The Power of the Riff Compels Me Pt. I
Posted by RiffRaff
The riff, a melodic phrase, often constantly repeated, forming an accompaniment or part of an accompaniment for a soloist. In metal, we are not lacking in the heavy use of them. In fact the large majority of all metal and hard rock revolves around the riff. The riff is what hooks you into a song, it’s what drives to keep you engaged, it’s what determines the phrasing of a good solo or breakdown. So, needlessly saying, a fine riff will often lead to a great song. Some bands excel at creating bold and brazen riffs (eg. doom metal, death metal, groove metal) and others may use a more mellow, low-key riff to build atmospheres for the other instruments to build a dynamic off of (eg. black metal, post-metal). But whatever the approach is, the power of the riff compels us!
Some riffs have gone down in metal history as the greatest groups of music ever created. Upon hearing the first few notes of the riff, you can identify the song in no time flat and chances are that the riff has spent extended time stuck in your brain more than once. Here’s a list of what I consider the best riffs of heavy metal. To show fairness to the newer bands out there, they’ll get inclusions also, so if you see a track you don’t know here, give it a listen, I guarantee there will be a damn sick riff contained within. But on the flipside, I also feel that the real signifier of a solid and memorable riff is the test of time. If over 20 years after hearing it the effect it has on me is still the same and my enjoyment of the song is still immense, then that sir, is a f’n killer riff. To not turn this into a list of best Black Sabbath, Pantera, or ‘Tallica riffs, I’m limiting myself to one song per band, so if you dig a riff more than one not included in the list, make sure to give it a shout out in the comments. And also, this is just scratching the surface of the best riffs in metal/hard rock, so be prepared for part deuce. Enjoy!! Peace Love and Metal!!
Simple and to the point, the riff of “Walk” pretty much sums up Pantera’s don’t fuck with me attitude to a ‘T’. The way the riff has a ‘walking’ feel to it paired with the simple 4/4 drums makes this song a danger to listen to when walking down the street. It pushes your head up high and fills the listener with power, feel bad for next person who crosses your path while you’re jamming out to this sick ass riff.
Gojira- The Heaviest Matter in the Universe
For something a bit more technical in the riffing dept, you need not look further than gargantuan Gojira. This particular riff is what made me initially fall head over heals for the Frenchies. I couldn’t think of a more perfect song title about this riff either. It’s pure powerhouse, fast, driving, and the way they present the riff in so many different ways is neat as hell, but the main way they play it starting at the 0:49 mark is pure metal bliss.
Black Sabbath- Iron Man
Picking the defining Black Sabbath riff was no easy task. Tony Iommi is a riff god and the amount of groundbreaking riffs contained on any Sabbath record is staggering. But in the end, it was Black Sabbath’s biggest hit and most well-known that won the prize. You can’t argue that even before the 2nd isn’t even finished you’re already started headbanging along humming ‘dunnn dunn dun dun dun, duhduhduhduhduhduh da da’. I bet even your mother and grandmother know this riff like the back of their hand. To make a small piece of music that infectious and memorable yet so simple takes massive skill and proves why Sabbath are considered one of the best bands of all time.
Emperor- I Am the Black Wizards
When ever trying to add an aural description of black metal to someone, the first place I always refer one to is Emperor’s “I Am the Black Wizards”. That furious blast of tremolo and muddy leads captures the sound of black metal. This is a perfect example of a riff being more on the low-key end (while it still is plenty furious) and finding itself being used to create a mystical atmosphere. And I guarantee, you play just a brief blast of this riff for any black metal fan you will make a good impression and be ‘kvlt enough’ in their eyes.
What really catches me about the driving riff in Tool’s “Scism” is its unconventionality. You’ll see that the majority of the most memorable riffs are purely guitar driven and tend to find themselves in more simplistic territory. In “Scism” it’s bassist Justin Chancellor who shines as the one chosen to drive the song, and with drummer Danny Carey, he plays what on the surface a seems simple riff in a mind melting time. He also adds a fat groove to the song while at the same time adding that trippy, mind opening, mysticism Tool are known for to the tune.
August Burns Red- Marianas Trench
Starting out as a nice sweet little post-rock riff with a cool metalcore flavor to it, August Burns Red twist and transform a plethora of directions throughout the course of “Marianas Trench”. A perfect sign that you’ve written a great piece of music is just how versatile it can be while retaining its memorability, and this is a damn fine example.
Opeth- Moonlapse Vertigo
Singling out a single Opeth riff as their best was hard as fuck, given that in any song Mikael and Co. squeeze in uncountable amounts of them into any given song. But in the end there is one riff in particular that seems to grab me by the shorty hairs every time. The flurry of descending notes that start at the 0:47 mark are simply beautiful and how they allow drums to build on them as well as the introduction of the undertracked acoustic guitar make for truly moving music. The intro and outro riffs also deserve special mention as being another one of the best Opeth have ever written.
The Sword- Freya
If I had to pick the best riff written over the past decade, without a moment’s hesitation, the main riff of “Freya” would get winning honors hands down. The power, the balls, the ferocity, the groove, the fun, the feeling that I must grab my broad sword and charge into battle for the goddess of war just make this riff such a powerhouse. And how The Sword builds on the main riff with just as sick verse and bridge riff and killer bluesy licks and a stoner-riffic break down make “Freya” not just riffs that I will forever remember, but a song that will be stuck into my head even after I pass back into the Earth.
Mastodon- Blood and Thunder
When the first piece of music you hear from a band is as staggering and awe-inspiring as the main riff as the one found in Mastodon’s “Blood and Thunder”, you immediately know you have a very special band on your hands. The scene of hunting Moby Dick as presented by the songs lyrics are perfectly personified in that riff, cause c’mon, if you’re going to be hunting a murderous gigantic whale, you need a tune that inspires rage and insanity and will make you feel as Capt. Ahab himself.
Metallica- Enter Sandman
OK, I give ‘Tallica a lot of shit, but I will never deny that they are a damn good band before they got all St. Teenage Angst and started turning into tables. Another band who has more slamming riffs than Hugh Hefner has tits in his house, these pioneering thrashers will always be there to show the young’n’s how it’s done. And again, my pick for best ‘Tallica riff is also their most popular one and my reasoning is the same as on the Sabbath entry. To remain so fresh, modern, and downright fucking awesome decades later is a testament to one of the strongest riffs ever written.
Deep Purple- Smoke on the Water
Does this one really need an explanation? When a riff is so well-known and loved that it inspires 1,683 guitarists to jam it out in unison at a baseball game you know you hit musical gold.
Coal Chamber- Loco
Yeah, yeah, I hear ya. WTF is nuuuu-metal doing on a semi-respectable metal blog. Well, for how insanely simple and onesided the riff is in this tune is (and every thing else), it’s damn fun and catchy in my opinion. It also is pretty much the only nu-metal riff one needs to hear to get the feel of the whole early 90’s metal movement. Just learning how to play guitar today and want to learn something fast, I guarantee you can learn this neat little riff in 5 min flat. On a side note, praise the holy spaghetti monster that Dez pushed his talents and went on to starting the kick ass Devildriver.
Sepultura- Roots Bloody Roots
Midst the million killer thrash/death metal riffs in Sepultura’s catalog, it’s that tribal feel of “Roots Bloody Roots” that I feel captures the bands sound perfectly. If I were wandering through a Brazilian forest and heard a tribe of natives jamming this riff, as much as I’d love to join in their festivities of metal, the brutality of this riff would tell my common sense to stay away cause them people will most likely sacrifice me to the gods of metal. As honorable as that sacrifice might be, I kinda like being alive.
About RiffRaffJust takin' it easy for all you sinners.
Posted on February 18, 2013, in Metal Lists, Theme Thursday and tagged Best of, black sabbath, entertainment, Gojira, Mastodon, melodic phrase, metal, Metallica, Music, Opeth, Pantera, Riffs, The Sword, Tool. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.