Ah, the almighty riff. The bread and butter of any rock and roll guitarists arsenal of musical tools. In an age where the staying power of the average rock song with regards to the popular music charts isn’t exactly pulling its weight, easy guitar riffs still manage to reign supreme in a weird way. If we use the more musically theoretical term for a riff – an ‘ostinato’ – then we are surrounded by riffs. In fact, for the vast majority of music in the popular sphere that’s entirely what said music is comprised of!
So, you could say the easy guitar riffs are more relevant than ever, especially considering that whatever can be played on another instrument can almost certainly be played on a guitar! Perhaps it’s time for a siege of power, an attack on the establishment of wubs and dubs in pop music today!
This roster of easy guitar riffs is assembled thus in no particular order except that which you see fit, democratising the choice so you don’t have to!
1. ‘Beat It’ by Michael Jackson ft. Eddie Van Halen
This is without doubt one of those easy guitar riffs for the ages, one that never seems to die, there always being another situation in which the song itself manages to fit snuggly. The original features prominent guitar contributions from king of hard rock and easy guitar riffs, Mr Eddie Van Halen, and though his solo later in the song is a little beyond our scope for this lesson, the riff is just what the doctor ordered to start grappling with the logic of the tune.
The song itself comes from Jackson’s sixth studio album, the mammoth Thriller, released in 1982. This track was released ahead of its release as the third single and surfed the awesome wave of the top of the musical and pop charts for weeks and weeks. Jackson was encouraged in the recording process by collaborator Quincy Jones to include a rock song on the album. Jackson said:
‘I wanted to write a song, the type of song that I would buy if I were to buy a rock song… and I wanted the children to really enjoy it—the school children as well as the college students.’
The song is performed in the unusual but much welcome key of Eb minor at an uptempo pace of 138 beats per minute, with Jackson sporting a near two octave vocal range within the song, as he was often wont to do.
After various demo versions had been recorded, with Quincy realising that this was exactly what he was looking for, both he and Jackson consulted Eddie Van Halen, then guitarist of the popular eponymous band Van Halen, to contribute a guitar solo. Once Eddie had deduced that this was not a prank phone call, he gladly agreed, recording free of charge. ‘I did it as a favor. I was a complete fool, according to the rest of the band, our manager and everyone else. I was not used. I knew what I was doing—I don’t do something unless I want to do it.’
2. ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes
Any such list of easy guitar riffs would be utterly remiss to not mention this ubiquitous slapper of a tune, an anthem so all encompassing it almost feels as though it came from our collective unconscious (as described by Carl Jung) rather than from the fingers of a mere mortal. This isn’t to say, however, that he wasn’t acting as a conduit for such a thing…
In the mortal realm, this song began life as a guitar riff by the singer and guitarist of the White Stripes, Jack White, at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne, which is itself a music venue. The riff was born in January 2002, while the band were on tour, and when White showed it to label executive Ben Swank he was none too impressed with it, stating that he felt White could ‘do better’ and that he ‘didn’t even think that rhythm was that great, either.’
White stuck with it, however, though initially wanted to save it for use as a James Bond theme which, despite being so doubtful as to relinquish the sanctity of this riff for such a thing, he was eventually asked to do five years later, writing and performing ‘Another Way to Die’ with Alicia Keys as theme for Quantum of Solace.
The song is incredibly simple as one string guitar songs go, scarcely changing at all. The steady 120 bpm tempo and the lack of changes aside from dynamics make this ‘garage rock’ anthem ironically more reminiscent of a Detroit house or techno track. The use of open E as a baseline to return to throughout shouldn’t prove difficult whatsoever.
3. ‘You Really Got Me’ by The Kinks
This is another of those ubiquitous easy guitar riffs that has far exceeded the bounds of the meagre sum of its parts, provoking the unbridled adoration of teenage fans at the time and since capturing the imagination of ceaseless droves of other artists and bands wanting a taste of the sound and to taste the sweetness of producing such sounds themselves.
Originally written by principal song writer Ray Davies, the song was catapulted into the top of the UK charts, launching the band into the public spotlight instantly in 1964, one of the first bands to use distorted guitars on a popular recording.
The central girth of the song is comprised of power chords as seen above, chords built from octaves and perfect fifths, which otherwise omit any harmonic and tonal information, the non binary of chords. These kinds of chords may be completely familiar to some of us now, but at the time this was pretty revolutionary stuff, certainly revolutionising easy guitar riffs for good.
A whole host of genres took massive influence from such reductionist musical techniques, punk music and heavy metal especially repurposing them for their own uses later on. It’s easy to forget that this was around ten whole years before punk music as a genre of its own really took off and had the mass cultural impact that it was to go on to achieving. So, for a quartet of London lads to perform such rowdy, distorted, and rather uptempo music, with lyrics that brother Dave Davies describes as ‘a love song for street kids’, and for it to be received with such wide open arms was really something of a divine intervention.
4. ‘Paranoid’ by Black Sabbath
From the sowing of the seeds of punk and metal, to the first fruits of the harvest, we move to this mammoth stomper by early heavy metal monoliths Black Sabbath, whose contributions to this genre and popular music at large know no end, least of all to the sanctum of easy guitar riffs as a whole.
This tune was originally the first single released ahead of the album of the same name, released the same year in 1970. The song charted very well, and it is easy to forget just how popular these sounds would have been among the masses at the time considering the kind of music that tops charts now. For a time the guitar reigned supreme, and this song in particular achieve number four on UK singles chart, B sided with their track ‘The Wizard’.
The song was in fact their first single release, released six months after their debut album. Bassist Geezer Butler had this to say:
‘A lot of the Paranoid album was written around the time of our first album, Black Sabbath. We recorded the whole thing in about 2 or 3 days, live in the studio. The song ‘Paranoid’ was written as an afterthought. We basically needed a 3 minute filler for the album, and Tony came up with the riff. I quickly did the lyrics, and Ozzy was reading them as he was singing.’
The root of the song is in E pentatonic, classic minor pentatonic rock usage, placed over a ‘crashing, non-stop beat with gobs of bass and drums laced liberally with stinging, echoey vocals and hot guitar licks move the song along at a blistering pace’, according to music publication Cash Box.
The title was originally ‘The Paranoid’, though this was of course eventually changed to simply ‘Paranoid’, becoming the title of the album as well. Somewhat unusually, the word itself is not at all mentioned in the lyrics. The band initially wanted to call the album War Pigs, though their record label swiftly persuaded them to use the less offensive Paranoid.
5. ‘I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)’ by The Rolling Stones
Another of those utterly ubiquitous and all encompassing easy guitar riffs that has completely exceeded its meagre bounds, the sum of its parts procreating and giving birth to something entirely larger.
A direct result of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger’s iconic and seminal song writing partnership, this song was released first as a single in the June of 1965 (in the US anyway). It was an instant hit, landing the Rolling Stones their first number one hit in the United States. Since the song was considered too sexually suggestive, the song was initially only played on pirate radio stations in the UK, though it eventually became their fourth UK number one.
Guitarist Keith Richards allegedly wrote the song in his sleep, claiming that he woke up in the morning to find two minutes of acoustic guitar on his cassette player followed by about forty minutes of snoring. Its simplicity would certainly indicate this, being so simple as to infect a dream from inside or from without. Being composed, too, of just three notes making this one of a roster of easy guitar riffs that are great for beginners but likewise ample for reinvention!
The song was quickly recorded, though it was subsequently recorded again just days later with the now iconic beat and use of the Gibson FZ-1 Maestro Fuzz Tone to achieve that signature sound. Richards actually intended this now renowned riff’s tone to be replaced with an actual horn section: ‘This was just a little sketch, because, to my mind, the fuzz tone was really there to denote what the horns would be doing.’
6. ‘Money’ by Pink Floyd
Easy guitar riffs scarcely come more self referential than this one. Released to critical and commercial acclaim as a single from the wildly popular Dark Side of the Moon, the song became an emblem of the music industry at large while also remaining symbolic of the band’s own excesses to come, prophesising many of the tribulations that would follow for them.
Labelled under the banner of progressive rock, the riff itself initially began life as a blues inspired lick by bassist Roger Waters, and when he demonstrates it on an acoustic guitar this aspect really rings true and it is hard to deny the influence of his name sake Muddy Waters.
The song is of course remembered fondly for being one of the biggest hits with the weirdest time signature, written as it is in alternating 7/4 and 4/4 time. This can be rather off putting at first; I know I was nervous to learn this song purely for this reason when I first was starting out. However, once you’ve memorised the sound of the song and of the riff itself, you aren’t playing to a time signature as much as you are simply fulfilling the song.
Marked by this time signature change, the song is also known for its signature sampling of the sounds of tills opening and coins clinking, both of which alongside the time signature help to emphasise the numerical value of money, the fact that it is simply a number and shouldn’t be given much more credence beyond that.
7. ‘Message in a Bottle’ by The Police
Many easy guitar riffs have exchanged their individual contexts and time zones to great effect, though there are often many who escape their original contexts completely, so that those who hear the new weren’t ever familiar with the old. This particular song was a regular main stay in the sets of indie rock and self proclaimed ‘jizz jazz’ extraordinaire Mac Demarco, and I am willing to bet that plenty of the younger audiences hadn’t heard the original in all its glory…
This original was the lead single from The Police’s second album, Reggatta de Blanc, written by lead singer and bassist Sting. This is one in the roster of easy guitar riffs that boasts a rather mesmerising and literary subject atop the stonking back beat.
The song’s narrator is a castaway on an island all alone, who decides to send the eponymous message in a bottle out into the world to find love for him. After what he believes has been a year’s passing, still no response has come and he despairs, believing himself destined to live and die alone, almost as though he has never known a life outside of this island. The following day, he sees an innumerable number of bottles on the shore, signifying that there are plenty more people out there just like him.
The song as a whole exemplified the reggae rock style as enveloped in the contemporaneous new wave trends emblematic in their early music, composed in C# minor, with chords that move from C#m9 to Amaj9 to B7 to F#m.
Guitarist Andy Summers had this to say on the song’s composition: ‘Sting had that riff for a while, but there was another tune with it originally. He’d been fiddling about with it during our first American tour. Finally, he rearranged the riff slightly and came up with the song.’
8. ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Deep Purple
Easy guitar riffs don’t come much easier than this absolute vessel, passed like a baton from picking hand to fretting hand to another aspiring guitarist likely every single day! It’s simplicity is precisely the pull, friendly to just about any musician willing to wear it proudly upon themselves like a chain, or perhaps with more of a wry smile when fooling around with fellow band mates and seeking an easy target.
Originally just an album track from Deep Purple’s sixth studio album Machine Head, it would go on to receive its own shine the following year when released as a single. Consistently ranked as one of the most important guitar riffs of all time, I was still originally rather loathe to include this cut, if only for its status as a massive meme among guitarists and music consumers. However, its importance in the annuls of rock history and on almost every guitarist’s journey must be documented.
Much like the lyrics for the song itself document a pretty serious story for the band. Initially planning to record the adjoining album at the Montreux Casino and Hotel in Switzerland, they were prevented from doing when the whole thing caught fire the night before it would close for the winter season. Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention were performing there and an audience member had fired a flare gun at the stage, setting the ceiling alight, which was comprised of a species of dry palm tree. The band watched from across the lake that the Hotel is set beside, witnessing the smoke billow across the water…
The song is easily recognisable, even from the first few seconds of pressing play, the tone so iconic and so cemented in the popular cultural imaginary of a certain, rather large demographic of music consumers, the riff to end all easy guitar riffs. Theoretically, this can be described as a four note melody on the blues scale in G minor, harmonised in parallel fourths by playing the two adjoining centre strings simultaneously. There is a certain clarity that infiltrates the otherwise thick and meaty riff, courtesy of the Fender Stratocaster that Ritchie Blackmore used to record the song with.
Blackmore in fact claims that this main riff is an interpretation and inversion of a sequence in Beethoven’s 5th symphony, stating that he probably owes ‘him a lot of money’.
9. ‘Iron Man’ by Black Sabbath
Imagine being such masters and conduits of rock and roll artistry as to have two easy guitar riffs so highly revered!
Though it can sometimes be hard to remember, heavy metal was once supreme and relied on the simplicity of easy electric guitar songs to communicate its awesome messages of socio-ecclesiastical subversion, the satanic opposite to religion coming to represent key tenets of sexual and gender ambiguity as direct subversions of their Christian counterparts. Black Sabbath themselves are named after a tainted Sabbath day Sunday, so go figure!
The riff came to be, and upon first hearing it, singer Ozzy Osbourne said that it sounded ‘like a big iron bloke walking about.’ Soon after, the title became the ‘Iron Man’ we know today, with bassist and primary lyricist Geezer Butler, writing lyrics around this title.
The lyrics tell the tale of a man who sees an apocalypse in the future. Attempting to warn the human race, he is first turned into metal by a magnetic field, and thus his attempts are duly mocked by the public. Shunned and neglected, this metal man plots revenge on all human kind, in a circular way causing the vision of apocalypse that he initially saw.
Geezer Butler had this to say: ‘I liked the Hammer horror films in the 1960s and magazines such as Man, Myth and Magic, but I had a few supernatural experiences as a child and dreams that came true and that, more than anything, shaped my interest in the occult.’
‘What I always attempted to do with my science-fiction plots was to make these relevant to the modern world at the time, so I brought war and politics in. It was also an era when the whole issue of pollution was starting to get attention, and this affected my thinking quite a bit.’
10. ‘Song 2’ by Blur
Just as we have spoken about guitar riffs that have been removed of their original social, geographical, and political contexts, there are scarcely many easy guitar riffs that fit such a label as this track by Blur, particularly if we add as a factor into the mix the intention of the song being so misconstrued.
The song initially came to life on the fifth studio album of the band Blur, the eponymous Blur, released at the very end of the decade which they dominated musically, the 90’s. The song charted incredibly and has since become a favourite among musical listeners of the West and basically anyone with ears, it’s boisterous chorus ‘Woo hoo!’ often standing in for the actual title of the song most of the time, ubiquitous is the song at sports events etc.
Not bad for a song that was originally intended as a complete joke that they tried to play on the record company. Singer Daman Albarn had recorded an acoustic demo of the song and had, with guitarist Graham Coxon’s encouragement, pumped up the speed and performed the song really loudly, deliberately seeking an amateurish. Following this, Coxon told Albarn to give the demo to the label, stating that they wanted to release a single to ”blow the … labels’ heads off.’ They, however, reacted positively, and the rest is history.
The track was initially named ‘Song 2’ just as a place holder, but the name persistently stuck, the song itself being two minutes and two seconds in length, with two verses and two choruses, not to mention the fact that it’s the second song on the self titled album from which it comes and has since been released on the their Blur: The Best Of compilation as the second song, and was the second single to be released for their eponymous, self titled album in the first place!
11. ‘Eye of the Tiger’ by Survivor
This song, too, for its marked simplicity and placement alongside a veritable popular culture power house has become one of those easy guitar riffs very much attached to a particular mood. This song still froths at the mouth with the power to motivate, to encourage survivors of all types to push that bit further, to push athletes that extra length of a climb or of a mile.
Contrary to some easy guitar riffs previously listed, this song was written and recorded by Survivor specifically for the film that made it so famous and so synonymous with its motivational mood, Rocky III. Writer, director, and star of the film, Sylvester Stallone, explicitly requested the song himself. Who knew he directed the damn thing? His initial intention was to use the Queen song ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, though this was firmly denied him by the band themselves.
The version used in the film isn’t even the full version of the song! Stallone decided to use a demo version, complete with roars of an actual tiger, as if the message and lyrical content weren’t enough of a smack over the head of the literal already. This literality is mirrored in the actual content of the song, with the simple, linear, one dimensional message plucks its way along, the signature chugging of the note C present throughout almost the entirety of the song.
Simplicity is, however, the name of the game, and it’s all in the details. Co-writer, Jim Peterik, had this to say about their writing of the song:
‘At first, we wondered if calling it ‘Eye of the Tiger’ was too obvious. The initial draft of the song, we started with ‘It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight, rising up to the spirit of our rival, and the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night, and it all comes down to survival.’ We were going to call the song ‘Survival’. In the rhyme scheme, you can tell we had set up ‘rival’ to rhyme with ‘survival’. At the end of the day, we said, ‘Are we nuts?’ That hook is so strong, and ‘rival’ doesn’t have to be a perfect rhyme with the word ‘tiger’. We made the right choice and went with ‘Eye of the Tiger’.’
So there you have it! A panoply of easy guitar riffs to get you started on your journey towards mastery of the form! Remember, there will be plenty here listed which won’t interest you whatsoever and that’s fine! Just choose those which do interest and you will be well on your way to riffing yourself!
FAQs Easy Guitar Riffs
There are scarcely any objective truths in music studies. Despite its reliance on the mathematics of existence, even Western music theory can be side stepped in favour of another musical language and culture. The same very much goes for this, one person’s easiest song being very different from another’s. My instant impulse is to say ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Deep Purple, because it requires so little of the guitarist, focusing only on one string in it’s most simplified form as one of the top easy guitar riffs of all time.
This is another of those questions lacking any objective truths. There are certainly a whole host of easy guitar riffs that would qualify as iconic, even objectively so, if only for their having circulated so widely and having been so emblematic of a time or place. The most iconic riff, however, will be different depending on who you ask. ‘Jump into the Fire’ by Harry Nilsson springs to mind, but that isn’t even performed on a guitar, but a bass! ‘In the City’ by Eagles is a massive tune. I could go on…
With patience and due diligence. Just like the whole spectrum of different guitarists with different creeds and levels of musicianship, each riff is entirely different, and so you will want to approach each with an open mind as well as with what makes you your own self. Make the riff your own, gosh knows the person who originally wrote it certainly did. Nothing ought to be sacred! The riff is for being rewritten!
Beginners will probably want to start with a series of more easy guitar riffs, preferably those that focus their efforts on only one string of the guitar, better allowing for the fingers to get comfortable. The riff of a song is often played repeatedly and in sequenced succession, thus the fingers will need to get used to playing said riffs over and over again before attempting to tackle anything that extends beyond the scope of one string of the guitar. This is also just good practise in exercising the muscle memory of your individual fingers for when it might be needed in the line of duty.