known lyrics to this day. When he played the first chords of Ziggy Stardust, it was unmistakeably Bowie. He played guitar, jamming good with Weird and Gilly. The emotions characterized by the choppy but smooth guitars carried you along on Ziggy’s journey beautifully.
5 Bohemian Rhapsody
Queen always had a unique sound, but it wasn’t until their fourth album, A Night at the Opera, that they captured the full attention of the music scene with their grand opus, Bohemian Rhapsody in 1975. With Freddie Mercury out front, and the rest of the band harmonizing elegantly, the song starts out as a slow, sad story of a man who has to face the consequences of murder. A carefully orchestrated arrangement builds into a crescendo with each instrument being introduced; the piano, the bass, and drums. Suddenly, Brian May comes in with the most regal guitar to set heads banging for years to come. This moment when the head banging commences – one shared by many who were around for the real thing – is hysterically recreated in the movie Wayne’s World more than 15 years after its release.
Classic rock is most often associated with basic heavy metal bands who relied heavily on guitars, to the point I’ve heard it referred to as guitar rock. This is Classic Rock in its purest form – bombastic and impossible to ignore.
4 Smoke on the Water
Almost anyone who tried to learn guitar in the 70s probably learned the opening chords of Deep Purple’s masterpiece. It is instantly recognizable and can stick with you like a commercial jingle. The fact that it’s a bassline makes it all the more incredible. Deep Purple released the album Machine Head in 1972, and the track has been revered since that time.
3The Star Spangled Banner
What? Isn’t this about Classic Rock Guitar Riffs? In fact, it is. Jimmy Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock in 1969 and it’s never been done again with such respect while making a guitar scream. Known for his artistry with the guitar, playing behind his head or setting it on fire, Jimmy Hendrix was among the best guitarists in rock. Sadly, he was among the original members of the “27 Club” (along with Janice Joplin and Jim Morrison, great artists who died at the age of 27) when he died of an overdose in 1970.
If you think this is just a remake of The Kink’s You Really Got Me, you’re missing the best part. Eddie Van Halen starts the song with a mind-blowing guitar solo. Even with just the right amount of distortion, he plays clean and distinctly. Before you realize, his fingers are flying and the sound has your head spinning. If he was unknown before releasing Van Halen’s self-titled first album, it didn’t last for long. There are those who consider the Eruption segment one of the best guitar solos ever recorded.
Best in Show
1Dazed and Confused
Another debut album that blew people’s mind was Led Zeppelin, released in 1969. Despite the onset of heavy metal and hard rock at the end of the 60s, no one ever heard anything quite like it. Dazed and Confused has to be ranked highest among all Classic Rock Guitar Riffs if for nothing else than Jimmy Page’s inconceivable use of a violin bow with his guitar. The opening chords are enough to make the list, but as the song progresses, the ingenuity of the bow made everyone wonder how in the world he made the guitar sound like that! It was beyond all comprehension, and even along with the other hard rocking, original sounding tracks, Dazed and Confused was and remains a stand out endeavor.