There’s many a riff that has made it into rock music’s best ever lists and we offer a glimpse into the very best and for some of us – probably even some of the worst?

According to the 10th anniversary poll of Australian Musician magazine that has voted for the 10 greatest rock riffs ever recorded, Deep Purple’s Smoke On the Water was the surprise winner.

Probably not to a whole generation of air guitarists or indeed even other magazines from previous years who have done similar kinds of polls wherever guitars are plucked and played. But who cares when your magazine is doubly blessed by engineering debate among music fans, while also getting additional media attention as a magazine marketing device. So much so that it has become such an editorial content growth industry, hardly a month goes by now where some heavyweight music magazine in the USA or UK isn’t running some sort of poll or best ever list. Even the brilliant

UK published MOJO which tops my list of the best rock magazine publishing retrospective lists or polls, outdid itself recently with its special edition 150 “greatest rock lists ever”.

For Australian Musician its poll was the result of voting by 300 professional and amateur musicians before Deep Purple got the nod. While some other perennials such as Metallica’s Enter Sandman, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and Guns ‘N’ Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine, also made the top 10, and what list would be complete without Led Zeppelin’s all-time headphone trip Whole Lotta Love?

Of course Smoke On The Water would also have been immeasurably helped in the last year by its reappearance as the musical lynchpin to the 2003 Jack Black film School Of Rock where it has again had a chance to get into the heads of a whole new generation of music fans, although as guitar shops around the world can testify – it never went away!

According to the Songfacts website, Smoke On The Water is about a fire in the Casino at Montreux, Switzerland where the band was going to record the album Machine Head right after a Frank Zappa concert. But then someone fired a flare gun at the ceiling which set the place on fire and destroyed all the Zappa equipment. The band was then relocated to another hotel and proceeded to record the album in the Rolling Stones famous mobile studio.

Read more about it here.

Why great riffs make the best songs

But there is something about great rock riffs (and solos) that underpin the best songs to excite us more than any other aspect of classic records. Look no further than any of the great Rolling Stone riffs – who as a band have probably produced more of them than any other artist in history including The Beatles. Consider the likes of Satisfaction, Brown Sugar, The Last Time, Jumping Jack Flash, and even Bill Gates might want to cast a vote for Start Me Up. I can also think of a Crikey regular from Sydney who is probably cranking up his Golden Earring Radar Love as I write.

Clearly rock lists are great for an argument, and from memory even MOJO when it did a poll of its best ever guitar riffs or was it song opening, it also plumped for the Stones but it was the opening to Gimme Shelter rather than more obvious choices. But then thanks to my MOJO best ever lists I was able to learn that the song was in fact written by Keith Richards “when girlfriend Anita was shagging Mick”. Nothing like a little creative tension to write a classic then? Of course there are those who will have a thing for The Kinks classic You Really Got Me, Pete Townshend (take your pick), and how can you go ignore the claims of Led Zeppelin or our own AC-DC? And right now that Deep Dish single Flashdance has a killer riff to get your fingers dancing on your computer keyboard. As for my all time favourite Australian guitar riff (as distinct from solo) – if it isn’t that chiming Angels guitar that opens Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again, it has to be The Easybeats I’ll Make You Happy. Now even Jet would approve of that choice given their familiarity with the riff!

And although I don’t have a spare day to weigh up an ultimate top 10 rock riffs for this article, I will take a crack at my number one before I change my mind again tomorrow. For my money it has got to be Van Morrison’s original band Them with Gloria.

2004 Total Guitar magazine top 20 of its 100 greatest guitar riffs ever

1. Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses
2. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
3. Whole Lotta Love – Led Zeppelin
4. Smoke On The Water – Deep Purple
5. Enter Sandman – Metallica
6. Layla – Derek & The Dominoes/Eric Clapton
7. Master Of Puppets – Metallica
8. Back In Black – AC/DC
9. Voodoo Child – Jimi Hendrix
10. Paranoid – Black Sabbath
11. Crazy Train – Ozzy Osbourne
12. All Right Now – Free
13. Plug In Baby – Muse
14. Black Dog – Led Zeppelin
15. Aint Talkin’ ‘Bout Love – Van Halen
16. Walk This Way – Aerosmith
17. Sunshine Of Your Love – Cream
18. No-One Knows – Queens Of The Stone Age
19. Paradise City – Guns N` Roses
20. Killing In The Name – Rage Against The Machine.

Some really neat lists from Various Guitar Orientated Publications can be accessed here including:

  • The 50 Heaviest Riffs Of All Time
  • The Top 50 Most Influential Guitar Albums Of All Time Ever!
  • The Guitar Magazine 30 best albums of 1997
  • 100 best guitar solos of all time – Jan 1998
  • Top Ten Metal Albums Of The ’60’s, ’70’s & ’80’s
  • 10 Famous Guitar Intros
  • 100 Greatest Solos of all time 1998
  • Ten Of The Best… Songs Ever!
  • Best Album Of The Millennium – Guitar World
  • Best Solo Of The Millennium – Guitar World
  • Riff Of The Millennium – The Guitar Magazine
  • Album Of The Millennium – The Guitar Magazine
  • 10 Songs That Changed The Face Of Rock – Classic Rock Magazine
  • The Top Fifty Classic Rock Songs Of All Time
  • MOJO’s 100 Greatest Guitarists 1996
  • Kerrang! 100 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums Of All Time

100 Greatest Solos of all time 2001

Guitar Legends – a special edition from Guitar World magazine, September 2001

Based on readers votes: Here’s the top 20 of that 100.

1. Stairway To Heaven – Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page)
2. Eruption – Van Halen (Edward Van Halen)
3. Free Bird – Lynyrd Skynyrd (Allen Collins, Gary Rossington)
4. Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd (David Gilmour)
5. All Along The Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix
6. November Rain – Guns N’ Roses (Slash)
7. One – Metallica (Kirk Hammett)
8. Hotel California – The Eagles (Joe Walsh and Don Felder)
9. Crazy Train – Ozzy Osborne (Randy Rhoads)
10. Crossroads – Cream (Eric Clapton)
11. Voodoo Child (Slight Return) – Jimi Hendrix
12. Johnny B Goode – Chuck Berry
13. Texas Flood – Stevie Ray Vaughan
14. Layla – Derek and the Dominos (Eric Clapton and Duane Allman)
15. Highway Star – Deep Purple (Ritchie Blackmore)
16. Heartbreaker – Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page)
17. Cliffs Of Dover – Eric Johnson
18. Little Wing – Jimi Hendrix
19. Floods – Pantera (Dimebag Darrell)
20. Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen (Brian May)

You can remind yourself of some classics you may want to collect for your iPod or next party here where you can see votes cast for the 200 greatest guitar riffs and also a side list of the 20 greatest guitar “riffers”.

Now that’s what I call music.

Peter Fray

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