Perhaps even more than vocalists, guitarists have given the last 70 years of popular music its most iconic, instantly recognizable moments. From Wayne's World's famous "NO 'STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN'" sign to the "Seven Nation Army" chants in soccer stadiums around the world, guitar riffs are universal language that even the most casual of music fans are fluent in. When beginners first pick up a guitar, they probably don't learn with sheet music or chords; they learn to fumble through the opening notes of "Comes as You Are" or "Smoke on the Water."
We reached out to Canadian artists to ask them about their favourite riffs. Some came back with some classics (Black Sabbath were a particular favourite), while others had left-field choices: lengthy guitar solos, minimal shards of spiky post-punk, a Limp Bizkit song, and a metalcore musician who cites Bon Iver as his favourite riff ever.
Read on to learn which riffs Canadian guitarists consider the best ever. At the bottom of the page, hear all of the songs in a playlist.
Johnny Ciardullo of AngelMaker and Carcosa
"Ear to Ear" by Whitechapel
"Hearing Whitechapel's The Somatic Defilement in 2007 was a game changer for me. This song in particular had such a healthy balance of brutality and melody that eased a young me, who was predominantly listening to metalcore, into deathcore. The tapping riff near the tail end of the song was the first time I learned a riff like this in a context that wasn't a solo and is still a technique I incorporate into my songwriting to this day."
Adrian Teacher of Apollo Ghosts
"A Sailor's Life" by Fairport Convention
"My favourite guitar riff of all time is from the song 'A Sailor's Life' by Fairport Convention. At around the six-minute-30-second mark, Richard Thompson's guitar takes off in all its psychedelic glory and goes to battle with guest fiddler Dave Swarbrick. The solo lasts about five minutes and fades out beautifully, almost falling asleep. Sometimes I'll go down to my jam space, put this song on my headphones, and play along to it on drums. There's something about that Celtic drone that gives me deep musical shivers. You'll hear homages to it on so many of our songs."
Dean Lamb of Archspire
"Spheres of Madness" by Decapitated and "Oscillation Cycles" by Blotted Science
"Oh man, you want me to pick one single favourite guitar riff? The impossible question. I'll narrow it down to two: 1. 'Spheres of Madness' by Decapitated. The intro of this song is the perfect example of a catchy, simple death metal riff. It's extremely memorable, leaves plenty of room for other instruments, and sounds badass. 2. 'Oscillation Cycles' by Blotted Science. This whole song is one single riff, based on a whacky composition tool called a 'twelve-tone row,' pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg. It was a system designed to generate melodies that you wouldn't normally compose, due to their atonality. Rob Jarzombek from this band turns it into brutal death metal riffage. He's truly among the best ever."
Katelyn Molgard of Bad Waitress
"Looking at You" by MC5
"This one is such an iconic guitar song. Quickly shooting back and forth between two chords the whole time, it leaves a massive playing field for the apex of the song, which is Wayne Kramer's guitar solo. His fluttering triplets and crashing eighth notes all the way up and down the neck are what make me so so excited to play rock 'n' roll."
Photo: Atsuko Kobasigawa
Stephen McBean of Black Mountain and Pink Mountaintops
"Iron Man" by Black Sabbath
"It seems hilarious, but I'm just gonna say 'Iron Man,' because that's the one that floored me at five years old. Let's say 'Iron Man,' or KISS's 'Parasite.' There's much better riffs than that., but those are the riffs that made me want to play guitar. The funny thing about, say, 'Smoke on the Water' is a lot of the riff is actually the Hammond organ, which you don't realize when you're a kid. But 'Iron Man' was like, 'Whoa.' It's a riff makes you want to play guitar, and then you can play it. King Crimson may have better riffs, but you can't really play them at seven."
Bella Bébé of Bratboy
"Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" by Jimi Hendrix
"To choose this might be cliché, but you can't deny this one. The entire song in itself feels like one incredible riff that somehow balances between being powerful, melodic, free and virtuosic. If you break down the riff(s) into phrases, there is almost a call-and-response between one another. There are also so many other iconic and innovative elements to this song from the tones and effects to the playfulness of the panning that enhance the riff even more. And it is truly refreshing to hear something that will always make you go, 'how?'"
Andrew Baena of Carcosa
"Your Troubles Will Cease And Fortune Will Smile Upon You" by After the Burial
"Although this riff is incredibly simple, it is to this day one of my favourite eight-string riffs of all time. After the Burial are masters of making memorable riffs that are either extremely complex or dead simple. The intro to Carcosa's 'Our Scars' was heavily inspired by ATB's simpler moments, such as this riff or 'A Wolf Amongst Ravens.'"
Jesse Doreen of Counterparts
"Perth" by Bon Iver
"This has got to be one of my favourite riffs of all time. It's a pretty simple progression, but it has just the right amount of movement with the jangly hammer-ons and pull-offs. When writing for Counterparts, I try to capture that sad, midwest emo, open feel as heard in 'Perth' in our more melodic bits. I could listen to this riff for hours and not get sick of it."
"You Shook Me All Night Long" by AC/DC
"I'll go with the solo from 'You Shook Me All Night Long,' because that was the first kind of proper, fancy guitar thing I ever learned in guitar lessons. So for that reason, it stays with me. Honestly, when I was a teenager, all I wanted to achieve on guitar was the same vibrato speed that Angus Young has. And I remember I got pretty close. And I went on a school trip to Europe and I came back, and I had lost my speed. I was like, 'fuck'! I was devastated. It was horrible. God bless him. Now I just have a vibrato pedal doing it for me."
Photo: Shane Parent
Eric Jarrin of Despised Icon
"Propaganda" by Sepultura
"To this day, this is my all-time chugging riff. As if the breakdown played just before wasn't enough, the song goes into a vicious drum and bass part before kicking you in the teeth with this outro riff. Whether I'm partying on a tour bus or at home doing the dishes, if I hear it, I just drop whatever I'm doing and I start to insanely headbang and mosh alone like an idiot! That's what this riff does to me. Growing up as a teenager listening to their Arise and Chaos A.D. albums, to me, Sepultura are the masters of groovy chugging riffs and the original creators of what became breakdowns in modern metal history. Max Cavalera and Andreas Kisser had an undeniable impact on me when becoming the metal guitarist I am now. Their influence can easily be heard on any Despised Icon album!"
Luke Bentham of the Dirty Nil
"Search and Destroy" by Iggy and the Stooges
"You just can't beat it. Everything exciting about electric guitar music is captured in the opening 15 seconds. It's as if you took a Rolling Stones riff and played it through a Howitzer field cannon. It's the first thing I play whenever I pick up my guitar. It's the benchmark. It's the one."
Chell Osuntade of Fold Paper and Julien's Daughter
"(The Second) Punk Broke" by Unschooling
"(The Second) Punk Broke" by Unschooling is in 7/4 and that gives it a free pass to being one of my favourite riffs of all time. You add that to the guitars being so dissonant and syncopated and you have an under-appreciated masterpiece. Do yourself a favour and go check it out right now.
"Thrill of It All" by Black Sabbath
"My knee-jerk answer would either be the opening riff to 'Highway to Hell' by AC/DC or 'Jailbreak' by Thin Lizzy, but by now, I've heard those riffs so much that they're almost like 'Happy Birthday' to me. If I had to pinpoint the one riff that still gives me goosebumps, makes me punch the air with my fist, and yell out a 'fuck yeah,' it's the riff 1:02 minutes into Black Sabbath's 'Thrill of It All.' It doesn't overwhelm or hog the spotlight, but instead is the high tide that allows the listener to hear the incredible voice of Ozzy Osbourne, while being one of the best riffs put to tape. That's my story and I'm sticking to it."
Photo: Dana Zuk
Jesse Matthewson of KEN mode
"Honey Bucket" by Melvins
"This is muscle; girth; power. The opening riff to Melvins' 'Honey Bucket' is everything I'd ever want out of a riff. The ultimate hype-up intro. The fuzzed out guitar, yet perfectly finessed, carving the listener up along with the drums. There's a reason it's their most streamed song."
Brian Murphy of Kiwi Jr.
"Nighttime / Anytime - It's Alright" by Constantines
"Things get wacky in a hurry when we're dealing with 'of all time.' So instead of picking any one of Hendrix's riffs, let's go with Guelph's very finest. The riff is both glass shattering and gear grinding at the same time, drenched in paranoia and uncertainty. The only thing keeping you in check are the shakers, but when the rest of the band kicks in you know exactly where you are — you're lost in the nighttime, and nothing good happens after midnight."
Lukas Cheung of Mother Tongues
"Monitor" by Siouxsie and the Banshees
"Today, my favourite riff is the opening to 'Monitor' by Siouxsie and the Banshees. It's so tough and otherworldly. John McGeoch was truly one of a kind. This song made me buy a flanger."
Photo: Stephen McGill
Nada Hayek of Necking
"Over the Edge" by Wipers
"One of my favourite riffs by one of my favourite bands. Greg Sage's skill in creating punchy chord progressions while integrating melodic lines is something I've always found inspirational and loved about the band's music. The riff isn't complicated but does so much for the song, especially considering the fact that there's only one guitar and no overdubs on the track."
Karolane Carbonneau of NOBRO
"People Say" by the Meters
"This is, for me, one of the best riffs ever written. It goes in harmony with the bass and acts as a call and response to the drum. which makes it incredibly groovy. Funk guitar riffs are always the best. They're simple, fun and catchy. I remember when I decided to learn a couple of the Meters' songs, I realized how hard it was to play all of those simple guitar licks I thought where easy, but then happened to be super precise in terms of timing and intention."
Photo: Atsuko Kobasigawa
Adam Sturgeon of OMBIIGIZI and Status/Non-Status
"The Animals" by Elevator
"When I think about guitars and guitar riffs, I often think about rock 'n' roll 'posturing.' You know — leather jackets, tongue out, devil horns and shit. That's never really been my style. I'd consider myself more of an anti-guitarist: one note solos, a bit of feedback and a blown-out old amp. I think that's why I always gravitated toward Canadian indie rock of the '90s and my ultimate favourite band, Elevator. It's really difficult for me to pick a favourite riff, but I'd have to choose the song 'The Animals' from A Taste of Complete Perspective. This album was exploratory. A what's what of psych and grunge. A most spiritual sludge-folk opus. 'The Animals' goes deep into the forest and hits all the quintessential sounds my ears crave: groaning riffs, tempo changes and the big, single note, heavily delayed solo/chorus. Yeah, 'The Animals' by Elevator — that's the riff for me. Thanks Rick!"
"Hard to Explain" by the Strokes and "Run of the Mill" by George Harrison
"My favourite all-time riffs are 'Hard to Explain' by the Stokes, 'cause it just feels like what summer is supposed to feel like, and 'Run of the Mill' by George Harrison — but the outtake version, which is more melodic and gritty. Both are the crème de la crème of riffs!"
Luke Hoskin of Protest the Hero
"Peacemaker Die" by Extreme
"Favourite riff of all time? That's easy. It's by Extreme, played by Nuno Bettencourt, and is the in the song 'Peacemaker Die' (from the masterpiece album III Sides to Every Story, originally released in '92). It's the bridge riff — after the second chorus at 3:07. I can't think of a more satisfying musical moment than when the drums kick in after the riff is established. Self-defenestration is a real urge I fight every time I hear this piece."
Photo courtesy of Protest the Hero
Steve Sladkowski of PUP
"Into the Void" by Black Sabbath
"It's a profoundly difficult exercise to pick an all-time favourite riff. How could you really choose one riff when the very idea of the riff is the electric guitar's greatest contribution to humanity? The deeply personal approach to guitar playing over the course of music history makes it damn near impossible to pick one riff — only one?! — to perfectly exemplify... Anyway, it's 'Into the Void' by Black Sabbath."
Tyler Bancroft of Said the Whale
"Hayloft" by Mother Mother
"I remember being on tour with Mother Mother in 2008 and having a casual backstage conversation with Ryan during which he said 'I'm not good at guitar at all — I only know my own songs!' Ben and I laughed, and pshhh'd, and sheepishly looked down at our hands, wondering what we amounted to if he of all people wasn't good at guitar. Less than an hour later, he was up on stage shredding this iconic riff that would later — offensively late if you ask me — go on to essentially catapult his band's career into the indie rock stratosphere by way of a fervent TikTok community rallying around a band with a relentless work ethic and a no-fucks-given attitude towards everything except a dedication to their craft and a reciprocal love for those who support them."
Paul Marc Rousseau of Silverstein
"Just Like This" by Limp Bizkit
"I do not care to understand why, but the year is 2023 and Limp Bizkit is cool again. Recently, I spent an afternoon tumbling down the Wes Borland rabbit hole on the internet. I did this on purpose and I do not regret it. Way back in '99, he was pumping out massive riffs that I did not fully appreciate when I was 10: he never overplays, the grooves and melodies are immaculate, and his playing somehow walked this tightrope of appealing to people who love heavy music without alienating people who think they don't like heavy music. I chose 'Just Like This' because it's a barn burner and a more traditional riff, but the very next track is 'Nookie' and that intro is extremely cool. Too many winners to choose from, but I believe I've done the impossible and selected the number one best elite championship calibre riff."
Luke Doucet of Whitehorse
"Smokestack Lightnin'" by Howlin' Wolf
"Hubert Sumlin's simple guitar perfection anchors this one-chord romp that tells the story of the Wolf watching sparks fly from the chimney of a train. The glory is the repetition and the discipline to just keep playing the thing — like a train. This riff has been reinterpreted a thousand times and will stand as the most enduring among the myriad iconic turns produced by the lifelong partnership between Wolf and his secret weapon. The last time Hubert played in Toronto before his death, he needed an amplifier for his show. Folk-blues impresario and publicist Richard Flohill called me to see if I might have one for Hubert to borrow. I did, of course, and I got to shake the man's hand. His genius was only eclipsed by his humility and kindness."