A good opening riff instantly hooks your attention and has you wanting more.
The best opening guitar riffs of all time change the way you view the instrument
Or even music as a whole.
These are riffs that blow your mind the first time you hear them.
And they stay in your head for the rest of your life.
They are the riffs that inspire millions to pick up the guitar.
Keep reading to find out exactly which opening guitar riffs did that for me (and for countless others).
Table of Contents
- 1 Best Opening Guitar Riffs
- 2 Best Guitar Opening Riffs: Final Thoughts
Best Opening Guitar Riffs
The following are the riffs that changed my life when I first heard them. You may have a different list of best opening guitar riffs of all time, but I would be surprised if there isn’t some overlap. Any riffs I missed that need to be on this list? Let me know in the comments.
Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love by Van Halen
The intro riff in Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love screams top-tier rock and roll. With perfect use of delay in combination with bends, the late great Eddie made a melody that remains one of the top opening riffs more than five decades later.
What makes the introduction to Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love so amazing is that it is equally energetic and positive. It’s perhaps the most beautiful variation of the simple A Major. Eddie’s phenomenal technique and heavily modified gear make it so explosive.
I love the entire song, just like I love the fact that this riff only rears its head during the first couple of bars (and briefly reappears before the second solo), leaving the listener wanting more.
I Love Rock ‘N Roll by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
I Love Rock ‘N Roll is as powerful as it is simple, and it’s precisely its plainness that makes the riff so powerful. Everyone knows it, and everyone is clapping when it pops up on the radio or in a pub.
The gritty distortion announces Joan’s gorgeous voice, and the simple licks near the end of the intro set the stage for what is arguably one of the most popular rock songs of all time. With robust drum accents working in harmony with the bass and the guitar, saying that the opening riff in I Love Rock ‘N Roll is great would be a huge understatement.
Paranoid by Black Sabbath
The guitars in Paranoid have raised generations of rock and metal fans. The legendary Tony Iommi not only boasts a one-of-a-kind playing style, but he is also a master of crafting ultra-memorable riffs.
The opener in Paranoid is a classic that stands unbeatable, even after the band released dozens of new albums.
As opposed to Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love, the intro in this song is so groovy and percussive that it’s used more often than it isn’t throughout the song. Its catchy nature is one of the reasons so many world-famous bands covered it (with the most prominent example being Pantera’s iteration of it).
Boat On The River by Styx
Nostalgic, somewhat somber, and hauntingly beautiful, the chords that open Boat on the River show a more tranquil side of classic rock. The first riff played in this tune is played on a 12-string guitar and is followed by an upright bass, making the acoustic parts extremely deep and emotional.
Even though the song shifts to a slightly happier direction after just a couple of bars, the first couple of notes that open the song paint gorgeous landscapes and take the listener on a wholesome ride.
Burn by Deep Purple
If you ever wondered why Deep Purple is recognized among the finest music groups of all time, just listen to the first few seconds of their song Burn.
Unsurprisingly, the legendary Ritchie Blackmore was helming the guitars on this tune, and his idiosyncratic approach to rock melodies and rhythm makes it so tasty and danceable.
I was enamored with Deep Purple as soon as I first heard Burn (the entire album), and the catchy rhythm of the riff that opens its namesake title reeled me deep in the world of rock and roll.
Thunderstruck by AC/DC
I’m fairly certain that AC/DC doesn’t need an introduction and that you’re humming the opening riff as soon as you read the name. The first riff in Thunderstruck made history in the R&R world and is even today recognized as the ultimate mover.
Malcolm’s burning the high notes while the rhythm section runs like clockwork. Thunderstruck is ultra-high voltage meets the plain magnificence of a steady rhythm meets Malcolm’s unapologetic grit – it’s everything we love about AC/DC packed in a 5-minute song.
Ride The Lightning by Metallica
If there was a goosebump-inducing competition among rock and metal tunes, Ride the Lightning would scorch the competition without a contest. The intro riff to this song is sharp as a razor’s edge, kicks like a mule, and is likely to have you mashing the repeat button to no end.
I have to admit that when I was first introduced to Metallica, I’d spend hours on the first riff to Ride the Lightning. It just felt so unreal for a metal band (even for Metallica) to have such powerful and sturdy lick in their pocket and only use it once in the entire tune.
The screeching of Kirk’s harmonics and the artillery that is Lars’s bass drum is the match made in heaven that makes the first riff in Ride the Lightning so absurdly powerful.
Holy Wars by Megadeth
Hearing Holy Wars for the first time, my initial impression was “you can do that on a guitar?” Its opening riff, just like Megadeth’s style as a whole, is so different from what you’d consider thrash metal – it’s like a very peculiar combo of heavy, classic, and jazz with Dave Mustaine’s secret ingredient – unbridled passion for making angry but high-quality music.
What the intro to Holy Wars does different from virtually every song in recorded history is that it playfully toys with single-note arrangements in a classic thrash metal scale, with such speed and precision that it virtually transcends its own genre.
Cowboys From Hell by Pantera
The day Cowboys from Hell made it onto vinyl was the day groove metal took the world by storm. The intro to this tune had everything fans of rock and metal always wanted. It is heavy, jazzy, fast-paced, and different from everything the other bands were doing at the time.
It’s slow enough for you to hum it yet faster than beginners could grasp. It’s heavier than an average ’90s rock opener but played on high notes. It’s chaotic, but Dime’s unrivaled accuracy makes it so clear and fluid. It’s Cowboys, but they’re from Hell. Pantera truly reinvented themselves with this one.
Best Guitar Opening Riffs: Final Thoughts
Do you agree that these are the best opening guitar riffs of all time? Are there any you would add to the list? If so, please let me know in the comments below.
I know there are some other riffs I would have put on this list myself, but that just didn’t pop into my head while writing this. I took that as a sign that they weren’t quite as groundbreaking as the ones that instantly popped into my head, but there is no reason I can’t add a few more riffs to the list if I get some good suggestions.
And if you are just starting out on the guitar and you want to learn some great-sounding, but easy-to-play riffs, I have an article listing easy guitar riffs for beginners here.
If you are still learning, but no longer a complete beginner and you want to learn some famous and groundbreaking riffs, I have another article listing the best riffs to learn on guitar. These are all greats riffs, but most of them are fairly easy pick up.