The 10 filthiest rock’n’roll riffs ever

Dirty Honey
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Rock’n’roll is built on the riff – and the filthier the better. LA rock livewires Dirty Honey know all about filthy riffs – their self-titled 2021 debut album is packed full of ’em. Ahead of the release of second album Can’t Find The Brakes (set for release later this year), we got guitarist John Notto and bassist Justin Smolian to pick the 10 filthiest riffs they’ve ever heard (OK, they doubled up on one, but it’s a classic and we’re not going to quibble). Warning: it might get messy…

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Led Zeppelin - Heartbreaker (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)

John Notto: “This riff knocked me off my eight-year-old feet the first time i heard it. There are many legendary riffs on Led Zeppelin II, but there was always something extra in the sauce of Heartbreaker. For starters, the bold, almost clean but somehow still heavy tone of the riff is still iconic and unattainable. Secondly, the groove; it's somehow heavy, but cool and collected at the same time. Bonham’s groove is almost like a pre-cursor to 90's mid-tempo hip-hop in that sense. The secret weapon of the groove is that shaker overdub. The heavy distorted bass-tone rounds out the sound of the song, making for a completely cool vibe that was timeless the second it was released.”

AC/DC – Back in Black (Back In Black, 1980)

John: “This was another and formative riff of my childhood. It’s heavy, but also sexy. It's not soft, but it's also not asking you to break stuff and mosh. Again, it's that mid tempo backbeat underpinning the riff that contributes to the level of cool in this song. The riff itself is a lesson in effective simplicity soaked in a timeless style. While the attitude feels macho and heavy, the guitar tone itself is bordering on clean, which says so much about Angus and Malcolm's playing together, and how much their feel drives the song. This riff will sound cool coming out of anyone's car at the stoplight forever.”

Van Halen - Drop Dead Legs (1984, 1984)

John: “This one was never a hit, and I'm pretty sure the first time Van Halen played it live regularly was in 2015 when Wolfgang Van Halen was picking the setlist. But it always struck me. It's sexy, mid-tempo and is maybe the coolest strat riff that isn't by Jimi Hendrix. The guitar tone is almost clean, but it isn't. Swag level is maxed. It's another lesson in simplicity, but with an extra touch of intricate musician-muso stuff that make it a fun learn. Speaking of that, the most interesting discovery when I finally learned it was that it's a riff that completes in three bars not 4four It's rare that something so catchy and cool can also be slightly odd, with the average listener being none the wiser. Dave Lee Roth perfectly chose the only subject that goes with this riff: sex.”

Guns N Roses – Mr Brownstone (Appetite For Destruction 1987)

John: “This is another one that isn't a hit, but I was hooked as soon as I heard it. It's a funky riff that says these guys listened to more than just rock and punk. This riff is a lesson in effectiveness and memorableness, while not being simple. It actually has a lot of notes, but the swing rhythm feel, mixed with the bluesy, almost Parliament/Funkadelic-like line (think Do That Stuff) make it such a head-bob groover, that any complexity is lost against the undeniable cool groove and attitude. And like most Guns N’ Roses classics, the riff enters after the perfect intro setup. It's cool, it's timeless, its bluesy, it swings, and it's actually a somewhat difficult learn for guitarists to get right. I think the influence of this riff, and feel, shows in the chorus riff I wrote for [Dirty Honey’s 2019 single] Rolling 7s.”

Rage Against the Machine - Killing In the Name (Rage Against The Machine, 1992)

John: “This might be the best, most well written riff of the 90s. It's heavy, it's slightly bluesy, it's catchy without trying to be a hit. It's angry. Honestly, every riff in this song is amazing. It's a lesson in how to make every part of your song as memorable as the next part. RATM wrote the book on heavy riffs that are also a hip-hop fan's dream . It's like they heard Heartbreaker by Led Zeppelin and Public Enemy at the same moment, and BOOM, a new style of their own was born. This riff appealed to everything I liked as a kid: a heavy but simple and bluesy riff, an anti-authority sentiment and attitude, and a mid-tempo drum groove that has your head involuntarily slamming forward and backwards.”

The Rolling Stones – Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (Sticky Fingers, 1971)

Justin Smolian:Can’t You Hear Me Knocking is the filthiest riff ever written, hands down. I’ve always loved something that sounds like the player is shooting from the hip, and the Stones are masters of that. The intro riff is unbelievably nasty and Keith never plays it exactly the same. It makes me believe that he was still in the process of working it out and slightly improvising when they recorded it, which just gives it that extra element of swagger. Those are always my favourite moments on recordings - when someone is getting something right for the first time and it’s captured on tape.”

Led Zeppelin – Heartbreaker (Led Zeppelin II, 1969)

Justin:Heartbreaker was one of the first Zeppelin riffs I ever learned. From that first bent note of the riff, I was in. And when they start moving the riff into different keys, I just about lost my mind. The guitar tone on the song is amazing which is crucial to any dirty riff.  Speaking of tones, John Paul Jone’s distorted bass tone on the song has been a huge influence for me. I recently learned that he sent his bass signal through a Leslie speaker which helped him achieve that warbly overdriven sound.”

Soundgarden – Outshined (Badmotorfinger, 1991)

Justin: “I love everything Chris Cornell ever did whether it was Soundgarden, Audioslave, or his solo stuff. This was the first Soundgarden riff I ever learned and my first experience with drop D tuning. The combination of this sick riff with the sludgy half time feel and Cornells paint peeling vocals makes me just want to break whatever is around me when I hear it.”

Eagles – Those Shoes (The Long Run, 1979)

Justin: “The harmonized talk box guitars on this tune blow my mind every time I hear it. I love how these have these slow hand guitar riffs going on even when the vocals come in. Combined with the sick but simple bass rhythm going on behind them, this song has always been a standout for me in their impressive catalogue. The rhythm for this song actually served as inspiration for a song called Dirty Mind, off Dirty Honey’s new record.”

The Beatles – Happiness Is A Warm Gun (The Beatles, 1968)

Justin: “I can’t make any music list without including The Beatles. This riff comes in around 0:45 and only happens once – might even say it’s a solo. It has these super wide, slow and long bends that just rip my soul out every time I hear it and the buzzy tone gives me a sense of hopeless longing.”

Dirty Honey’s new album, Can’t Find The Brakes, is out later this year