The 5 guitarists who built heavy metal

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(Image: © Getty Images)

No riff, no heavy metal. It’s a simple as that. Okay, we can argue until we’re blue in the face about what is or isn’t heavy metal, one thing is undisputed – metal is all about the guitar riff. And what exactly is this sacred four-letter word? 

Wikipedia defines the riff as “an ostinato figure: a repeated chord progression, pattern or melodic figure, often played by the rhythm section instruments, that forms the basis or accompaniment of a musical composition”. Simply put, it’s the building block around which a rock song is born. And while these can be played on any instrument, the most powerful and recognisable riffs are usually born on guitar. And in the case of metal, the electric guitar. Riffs can be simple, riffs can be complex, but ultimately, the key to a great riff is that it bores itself right into your consciousness before you realise it. You can hum it to a friend and they know exactly the song you’re on about. 

Often the riff will be far more important and instantly recognisable than the lyrics. But where did all this start? 

Jimi Hendrix

Four decades ago, an unassuming guitarist named James Marshall Hendrix arrived in the UK, and it’s hard to quantify the impact he had upon popular music. While you wouldn’t necessarily quantify his own musical output as ‘heavy metal’ it certainly was a precursor, and many of his ferocious techniques have been adopted and taken as a blueprint for metal – and the fact he was recently voted the best guitarist of all time by Louder readers is testament to his enduring influence. 

The young player from Seattle obliterated the way people thought about the guitar – in terms of musicianly technique, showmanship, and even down to the gear he used. He hooked up with a young engineer named Roger Mayer who had turned his hand to making guitar effects pedals. Inspired by a pre-Zeppelin Jimmy Page, Mayer developed the first proper fuzz box – the result was a device that not only gave an electric guitar the brutal overdriven tone, but also allowed for amazing sustain. 

Jimi’s music was an amalgam of everything we knew (and a lot we didn’t) – he turned American music on its head. He embraced the blues, rock, traditional folk, soul and country, even. His sound was a sonic maelstrom of squalling feedback, fuzz- drenched riffs with a remarkable sense of melody wrapped around it. The dissonance of unexpected chords clashing together was all part and parcel of Jimi’s magic. 

He took the six-string from a gentle whisper (The Wind Cries Mary, May There Be Love) to a banshee wail (Purple Haze, Foxy Lady) via cosmic blues through enigmatic chordal explorations to what bordered on jazz-inflected art-rock solos. 

Jimi was left-handed, so he strung and played his Fender Stratocaster upside-down. That looked different. Jimi was black in a time when rock’n’roll had been primarily a white man’s game. Jimi embraced feedback as a musical source. Jimi played guitar with his teeth. Jimi played his guitar behind his head. Jimi set his goddamn guitar on fire. Jimi broke the rules. And changed guitar music for all time.   

Phil Collen (Def Leppard): “I was obviously very aware of Jimi Hendrix in the early 1970s, but it wasn’t until much later – until way after I’d started playing the guitar – that I really started to appreciate him. Everything about him was a contradiction to your standard rock stereotype. 

“I went back and listened to him playing live and listened to what he was actually doing. And it wasn’t just the standard bollocks that everyone else was doing. It was completely different, and far deeper. As a musician, I found it amazing what he did; the way he left gaps in his playing; the way it was rhythmic and melodic; based around the vocal and the song. To me, he was the perfect musician.” 

Jimmy Page

His name is Page, James Patrick Page. Former session musician who mutated into the scariest, meanest riff wrangler rock music has ever known. Led Zeppelin was built upon the riff. As much as Robert Plant’s patented squeal defined the band, Jimmy’s guitar riffery was always its core. Page took his inspiration from old blues riffs, pumped ’em up, sped ’em up, piled on the overdrive, made them twisted, ferocious, and above all, memorable. 

With his low-slung Gibson Les Paul, a long-held fascination with the occult, his dragon suit and ZoSo symbol, Page was the epitome of cool. And he took the guitar on an odyssey that would go on to create the template for heavy metal. 

The riffs were doomy and intriguing. He used a violin bow to evoke spooky sounds, was adept at studio trickery – he produced every single Led Zeppelin album, and in his quest pioneered the use of backward echo (on You Shook Me). 

Page was also adept at combining the delicate with the ferocious, and often within the space of the same song, providing the template for the light and shade so used (and often abused) by metal bands today – just listen to the ubiquitous Stairway To Heaven for proof. 

Of all our players here, Page’s style is probably the most versatile. Whether using open tunings on his folk- inflected material (Led Zeppelin III is a prime example), or letting rip on improvised proto-heavy metal solos, Jimmy made his guitar wail like no other. 

“Many people think of me as just a riff guitarist, but I think of myself in broader terms,” he told Guitar World. “As a musician I think my greatest achievement has been to create unexpected melodies and harmonies within a rock’n’roll framework. And as a producer I would like to be remembered as someone who was able to sustain a band of unquestionable individual talent, and push it to the forefront during its working career. I think I really captured the best of our output, growth, change and maturity on tape -- the multifaceted gem that is Led Zeppelin.” And you know what, he wasn’t kidding. 

Nancy Wilson (Heart): “What can you say about Jimmy Page? As a guitar player who bridges the acoustic and electric world Jimmy 

really knows how walk that bridge of sighs. He’s one of the most versatile players in the world. His style of music is so expansive – it’s as if he’s always got a foot in the classical and a foot in the blues – all the great dissonances that Jimmy would put into songs and phrases – things that were really off the beaten track musically for rock’n’roll. There’s a duality there that I’ve emulated ever since I’ve played guitar. 

“There’s a lot of formal musicianship and capability going on which you don’t automatically think about when you hear Led Zeppelin. They really knew what they were doing. They knew all the rules and then they broke them all.” 

Tony Iommi

Any of our featured players could be given the epithet the Godfather Of The Riff, but if anyone really deserves the title Godfather Of Metal, then surely, it’s got to be Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi. 

It’s Iommi’s de-tuned, slusgy riffery that has powered and typified every single Black Sabbath release – no matter who was at the mic. Iommi has not only written some of the most powerful metal riffs of all time – stand-up Iron Man, Paranoid, Black Sabbath, War Pigs etc, but he’s done it in his own idiosyncratic way with a left-handed Gibson SG proving his signature guitar. 

Iommi overcame an industrial accident which robbed him of two of his fretting hand fingertips. A problem he overcame by creating false fingertips by melting down a washing-up bottle lid. Bizarrely though, it was this accident that gave rise to his distinctive sound. Due to the pain that regular gauge strings caused his gnarled fingers, Iommi started to put very light gauge strings on his guitar and this, coupled with a loosely strung guitar, made for a more comfortable playing environment. 

By tuning his guitar three semi-tones down (from E to C#), not only was the string tension lessened, but the guitar sound was significantly lower, and therefore far more spooky when the riffs were played. in order to ease the tension on his fingers. As a result, Sabbath were among the first bands to detune and resulted in the technique being a mainstay of heavy metal music. The first two Black Sabbath albums are in standard tuning however, as Iommi didn’t start tuning down to C# until 1971’s Master Of Reality. Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler also tuned his instrument down to match Iommi’s. It could be argued that Tony Iommi was a pioneer of heavy metal riffing, due to his guitar playing on now famous tracks such as Paranoid, War Pigs, Iron Man, and Into The Void. He combined blues-like guitar solos and dark, minor-key riffing with a revolutionary high-gain, heavily distorted tone with his use of a modified treble-boosting effect-pedal and a Gibson SG, as well as plugging his guitar into his amp’s bass socket. 

Ritchie Blackmore

Given his penchant for ‘hey nonny nonny’ lute-based medieval shows and poncing about in Renaissance costumes, sadly Ritchie Blackmore is often used as a jokey punchline. But that’s denying the brutal guitaristic power of Deep Purple and Rainbow’s Man In Black. 

In the 70s, Ritchie’s decidedly classically influenced playing set the template for much of today’s metal. Remember, this is the man who is behind the mighty riffs of Smoke On The Water – unusually played fingerstyle as opposed to with a plectrum – Black Night, Highway Star and countless others. Whether it’s his ferocious vibrato that he drenches his searingly melodic solos, the tone of his Fender Stratocaster (which often featured a “scalloped” fretboard for better vibrato and bending), or simply the rapier-like blues-meets-classical licks are all quintessential parts of the Blackmore guitar style. 

It’s the defiantly classical influence that has typified Blackmore’s playing. “I had classical lessons for a year,” Blackmore revealed in 1973. “That helped, because I learned how to use my little finger. A lot of blues guitarist play with only three fingers, and so they can’t figure out certain runs that require the use of their little fingers.” 

But it’s not just the actual playing logistics that the classical schooling helped with, as Blackmore admitted to interviewer Martin Webb. Its influence even shows up in his songs: “For example, the chord progression in Highway Star solo Bm, to a Db, to a C, to a G is a Bach progression. In other words, the classical influence is always there.” 

In coming to the forefront with his classical base, Ritchie Blackmore inspired a whole raft of neo-classical metal guitarists from Randy Rhoads to Yngwie Malmsteen and beyond.      

Sharlee D’Angelo (Arch Enemy): “The amazing thing with Ritchie Blackmore is that he introduced such interesting ideas into heavy rock, things that went beyond the usual Hendrix-inspired blues most people were playing at the time. He brought in oriental scales, and later, medieval and classical touches as well. Blackmore can also improvise onstage like nobody else. When he’s on form, Ritchie can take any of his songs and play around with them. Most guitarists ruin the song when they do something like that, but he turns them into something else. 

“I’ve never met the man, but I understand he can be very sarcastic. But, despite any personality problems, Ritchie Blackmore is an all- time great.” 

Angus Young

School uniform and Gibson SG-totin’ Angus Young is the least ‘metal’ of all the players we’ve looked at here, but his influence on heavy metal is undeniable. Unusually, Angus is also the only player we’ve featured who shares the guitar duties in his band. For the majority of songs, he and brother Malcolm trade off on the riffs (while Angus’s lead playing makes use of his distinctive killer vibrato). But it’s definitely Angus’s furious, chord-based, rhythmic riffs that provide the backbone for AC/DC. 

The core of Angus’s playing is simplicity – and that’s not meant as a slur. “I try to find new ways of playing things and I’ve always had a thing where I don’t put a guitar lick into something just for the sake of putting a guitar lick into something,” Angus explained in 2001. “I like everything to have a groove and go with the track.” 

Who can deny the power and recognition of a riff like that from Black In Black, Highway To Hell or Whole Lotta Rosie or the one that underscores the plaintive rally cry of For Those About To Rock? Or face it, anything from the ’DC catalogue. It’s the riff you remember first. But many of Young’s riffs differ from the likes of those from Iommi or Page – they’re based around power-chords rather than single note motifs. 

It’s not only his playing that Angus keeps simple, he keeps his kit straightforward too – a Gibson SG and a Marshall amp. He is not one to muck about with unnecessary effects pedals or rely upon his whammy bar to do the talking. 

Despite his seeming lack of showboating on the guitar – a key part of Angus’s style is his stage presence. Ever since the early 70s Angus has seen the importance of stage craft – whether it’s his omnipresent school uniform and satchel, jumping onto the shoulders of vocalist Bon Scott (or latterly, Brian Johnson), or simply tearing around the stage like a lunatic throwing devil horns. Metal guitar would be much duller had Angus Young not burst onto the scene. 

Pete Way (UFO): “I’ve always admired Angus Young for his inner determination and absolute commitment to rock’n’roll. To him, it was never an art. It was a case of: “I’m Angus and I play loud rock music.” He didn’t give a damn about interviews or reviews because he just felt that AC/DC were the best band in the world. 

“Technically speaking, as a guitarist he’s second to none. Come on, Angus makes Eddie Van Halen look static. Every really good guitar player has great tone, and that doesn’t come from anywhere except the fingers. You can have the best amps in the world, but if you haven’t got the fingers then it’s worth nothing. He’s a unique character and a fantastic musician.”