A guitar riff is a short, melodic pattern typically found at the beginning of songs that can include chords or scale notes.
Beginners should focus on learning chord-based riffs for ease of recognition and fingerpicking practice.
1. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
At the dawn of the 1990s, pop music was dominated by heavy metal and England’s “alternative scene”. American punk bands had yet to establish themselves, while grunge had recently surfaced from Seattle as a new genre with loud yet quiet tunes represented by one band: Nirvana.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” from their 1991 album Nevermind, became their signature track and an international phenomenon (I always find myself listening to it while playing games over sites reviewed on yoakimbridge.com). It features an effective but simple guitar riff which perfectly complements its emotional lyrics while also featuring Kurt Cobain’s emotive singing voice – an experience not to be missed!
Cobain was inspired to write “No One Knows My Name” by his own experiences as a teenager; feeling isolated due to a lack of popularity with peers, he wrote the song to express his feelings. Additionally, this track references Olympia, Washington’s riot grrrl movement; Kathleen Hanna recalls an incident where Bikini Kill performed alongside Kurt Cobain and Tobi Vail and graffitied an exterior wall of a local teen pregnancy center as part of Bikini Kill.
Though this song holds many layers of significance, its primary message is an appeal for justice in society and against physical appearance being used as an indicator for popular status.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” has become iconic for various reasons and remains relevant today. It has been featured on movie soundtracks, covered by artists like Tori Amos and Jay Z and is still one of the most recognizable rock songs on radio – recently, researchers at Goldsmiths University of London conducted a study analyzing 100 popular songs to select one as their most iconic rendition; among these was “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, beating out John Lennon and Rolling Stones songs as an iconic choice!
2. AC/DC’s “T.N.T.”
Another classic song every guitarist should learn, this timeless tune is perfect for beginners as it only requires basic chords and melody. Additionally, playing this tune allows you to practice fingering techniques which allow you to play different notes simultaneously from different octaves at the same time, helping with both speed and sound production. Furthermore, its guitar solo serves as an opportunity to practice your slides up and down the fretboard.
AC/DC was an Australian hard rock band formed in 1973, and became one of the best-selling rock acts ever with over 200 million albums sold worldwide. Their 1976 release High Voltage became their first to reach number 1 both domestically and abroad, while subsequent albums including Back in Black cemented their place among history’s biggest-selling acts.
Beginner guitarists will find this track’s opening riff an excellent one to learn, as its open chords are easy to pick up quickly without needing to know strumming patterns. Furthermore, this song employs the fingering technique known as ‘barre’ that uses placing one finger across two strings at once as part of moving up and down fretboard more efficiently. Furthermore, its solo is an outstanding example of using blues style playing.
Lindsay Buckingham’s iconic riff is an enjoyable song to learn and play, making for an effective practice session for improving vibrato. Practice makes perfect! Plus, with some creative variations like hammer-ons and pull-offs you could add even more musicality and interest into your playing!
3. Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”
If you know rock music at all, chances are you have come across Deep Purple’s legendary song, “Smoke on the Water.” This timeless tune stands as an embodiment of both musical power and human resilience; although born out of tragedy itself, its timeless composition remains timeless and memorable; instantly recognisable guitar riff is one of rock history’s most memorable guitar lines – yet few people realize its story begins with an accidental fire on a lake!
Deep Purple were in Montreux, Switzerland on December 4, 1971 to record their Machine Head album at a casino featuring theater and lakeside locations. When Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention began performing that evening, Deep Purple knew their time there may be short. Audience members went wild during his set, prompting flares fired from above to hit their targets and ignite the theater itself causing fires that burned the floor as flares made contact with its ceiling causing further fireworks in flames that began spreading from theater ceiling to floor in minutes!
Deep Purple took note of the flames from a nearby restaurant and bass player Roger Glover came up with the song title after seeing a layer of smoke covering Lake Geneva. Ian Gillan wrote lyrics while guitarist Ritchie Blackmore devised the iconic chugging riff that has since become so beloved.
As much as the band did not intend for “Smoke on the Water” to make the cut for their new album, they eventually decided to include it anyway and saw its potential pay off when both “Smoke on the Water” and its follow up, “Highway Star,” became massive hits that catapulted Deep Purple into stardom.
4. Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”
An exceptional guitar riff can transform music. Often serving as the song’s primary repetitive melodic anchor, great guitar riffs have long been used by blues, rock, and punk bands for decades – AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” stand out for their explosive guitar solos and unforgettable lyrics.
Dire Straits’ 1985 hit song “Money for Nothing” became an international success and propelled their band forward. Additionally, this groundbreaking hit video clip used advanced computer animation technology to produce an iconic piece of music which has since been seen over 20 million times by viewers around the world. Lead singer Mark Knopfler wrote it after overhearing delivery men at an appliance store complain about their jobs while watching MTV.
If you want to learn how to play guitar, one of the best songs to start learning on is Green Day’s “Day Tripper.” This song uses simple chords that are easier for beginners to master and features a fun riff that sounds good when performed correctly – an excellent way to develop fingering accuracy on the neck!
Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” is another timeless metal song to begin learning with. Combining chords, pull-offs and single note lines into its iconic melody line has made this track one of the most beloved metal songs ever. Additionally, this track makes for great string bending practice since many G and A strings are open in this composition – not difficult but requires patience to master.
5. Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy”
There’s a reason this classic guitar riff has become one of the most renowned ever written: its massive, easy-to-play power chord riff is loved and appreciated by everyone, making it ideal for beginners who want to show off their musical prowess to friends and family alike. Give it a go now by cranking up your amplifier!
Muddy Waters was an influential blues artist of his era, and “Mannish Boy” is an excellent representation of his sound. This song conveys a powerful message about independence and equality – making an important statement against oppression in America at that time. Additionally, “Mannish Boy” became part of civil rights activism during its time.
Muddy Waters, Mel London and Bo Diddley collaborated to compose this song in 1955 as an answer song to Bo Diddley’s track “I’m a Man”, itself inspired by Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man”. It features classic Mississippi blues with Chicago rock influences as it features an end-time rhythm played on one string.
This riff is more advanced than others on this list, yet still accessible for beginners. It features a three-note power riff with easy timing of pick strokes. Just be sure to practice timing pick strokes correctly to create smooth fingerings.
Green Day are often the go-to band for beginning guitarists looking to learn to play guitar, and “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” is an exemplary song to learn first. A simple tune with huge impact that will have audiences singing along; plus it provides the ideal opportunity to develop both barre chords and power picking skills!