The Riffs That Shook The World - Part One

RIFF (noun)

The word seems like such a simple thing when written down like that. And yet, the riff is everything. The entire reason this magazine is in your grubby mitts. The only reason we all do this crazy music thing for a living. Our entire raison d’être, no less. Rock‘n’roll breathes through it; heavy metal would not exist without it. The riff is the life force that flows through each and every person you will have read about in this magazine over the past two-plus decades – and it’s also the centre-piece of every single essential album you own. It’s what we’re all here for, for Satan’s sake. And so it’s for this very reason that we have decided to put together the definitive guide to the riffs that shook our world. From those ominous first three notes on Black Sabbath’s genre-crafting debut to the furious, pummelling noise that brought us Slipknot, we’ve picked 25 of the most earth-shattering riffs to have moulded, affected and influenced metal over its 40 years of existence. Here you will find testimony to the songs that shaped the genre as we know and love it today, offered by the very legends that helped to create it. We asked the experts, and boy, did they answer us. So strap in, tune up and get ready for the ultimate riff-off: it’s gonna get awful loud in here…



(Back In Black, 1980)

There are rock songs that appeal to metal fans. And there are metal songs that appeal to rock fans. Then there is Back In Black – a rock and metal song that appeals to everybody, from dads to dudes, to little old ladies beating noisy kids over the heads with their sticks – and it all hangs on that monumental, no-nonsense, three-chord monster of a riff.

Some say it has even been known to raise the dead. Or, as that lifelong AC/DC aficionado Slash once said: “Man, Back In Black would make a dead man come!”

Seriously though, have you heard that motherfucker? That monumental, tank-like riff booming like a giant robot lumbering towards you across a dark, lightning-forked horizon. That voice, like Godzilla gargling with rusty nails. Those drums, like hammers pounding into your frontal lobe. Case closed, right?

And yet it so nearly didn’t happen.

Conceived before the rest of the album that was eventually named after it, Back In Black was what happened when AC/DC auditioned Brian Johnson, the guy who would replace the recently-deceased Bon Scott.

He recalled: “They said, ‘We got this one song, we got a riff and we’re gonna call it Back In Black, but that’s all we’ve got. It’s a tribute to Bon. But we haven’t gotten any words and all we’ve got is… [humming the now famous, grenade-throwing riff].’

“That’s all it was. I went, ‘That’s it?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, well. Could you sing the words ‘back in black’?’” Grabbing the mic, Johnno waited for them to count in and begin playing the riff again, then just started screaming. You know by now what came out.

The Young brothers, guitarists Malcolm and Angus, looked at each other. Malcolm said: “Do that again.” They began playing and Johnno did it again, only louder this time: “Back in black!” And, just to keep the vibe going and because it was the first rhyme that came into his head, added, “I hit the sack!

The brothers put down their guitars and Malcolm said, “Right, let’s sit and talk.” It was the beginning of one of the greatest partnerships in rock: Malcolm’s precision-engineered rhythms, Angus’s blood-and-guts soloing, Brian’s sandpit vocals, the rock-steady drums of Phil Rudd and the head-banging bass of Cliff Williams.

Or, as Metallica’s Lars Ulrich once put it: “The most awesome fucking sound in rock before it turned into heavy metal.”

Nobody knew that yet, though. They only knew that replacing Bon in the studio would be a seemingly impossible task. It was only after recording the title track of Back In Black that they realised they might actually succeed.

Brian would later claim he felt Bon Scott’s spirit was in the room with them when he was singing the vocals. “I felt something wash through me, like it was Bon saying, ‘You’re all right, keep going.’”

Even Malcolm, always the hardest member of the band to please, got excited. Listening later to the finished mix he exclaimed, “Fucking hell, this is a monster!” He wasn’t far wrong.


Scott Ian, Anthrax

“Three chords, E, A and D, put together in such a perfectly rhythmic way to create one of the most iconic rock riffs of all time. So beautifully simple. Can you imagine coming in with that? ‘Hey guys, I have this riff!’ And then you play Back In Black. It breaks my brain. And that’s why AC/DC rule.”



(Rage Against The Machine, 1992)

“I’d say that Rage Against The Machine are probably the number one influence on my playing style and that riff is like their calling card. It’s the first track on the first album and it just hits you. Tom Morello has this trick of playing really simple riffs that you think, ‘God! I could have come up with that!’ but you didn’t, and if you did it would never sound as good. They’re the quintessential drop-D band.”




(In The Nightside Eclipse, 1994)

“In the early Emperor years we would typically write songs at rehearsals by jamming on and combining riffs that either me or Samoth had come up with at home. During these jams, sometimes to the great frustration of my bandmates, I would get an idea in my head, stop the jam and start trying to work it out on the guitar. The main riff for I Am The Black Wizards is a typical example of this. Samoth came up with the rhythm part (that is now the intro to the song) and I worked out the melody line. Really, it’s just two simple powerchords and a quarter-note melody. We usually don’t talk about hooks in metal, but this tune makes people even sing along. The main theme also works as an intro, fast main verse and slow ending, so you could almost believe it was intended as a hook, but it was just coincidence!”




(The Poison, 2005)

“We wrote that riff before we were even actually signed. I remember coming up with the melody first, which was inspired by The Exorcist theme. It’s one of the simplest songs we’ve ever written, but it represents where we were at that point. Did we have any idea it’d launch us as a band? No, not at all. It was just a big-sounding riff, and that was all we were aiming for.”




(Hybrid Theory, 2000)

“Even if you’d like to write off nu metal as a dark period for rock music, it is undeniable that One Step Closer is right up there with the big boys. Note-for-note it helped shape and define a generation of bands. Back in 2000, it was one of the main riffs me and countless other schoolkids around the world would jam along to, even if we did argue over what tuning the song was played in (it’s drop C). Today, as soon as the track starts you know you are in for a ride, and even if the blue spiky hair and tartan trousers haven’t stood the test of time, this almighty riff certainly has.”




(Holy Diver, 1983)

Holy Diver’s funeral dirge riff was the perfect intro for Ronnie James Dio as a solo artist. It had the ominous tone of Sabbath, the hooks of Rainbow and was bare enough to showcase the power of RJD’s voice. This monstrous riff informed the world that there was a new wizard in heavy metal town!”




(Appetite For Destruction, 1987)

They were once the most dangerous band in the world and, let’s be honest here, no one has come close since. When Guns N’ Roses first exploded onto LA’s Sunset Strip in the mid 80s, people just couldn’t believe what they saw in front of them: a volatile cocktail of punk spite, cheap hairspray and pure rock’n’roll rebellion set to self-destruct. And as far as mission statements go, not many can rival the opening track on Guns N’ Roses’ debut album in setting the tone for what is about to come. When Axl Rose sings the words ‘I wanna watch you bleed,’ you don’t doubt him for a single fucking second. Perhaps the best thing about the song is this very grim reality – the way it paints a vivid picture of the life of five deadbeats sharing a studio apartment that became the crash pad for half of the Sunset Strip’s junkies, dealers and strippers. While Slash is credited for writing the bones of the song, it was Duff that eventually came up with that unforgettable breakdown which climaxes with: ‘You know where you are, you’re in the jungle baby, you’re gonna die!’ And still to this day, it’s almost like a coming of age: no one ever forgets getting their copy of Appetite For Destruction and discovering what it’s like to walk through the jungle and eventually take the night train all the way down to paradise city.


Zakk Wylde, BLS

“Imagine you’re at Wembley Stadium – as soon as you hear Slash play that intro riff, you know everyone is going to go nuts. Between all the booze, the drugs, the prostitutes and the farm animals… they were the most exciting band around. You never knew whether Axl was gonna quit the band or someone would overdose on stage or go ballistic because their fishnets got ripped!”



(Black Sabbath, 1970)

Let’s be honest – heavy metal has had more than its fair share of iconic riffs over the years. But none of these would have existed if were not for a bunch of scruffy, hard-up Brummies making their recording debut at London’s Regent Sound Studios in October 1969. After 37 seconds of rain, thunder and the loneliest church bell known to man, there it is. That riff. Ground zero for heavy music. The one riff to rule them all, infamous for the evil dissonance of its tritone: diabolus in musica, the Devil’s interval. Was it a reaction to flower power? Was it a lightbulb moment after seeing crowds flock to watch horror movies? The influence of British horror writer Dennis Wheatley? Or perhaps this strange ominous figure at the foot of Geezer Butler’s bed? Who knows, but one thing is for certain: without them, the world would be a different place. Forty-five years later, Sabbath are still lords of this world and undisputed masters of reality.


Pepper Keenan, Down

“When I was 13, a friend of mine came out of a mental institution holding a bunch of Sabbath CDs and smoking cigarettes. He was instantly the cool one. And as soon as I heard that Black Sabbath riff, it was the end of the game for me – as heavy as it gets. If you made today’s guitarists play in regular tuning with that little gain, they wouldn’t be able to do much. Iommi is a badass!”



(Overkill, 1979)

“Motörhead are my favourite band, so to choose one riff is tough, but Overkill is amazing. I first heard it on the No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith album; it was raw and heavy! What makes the riff work are really the double kick drums and the bass. I once had the pleasure of watching Motörhead from the side of the stage and when they kicked into that song, it was something truly special. The thing about Overkill is that it doesn’t matter how many times you hear that riff, it still gets you going. It’s always like you’ve never heard it before.”




(Van Halen, 1978)

“It’s just such an iconic opening riff. It’s perfect: the sound, the attack and of course the notes just come together in an incredible way. And since there’s only really two parts to the song, it’s all fairly straightforward and fun to play. To think we’ve all heard it on the radio and TV our whole lives… what a great gift from the band to us as listeners. When you’re talking about being a great guitarist, there are so many different elements to consider. Eddie Van Halen had the talent, the look and the ability to write incredible music. He was also an inventor – those iconic stripes came from his mind along with all the two-handed tapping ideas. He’s a leader, not a follower. It’s very rare to have musicians like that: the whole package.”




(Significant Other, 1999)

“Two simple chords. If they don’t fill you with the furore and anticipation that they did when you were a child, you have officially died inside. At Download a couple of years ago, I saw this ten-year-old kid smashing his dad in the head with a can screaming: ‘…ripping someone’s head off!’ That pretty much spells that this song’s legacy is safe. Transcending generations? Absolutely. Timeless? Most likely. These are two chords that actually changed lives.”




(Destroy Erase Improve, 1995)

“The thing that’s so intriguing about Meshuggah is the catchiness of riffs like Future Breed Machine. I was always very impressed with Fredrik [Thordendal]’s leads; he’ll play something very intricate and atmospheric across these interlaced rhythms, which helps drive their music. You hear that riff in Future Breed Machine and always wonder what time signature it’s in – but actually, they don’t purposefully try to write in specific time signatures! They just come up with a cool riff and don’t worry about it. They start jamming and make it work. I think that’s what is so appealing to it, appealing to them and appealing to their fans, because it’s actually reflective process.”




(Piece Of Mind, 1983)

Now, what happens when you are the great white hopes of metal, have just scored a UK number one album packed to the brim with absolute gold-plated classics, and your rabid fanbase are hungry for more? The pressure on Iron Maiden to deliver was intense after 1982’s all-conquering Number Of The Beast album, as the band found themselves in the midst of a potential golden age. Would they be able to keep their imperiously good form on track for album number four? It was a tough thing to achieve, but one listen to the opening riff on the second single from Piece Of Mind tells you everything you need to know about why doubting this most iconic of bands is a foolish game to play.

The Trooper quickly established itself as one of the heaviest pieces of artillery in Maiden’s already anthem-stacked catalogue and sits snugly in the box marked ‘iconic’ to this very day. Yes, it may well be associated with its gung-ho lyricism and Bruce Dickinson’s famed, flag-waving live delivery, but above all else, it’s a track that hangs on that immense, rumbling monster of an opening riff.

Maiden were already proving to be masters of melodic yet technically dazzling guitar work, but this was something else completely. There’s no build-up or warning to what is about to happen; just a smash of a snare and we’re in, swept forth by Dave Murray and Adrian Smith’s syncopated soaring, carrying the listener into the heat of battle before a word has even been spoken. It’s a riff to throw all your bets on. A riff to live and die by. A riff to win wars with, dammit. By the time Bruce kicks into gear, verbally threatening the track’s unnamed antagonist’s very mortality, there is no doubt to be had whatsoever that we have a classic on our hands. Frankly, the only excuse to not bang your head like a madman to this song’s most iconic of riffs is if you’re Anne Boleyn.

Perfectly executed musical dynamism? Oh yes. Responsible for hundreds of millions of spilt pints the world over? No doubt. Metal as a motherfucker? Don’t you ever forget it. The Trooper is Iron Maiden in a nutshell; bold, brash, pompous and utterly, utterly glorious.


Bill Kelliher, Mastodon

“You gotta love Maiden. Those guys write riffs that I never got when I was a kid, it was too hard to figure out. The Trooper has got this bombastic vibe to it, it’s almost like classical music. They are the masters of writing this huge, orchestral arrangement but with catchy melodic harmonies and then just making it really fucking heavy. That isn’t an easy skill, man, believe me.”

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