What Is A Guitar Riff?

What is a guitar riff? A guitar riff is a cluster of repeated notes or chord progressions in a song. A guitar riff might be a minor embellishment or can form the basis of a song. 

Learning how to play the guitar can be stressful at times and once in a while, you need a break. There is no better way to do this than to lose yourself in playing guitar riffs. Guitar riffs are fun and very effective in lifting your spirits and making you feel good. It does not hurt to fantasize about strumming along with members of the Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones band while you are at it.

What Is A Guitar Riff

Components Of Guitar Riffs


You would barely find cases with guitar riffs being played once in a song. If you listen to some of the greatest and popular guitar riffs, you will realize that they are played repeatedly in the song, especially as intros or interludes. And it only gets better when listening to distorted guitar riffs. The main idea is maintained but with few changes to the notes, guitar phrasing, and rhythm.

Rhythm And Foundation

Guitar riffs are effective in providing a rhythmic foundation in a song. Not just that, it also introduces melodic elements. In other words, a guitar riff is not just about creating memorable sounds or stealing the show. It is about creating a strong back up for every other instrument being used to create a melody in a song.

Popular Guitar Riffs And How To Play Them

Smoke on the water

One of the greatest songs a guitarist can learn to play is smoke on the water by deep purple. Deep purple is considered to be one of the greatest bands in history and “smoke on the water” has been considered to be the crown jewel of their record collection. So how do you do play the riff to Smoke on water?

  • Pay attention to the G chord

The first chord in the riff is the song is the G chord. To get this done, you need to play the 4th and 5th string on the 5th fret. Make sure to use your second and third fingers when playing these notes. When you do this, your first and second fingers are poised to play the second chord which is the C chord.

  • Now the C chord 

The next thing to do is to pay attention to the 3rd fret of the 3rd and 4th string. We recommend that the fingering to be used is to the first one to press down on both strings. Alternatively, you can play your first finger on the 4th string and your second finger on the 3rd string.

  • Proceed to the D chord

This is the third chord but it uses the same fingerings as the G chord (the second and third fingers). After doing this, you should repeat the first two chords but play the 6th fret instead of the 5th and there you go, you have just played the riff to smoke on the water by deep purple.

Stairway To Heaven

The guitar riff to the stairway to heaven by Led Zepplin is probably one of the most overplayed guitar riffs in the world, but it would still suck if you cannot play this masterpiece. So, we have decided to add it to the list. Stairway to heaven is one of the greatest songs ever played by Led Zepplin and they were pretty awesome, so you can understand why.

The chords to stairway to heaven go this way: Am, Bmaj7/G#, C/G, D/F#, Fmaj7, Am/B, Am.

Looking at these chords, you can see that notes drop from A to G#, to G, F#, F then moves from B to A again.

In order to play the Am chord, you need to do that in the fifth position. While playing this part, you also have to make sure that your index finger is barring the 4 strings while your 3rd finger should be on the 7th fret on the F string. These are the combination of notes used for the Am part of the song.

Use your thumb on the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd string while picking then use the 3rd finger on your right hand to play the E string. After this, you then follow up with the Bmaj7/G# chord.

While still barring the strings with your 4th finger, take your 3rf fretting finger off the D string and then place it on the first string of the 8th fret. Move your second finger to the 6th fret of the D string (this is the G# note). If you get this done correctly then you have completed the Bmaj7/G# chord.

When you are done playing the last note of the Am (this is the 5th fret of the E string). You need to shift cord and play the D and E string on the second chord using your thumb and 3rd finger. Follow this up with the 3rd finger of your right hand on the 2nd and 3rd string. You will play the last note of the Bmaj7/G# with the 3rd finger of your right hand. 

The next step is to play the C major with a G bass note. With your first finger still barring the 4 strings and your index finger playing the G note on the D string (5th fret). Place your pinky finger on the 8th fret which is the C note. Proceed to bar the 2nd and 3rd string of the 5th fret with your index finger to get the C/G.

Back In Black

This song by ACDC is one of the most popular songs in rock music to date and it was written in memory of the band’s lead singer who passed in 1980. Most of the chords that feature in this song are A open, D open, E open, and G open. Also, a chunk of the song is 3 chords, which: E major, D Major and A major.

Come As You Are

This song is one nirvana popular song that possesses great guitar riffs. This song was written by the band’s lead singer, who also happens to play the lead guitar. The song depicts the contradictory nature of being human. 

Kurt Cobain had the idea of his guitar part sounding “watery”, so he used the chorus guitar effect to create a washed-out tone. Well, whatever crazy idea he had back then birthed this masterpiece and we are definitely not complaining. 

To play this is quite easy, simply follow Cobain’s steps. He created this simple riff by playing it on the 6th (low e) string. This intro riff is played using an alternate tuning called the drop D tuning. In simpler terms, if you want to play along with the song, you have to tune your strings a whole step down to D. Hence, giving you a tuning pattern like this: D, G, C, F, A, D. In simpler terms start with tuning the sixth string a whole step down to d pitch if you want to get this riff right. With regular practice, you will figure it out.

Beat It

Yes, we are familiar with the king of pop, the great Michael Jackson. Although he is late, his music has not and will probably not fade away. Growing up, a lot of us must have jammed beat it regularly. After all, it is one of his many great songs. As a guitarist, if you want a great riff for your guitar solo, this legendary song has it. 

To play this guitar riff in its original key, tune your guitar to the EB tuning. The Eb tuning involves tuning every string on your guitar a half step down. This will give you a pattern like D#, G#, C#, F#, A# D#.

Enter Sandman

This is a popular song in the heavy metal genre from the Mettalica band. It was one the singles on their Black Album. Every experience guitarist is familiar with the riff intro on this song. And if you intend to be one, a guitarist, you have to know how to play it.

It begins with an almost sinister sound called the E/Bb tritone played on an acoustic guitar. The Bb note created a tritone that along with the E pitch. this combination produced a dissonance that blends well with the mood of the song.  This is immediately followed by an electric guitar riff. Here, the slide and E power chord is utilized instead of the open E string.

Fortunate Son

If you are a movie buff, you will recognize this song as it is often used in movies. This rock music was from the American band, Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969. Apart from having a simple guitar riff, it is the perfect song for practicing your slides. The guitar riff of this song is played in C major along with a lot of slides.

Killing In The Name

This is a song from the Rage Against the Machine band in 1992. To date, it stands as one of the greatest songs with a powerful guitar riff. The riff is played using an alternative tuning called the Drop D tuning. To play this, the D major is necessary. Tune your low E or sixth strings a whole step down or 2 semitones to D. Also, to get the rhythm and tempo right, it is advisable to use a metronome.

Also, the band, Guns N Roses have great songs with powerful guitar solos. this is majorly accredited to Slash, who played the lead guitar in the band. slash delivered great guitar solos in several songs by the band. this includes the incredible outro riff on November Rain, his moving guitar solos on Estranged, Sweet Child ‘O Mine.

Other songs that you can use in practicing your guitar riffs include Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction, The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride and Day Tripper, David Bowie and Nirvana’s The Man Who Sold the World, REM’s The one I love, Metallica’s One, The Doors’ Roadhouse Blues, Led Zeppelin’s Heartbreaker, Stone Temple Pilot’s Plush.


Guitar riffs are amazing and motivational, no doubts about that. As a new guitarist, you are itching to do your first guitar solo and blow minds away, we know. However, getting your guitar riffs right can only be possible with consistent practice and maybe a few tips from us. 

First of all, you have to build a stable foundation when it comes to bending your strings properly. Second is to take it slow, don’t try to rush the notes. It helps if you can create a daily schedule to practice the riffs. Practicing 3 to 4 times in a week with the use of a metronome is a good way to go. Also, it is advisable to start with songs that have easy guitar riffs and work your way up from there.

For more on guitar riffs and how to play them, please click on the link below.