Notwithstanding the ‘60s work of the Beatles, the Stones, and the Kinks, one could make a strong case that the ‘70s was the decade of the great guitar riff.  As the electric guitar consolidated its dominance as rock’s central instrument, troves of bands unleashed riff-based songs that have since become staples of classic rock. From hundreds of worthy contenders, we’ve chosen the 10 songs below to represent the very best riff-rockers from that decade.

“Walk This Way” (1975) – Aerosmith

Aerosmith’s Joe Perry came up with the colossal riff for this track during a soundcheck in Hawaii. Inspired by the New Orleans funk band the Meters, Perry was trying to create a “horn-like” guitar part.  Months later, Steven Tyler “let it fly” with the lyrics and vocal melody. “That was me dancing with my muse,” he later told, “just throwing my hands in the air and screaming, ‘Hallelujah!’”

“Iron Man” (1971) – Black Sabbath

Rob Halford once introduced Tony Iommi as “the man who invented the heavy metal riff.” This fearsome track from Black Sabbath’s Paranoid album makes it hard to disagree. Upon hearing the riff for the first time, Ozzy Osbourne noted that it sounded “like a big iron bloke walking about.” Thus came the title, with bassist Geezer Butler writing lyrics to match that theme.

“Smoke on the Water” (1972) – Deep Purple

Amazingly, Deep Purple at first saw no hit potential in this classic track from their 1971 Machine Head album. But nearly four decades after its release, in a 2008 survey, music-school students in London voted the song’s signature riff the best ever. Beginner guitarists often play the riff with a pick, but to nail it accurately, it should be plucked with the thumb and index finger.

“Layla” (1970) – Derek and the Dominos

Duane Allman came up with the defining riff that fuels this blues-rock masterpiece. Fittingly, Allman also performed the beautiful slide work that drives the second half of the song. The “crying bird” sound at the end of the track, yet another Allman touch, is said to have been crafted as a tribute to jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker.

“Rebel Rebel” (1974) – David Bowie

Ironically, David Bowie’s farewell song to the glam-rock era was also his first single since 1969 not to feature guitar great Mick Ronson. Bowie himself played the track’s classic riff, giving it a dirty, Stones-like flavor. Bowie later expressed his enthusiasm for the song. “It's a fabulous riff,” he said. “Just fabulous. When I stumbled onto it, it was, ‘Oh, thank you!’”

 “Money” (1973) – Pink Floyd

The main riff for this Pick Floyd classic is based on a standard 12-bar blues progression in the key of B-minor. Roger Waters composed the six-string figure on an acoustic guitar, utilizing an unusual 7/8 time signature. For the bridge, however, in order to better accommodate David Gilmour’s soaring lead work, Floyd opted to shift into a standard 4/4 rock beat.

“Jeepster” (1971) – T. Rex


Memorable riffs were the engine behind nearly all of Marc Bolan’s glam-pop gems. “Bang a Gong (Get it On),” “20th Century Boy,” and “Telegram Sam” are all glam rock classics, but this riff-based rocker--based loosely on Howlin’ Wolf’s recording of Willie Dixon’s “You’ll Be Mine”--ranks at the top. It’s hardly surprising that the acclaimed supergroup, Hollywood Vampires, elected to cover the track on their 2015 debut album.

“Black Dog” (1971) – Led Zeppelin

Jimmy Page was a virtual riff machine throughout Led Zeppelin’s glory years, drawing from vintage sources to craft timeless classics such as “Whole Lotta Love” and “Rock and Roll.” Ironically, however, it was bassist John Paul Jones who came up with the main riff for this standout track from the band’s landmark fourth album. “I wanted to try an electric blues with a rolling bass part,” Jones later said of the song.

“Brown Sugar” (1971) – The Rolling Stones

This lead single from the Stones’ 1971 album, Sticky Fingers, was primarily the work of Mick Jagger, who came up with one of the most memorable riff progressions in rock history. Describing its appeal with profound understatement, Jagger attributed the track’s success to its “good groove.” An alternate version, featuring Eric Clapton on slide guitar, was included on special editions of the 2015 Sticky Fingers reissue.

“School’s Out” (1972) – Alice Cooper

Guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce drove the original Alice Cooper Group to soaring, riff-based heights throughout the first half of the ‘70s. No song captured the essence of the duo’s twin-guitar magic better than “School’s Out” did. Cooper himself once described the riff as the musical equivalent of a snot-nosed kid sneering “Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah” at his teacher. Perfect.