An alternative list of stonkers, bangers and cheeky little neck twitchers

Writers of ‘top 100’ style lists are on a hiding to nothing, generally. Especially when said list has wildly exaggerated titles like “TOP 100 GREATEST GUITAR RIFFS OF ALL TIME EVER.” See, music is different to, for example, sport. By its very nature, music is almost exclusively non-competitive. Trying to make something competitive for the sake of an arbitrary list is like attaching laser weaponry to hamsters. Fun, sure, but ultimately vacuous and slightly pointless.

So it was with great glee and a behind-the-sofa sense of smug schadenfreude that we saw the recent BBC poll aiming to get to the bottom of the tricky subject of great guitar riffs. And, as expected, their final list has raised more than a few questions. Like who on earth shortlisted that tinkly plinky-plonk high register melody from Radiohead’s No Surprises as a guitar riff?! If that’s a guitar riff then I’m a cup of hot soil.

I guess if we’re being technical about it then a guitar riff is just a brief section or melody, usually looped, which forms the backbone of a song. So yes, by that definition the No Surprises ‘riff’ is just that. However that definition misses one crucial point, which is that a riff holds a great power. It should be the thing which makes you jump off your seat and flail around the pub with your air guitar. It should stay stuck in your head for days on end. Most of all, it should make you powerless to stop the impulsive urge to nod (or ideally, bang) your head. Hands up if you’ve ever seen anyone bang their head to No Surprises…

With that in mind, we’ve put together a short list of alternatives which the BBC may not have considered when compiling its recent guitar-based compendium.

Orange Goblin – Scorpionica

Video by: Orange Goblin
It would be easy, for a list of guitar riffs, to start cherry-picking from any of the Sabbath-esque list of desert/stoner bands we’ve seen emerge over the past, oh, 30 years. Those boys and girls know how to construct guitar lines which balance perfectly between simplicity and audacious brilliance. However we’ve settled for this little nugget of guitar wonderment. The riff in this song is ridiculous, plain and simple. Sure, it’s not particularly original, but you can keep your difficult time signatures and obscure timbres if this is the alternative.

The Osmonds – Crazy Horses

Video by: The Osmonds
And so from one extreme to the other. You can laugh all you like but the main verse riff from this song is fatter than you’d conceivably expect a riff from a 60s boy band to be, but believe us; it’s a banger. Once described as being like Rage Against the Machine for the under 5s, the Irish band Throat (featuring Clutch’s Neil Fallon) saw the immense potential in this riff and re-imagined it for grown-ups everywhere.

Iron Maiden – The Trooper

Video by: EMImusic

We’ve never understood why Maiden don’t seem to get the critical acclaim they clearly deserve. Talk about knowing your audience; Maiden have been pumping out barnstorming riff after barnstorming riff for the past 6,326 years (or so it seems.) The Trooper marks one of their better known riffs. It’s compact, catchy and accessible, and is the perfect demonstration of some trademark chord changes and dual-attack harmonies. It also shows clearly the beauty of a simple galloping riff, which became the mainstay of power metal bands like Manowar, Lost Horizon and Iced Earth.

Doug Wood Band – Drag Racer

Video by: Doug Wood Band
Perhaps slightly from left-field, but the main riff from this song is just about the perfect combination of cheeky, noodly and downright fun. Plus, it’s pretty simple to learn and impress your mates with. The similarities between this and Hocus Pocus, by the Dutch legends Focus, are clear too which adds a level of prog-credibility with which to impress your dad’s mates. If that’s what you’re into.

Pig Destroyer – Eve

Video by: Pig Destroyer
We’re right back into the metal end of the musical spectrum, if the name Pig Destroyer hadn’t given it away. To the uninitiated, PD sound like all of your childhood nightmares condensed into intense blasts of 6,000bpm terror. Fair point. To the aficionado though, this catchy little number contains the perfect example of a riff which is worth walking over hot coals for. If you can grit your teeth and make it through to 44 second mark you’ll be treated to one of the chunkiest, most downright filthy examples of a riff you’ll ever hear. The aural equivalent of surfing through a sea of lard on a hot knife surf-board.

Chris Rea – Auberge

Video by: Chris Rea
For the final entry in this list, we’ve picked this raunchy little ditty by everyone’s favourite gravel-voiced troubadour, Chris Rea. Perhaps more famous for his slide guitar than his ability to get heads nodding, the main riff to this song is so simple you could teach your cat to play it, and therein lies its beauty.

In fact, therein lies the beauty to all of the riffs listed above. They each demonstrate a small slice of guitar genius in their own little way, yet are simple enough for even the most cack-handed of novices to learn. And once you can play a riff, you can write a riff. And for guitarists more than players of any other instrument, the unbridled joy that comes from writing a stonker of a riff yourself is pretty hard to beat.