Top 10 Most Recognizable Opening Guitar Riffs of All-time

Jamie Reidy reveals his list of Rock-n-Roll’s Top 10 Most Recognizable Opening Guitar Riffs.

This is the first in a series; bass lines, drum beats, piano… will follow.

Before you start yelling at me for this list, I invite you to take a deep breath and re-read the headline.

It says “Most Recognizable.”  It does not say “Best” or “Most Epic” or “Most Influential.”  It says “Most Recognizable,” as in “The majority of the people in your car, bar or party instantly know what song it is by the first note of the song.”

That first note part is key; “Back in Black” wouldn’t work in the guitar category because it starts with drums.

Important to understand that I took women into account, here.  For instance, my AC/DC vote would’ve gone to “Highway to Hell,” but I realize infinitely more Sheilas know “Shook Me All Night Long.”

First, here are the runners up:

Livewire – Motley Crue

American Girl – Tom Petty

Blister in The Sun – Violent Femmes

Lonely Is The Night – Billy Squier

Suite Judy Blue Eyes – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Under The Bridge – Red Hot Chili Peppers

Message in a Bottle – The Police

Take It Easy – Eagles

Wicked Game – Chris Isaak

Photograph – Def Leppard

Now, for the Top 10 Most Recognizable Opening Guitar Chords of All-Time.

I will go in descending order:

10. Pride and Joy – Stevie Ray Vaughn

9. Unchained – Van Halen

8. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana

7. Layla – Derek and the Dominoes (a.k.a Eric Clapton)

6. Whole Lotta Love – Led Zeppelin

5. Smoke on The Water – Deep Purple

4. Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns-n-Roses

3. Hard Days Night – Beatles

2. Satisfaction – Rolling Stone

1. Shook Me All Night Long – AC/DC

Agree? Disagree?  What song did I miss?

 

Editor’s note: The original title of this article was “Top 10 Most Recognizable Opening Guitar Chords of All-time” – Thankfully, a helpful commenter pointed out that what I am actually referring to are “riffs” – not chords. Thanks for the correction!

Photo by:  Don Wrigh

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About Jamie Reidy

Jamie Reidy is a former U.S. Army officer turned little blue pill pusher turned author. His first book "Hard Sell: The Evolution of A Viagra Salesman"
served as the basis for the movie "Love and Other Drugs" starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Jamie is currently writing his new book, "Game On: One Fanatic's Fantastic, Foolish and Futile Attempt to Attend 365 Sporting Events in 365 Days." He discovered his latest story featured on Good Men Project - "Hope Shoots and Scores" - on Day 39 of his crazy journey.

Comments

  1. While your Top 10 has plenty of songs I could likely identify from the first single opening chord, I would expand it to say those songs all have very recognizable guitar *riffs* as opposed to single chords. Smoke on the Water – that very first chord is distinct enough that I could probably guess my way to which song it was if that’s all I heard, but it’s really the whole opening riff… “dun dun dunnnn, dun dun DUH-DUNN” that makes that song what it is. That’s a minor quibble, though; I think the list is pretty great.

    One of the things I love about guitar masters is how they can all play the same instrument and get completely different sounds out of it. I especially am in awe of those who have a signature sound. B.B. King, Greg Allman, Jimi Hendrix, Randy Rhoads, George Harrison, Eddie Van Halen – you can identify them all from a mile away.

    And on a side note – is there anything more masculine than the electric guitar, and a man who can make it cry?

  2. Now that I look at it again, the list does look a bit like the lunch hour playlist of my local classic rock radio stations. Maybe these chords/riffs are not so recognizable because they stand out in some way, but because we’ve been listening to the same 100 songs on classic rock radio for decades. :-P

  3. Jamie Reidy says:

    I agree that the list is entirely OLD songs, but, as you say KKZ, that’s probably why they are so ingrained.

    Funny you should mention “make it cry,” as Eddie Vedder tells McCready to “make me cry” right before the Yellow Ledbetter solo.

    • Ohhhh that’s one of my favorites.

      A couple additions I would suggest, now that I’ve mulled it over a bit – they may not be Top Ten material but still pretty recognizable.

      ZZ Top – Sharp Dressed Man
      Aerosmith – Dream On
      Led Zeppelin – Kashmir, or Immigrant Song

      Gotta hand it to my dad for raising me on the great rock’n’roll of his generation so I could largely evade the fluffy pop and all-sounds-the-same “new rock” of my own generation. My music tastes have definitely shifted more towards electronic genres in the past few years, but I still really appreciate mastery of traditional instruments.

      Do you ever “sing along” with epic guitar solos? Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one. I know the guitar parts to Ozzy’s “Mama I’m Coming Home” and Pink Floyd’s “Money” by heart.

      • KKZ, I have thoroughly schooled my boys (8 & 15) on classic rock. We listen to Sirius Boneyard whenever we are in the car. We sing along and rock out…great bonding! They like the pop stuff too that they listen to with my wife, but they PREFER the good stuff!

        My 15yo is a big Rush fan now (who wouldn’t be?) and the other day he said, “Hey Dad, do you have any Rush songs?” I said, “no mp3s, but I have an old cassette tape around here somewhere.” After he wiped the confused look off his face, he said: “Well, I just downloaded 2112, if you want to listen to it…” That’s my boy!

        • Good, glad to hear it! Keep the good stuff alive through future generations. Have you tried the Classic Vinyl station? It has a little less metal than Boneyard.

          My dad used to quiz me whenever a more obscure song came on to see if I could tell who it was before the vocals started – maybe that’s why I’m so good with opening riffs! :) And if I got the band right, he’d see if I could name the musicians, the song, name of the album, etc. He is a veritable a storehouse of rock and blues trivia. We’ve bonded over air guitar, debates over the quality of cover versions of old songs, and his crazy stories from rock concerts he went to when he was my age. He’s been on stage with a mob at an Ozzy concert, and when he and my mom lived in Europe and my mom was pregnant with me, they sold their tickets to Pink Floyd’s The Wall concert so they could move to the States.

          I don’t hate all the music of my generation – I had a short-lived boy band phase, got into No Doubt pretty heavily for a while, and have been introduced to a variety of good modern music thanks to Pandora. I’ll even admit to liking Lady Gaga, if only for her glamness because I’m a big Bowie fan too. My friends and I laugh at the thought of what we’ll be listening to when we’re retirees that will have the young’uns rolling their eyes at us. “Mom, Grandma’s listening to techno again…”

          • Sounds like me, I’m constantly quizzing them, too. Yeah, like Classic Vinyl, but also Bluesville…they’re not ready for Vintage Blues and Classic Jazz yet, but I’m introducing them slowly…those are more refined tastes. My kids will be musically, well-rounded.

  4. Mark Knopfler says:

    I’ve always liked Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing…one of my faves.

  5. Michael Catangay says:

    What? No Kinks? “You Really Got Me” “Lola” Nice list though Jamie despite those omissions. Especially, Van Halen’s “Unchained”

  6. Jamie Reidy says:

    I freaking LOVE that somebody signed in as Mark Knopfler!

    Please feel free to forward this link to other music fans. I’d love to hear about more songs that I missed. On Facebook, several buddies mentioned “Lola,” also.

    • Jamie, great article! Haha…I am the mysterious Mark Knopfler…I love that on these GMP comments I can change my name each time. I always try to make it relevant to my comment, of course.

      Believe me, I’m posting this article to my Facebook! This article made my Friday. This weekend I’ll be youtubing all these songs, and the great ones mentioned in the comments. Have a great weekend, my friends!

  7. I can’t argue with your top 10, but it really feels like you should have been able to make room for “American Girl”, “Wicked Game”, and “Message in a Bottle” as well.

    On the other hand, how you’re going to have this list without including “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath is beyond me.

  8. Jamie Reidy says:

    Embarrassing that I don’t have a Hendrix song on the list. #BrainCramp.

    I’d go “Purple Haze” ahead of “Watchtower.”

  9. AnonymousDog says:

    ZZ Top definitely needs to be on the list, if not for “Sharped Dressed Man”, for “La Grange” or several other songs which weren’t, but should have been hits.
    Also, “Wild Night”, the Van Morrison version.

  10. Test your theory. Put a link to the audio of the first chord with a list of the top 10 songs. See how many of your readers can correctly identify the chord to the song.

  11. As a guitarist (and former VH freak), I give big props for the inclusion of “Unchained,” though I don’t think it’s nearly as recognizable to the world in general is it is to all us dorks who learned “Eruption” as a 17 yr old. I’d say the most well known VH intro (without going to the too slick keyboards of “Jump”) would be:

    “Panama.”

    When that thing comes on the juke box in any bar I’ve ever been in, every conversation in the room stops, and anyone who was at least 10 when that song came out just has to smile, even if they hated it. It just IS 1984 incarnate (the year, not just the album) all in one furious over-the-top 10 second turbo blast.

  12. Also, speaking of “Hard day’s night” and the ‘chord heard around the world, here’s an amazing breakdown of what that chord really is, and how it was actually played (and it sure ain’t just one guitar chord):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvxPc5MPEuQ

  13. I would put free fallin instead of American girl. And BORN IN THE USA!! Sorry but to me that’s the most recognizable guitar opening of all time.

  14. Weston says:

    There is “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream, and then there are all the others. I would put “Smoke on the Water” in second place.

  15. No one had mentioned it that I could see and it’s not on the list but ‘All Right Now’ by Free has a very distinctive opening chord.

  16. Notable by its absence on a mere technicality, would be Frankenstein by the Edgar Winter Band. Quite a big technicality really in so far as Edgar played it as lead on a keyboard slung round his neck, however when ZZ Top borrowed the riff for cheap sunglasses it became a bonafide guitar riff

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5c-8AlOHuMs&feature=player_detailpage

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9WTlP08LEg&feature=player_detailpage

  17. Well this is wicked late, but I’d say Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode’s opening riff is wicked recognizable.

  18. What? No Rock You Like A Hurricane by Scorps? And they are STILL playing it on tour.

  19. Adam Marshall says:

    I think you forgot about Muse’s opening guitar riff from Plug In Baby:)

  20. I think you guys have made great suggestions for this list and the list in general was well done, but nobody has mentioned under pressure by queen. I heard someone listening to their music across the roomand i immediately knew it was under pressure.

  21. Jamie Reidy says:

    Logan –
    GREAT point!

    For starters, I thought “Under Pressure” starts with a bass line. But it’s not in my top ten bass lines, either; so, whichever way we look at it, I blundered.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • Cristy Rawks says:

      How could you miss Rock You Like A Hurricane by Scorpions? Matthias Jabs’ composition on that opening is huge and was vey influential to many bands.

  22. Great job Jamie Reidy.. Thank you for your information..

  23. Most definitely one of the most recognizable opening guitar riffs belongs to Rock You Like A Hurricane!!

  24. Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes!

  25. Great list and agree with most except that I feel that Ronnie Wood’s opening riff on “Stay With Me” needs to be on the list.

  26. How about Godzilla by Blue Oyster Cult?

  27. Seventeen-Winger?

  28. Rock Fan says:

    Great list but most recognizable: one has to be the Kinks All Day and All of the Night.

  29. Really great list but where is aqualung on either?

  30. AC/DC Thunderstruck, G&R Sweet Child O Mine

Trackbacks

  1. [...] music a lot in my blogs. I’ve provided my “Top 10 Opening Chords…” for guitar, piano and bass. None of the members of those 30 rock acts have reached out to me. I’ve [...]

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