19 of the best song intros of all time

When the needle drops...

Although there are a lot of great songs that have great intros, in certain cases, the opening bars of a track become so instantly recognisable and iconic that they transcend the song that spawned them.

We're talking about intros that don't just encourage but compel you to keep listening, either because they build anticipation and lead into something great, or they're just so damn hooky that, even if you did turn them off, they'd still be in your head two days later.

In the first part of our new song anatomy series, in which we'll be highlighting great examples of specific parts of an arrangement, MusicRadar's editorial team have selected their favourite intros of all time, telling you what makes them particularly special. If you can think of other intros that top our selections, let us know.

The Jackson 5 - I Want You Back

1973

1973
(Image: © STR/Reuters/Corbis)

There's no magical arrangement work going on here: just the piano and bass playing the same, timeless riff; the guitar holding station on a single, chugging note; and, on the second pass through, some spritely strings.

No, in this case it's all about the quality of the hook - which is musically simple but impeccably timed - and the instant, certain knowledge that this is a groove that you're going to get along with. In fact, the first 30 seconds alone confirm why I Want You Back is regarded as one of the greatest pop records in history.

The Beatles - A Hard Day's Night

1964

1964
(Image: © Bettmann/CORBIS)

Is it Gsus4? Dm11 with no 9th? Or simply an ‘F with a G on top’?

Whatever it is, the opening to A Hard Day’s Night is easily the most discussed first chord to anything, ever. Musicologists have pored over it in more depth that you’d have thought possible, but whoever was playing what and how, the iconic jangle of 12-string Rickenbacker, bass, piano and acoustic guitar announced the onset of The Beatles' imperial period. A Hard Day’s Night cemented the band's position as America’s favourite, and that impossible intro has since passed into legend.

Marvin Gaye - Let's Get It On

1973

1973

Three notes. That's all it takes to know that you're about to be treated to Marvin's most lustful five minutes. Some great song intros are long and complex, but in this case, a simple, blink-and-you'll-miss-it wah guitar motif is all that's required.

There's something about the way that motif is played, though, with the slightly held-back timing building anticipation in a split second.

Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run

1975

1975
(Image: © William Perlman/Star Ledger/Corbis)

From the revving engine rumble of Vinnie “Mad Dog” Lopez’s drums to the very last tap on the glockenspiel, it’s one of rock’s most exhilarating 14 seconds. With over 11 guitars, pianos, organs and probably a few kitchen sinks, Bruce Springsteen rolls back the curtain on his widescreen love letter to Phil Spector, Leonard Bernstein, the Garden State, a girl named Wendy and suicide machines on highway 9.

In any other hands than Springsteen’s, and perhaps in any other song, this kind of epic sweep would seem like foolhardy hubris - the chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected kind. But when your backstreet Romeo comes on like a wailing James Dean and your Juliet is overcome with passion in a way that only Natalie Wood could understand, grandeur is the very point. Springsteen packs it all up in those 14 seconds.

Diana Ross - I'm Coming Out

1980

1980

This one's got it all: vintage Nile Rodgers guitar chops, horns blasting all over the place, and a drum track that stops and starts so much that it sounds like sticksman Tony Thompson was recorded falling down stairs with his kit on his back.

For the full impact, make sure you check out the more upfront Chic Mix, which appears on the Deluxe version of the Diana album.

Oasis - Wonderwall

1995

1995
(Image: © Steve Jennings/CORBIS)

Anyone who learned the guitar after 1995 strummed the opening to Wonderwall at some point.

The handful of chords that announced the biggest Oasis single of 1995 formed the hook of the whole song, and showcased Noel Gallagher’s melodic instincts at their best. 

Everyone who owned an acoustic guitar went and bought a capo after this, and although it’s the song most likely to be played badly by ‘drunk bloke with mod haircut’ at house parties, the original hasn’t lost any of its power.

Prince - Let's Go Crazy

1984

1984
(Image: © Jacqueline Sallow/CORBIS)

A fine example of an intro that doesn't bear any relation to the rest of the song, Let's Go Crazy's opening minute places Prince as a preacher, not altogether making sense but contrasting the struggles of life with the joy of something else: the afterlife.

Joining him in the pulpit is a cleverly crafted organ passage that switches to reflect the more optimistic tone, and, as we head towards the main body of the song, the distinctive sound of the Linn LM-1 drum machine and that unmistakable crunchy guitar riff.

Ultimately, although the intro to Let's Go Crazy doesn't give away what's about to happen, it tells you that it's something you want to stick around for. There's a cracking outro, too, but that's another story...

The Temptations - Papa Was A Rolling Stone

1972

1972

A masterclass in instrumental arrangement, producer Norman Whitfield pretty much defined the psychedelic soul sound with this monster intro.

Stretching to more than four minutes in the full version and featuring an incessant bassline, Wurlitzer electric piano, choppy guitar and atmospheric strings, it's made all the more remarkable by the fact that it doesn't move from its B flat minor chord.

Neil Young - Cinnamon Girl

1969

1969
(Image: © Tim Mosenfelder/CORBIS)

This is the moment that Neil Young stepped out from the shadow of Buffalo Springfield and became the Neil Young that we know today.

A crunching riff played in an alternate tuning on Young’s then-new ‘Old Black’ Les Paul, it predates alt-rock and heavy metal by decades and definitely proves that Young rocks harder than anyone. It’s a potent example of the power of the early Crazy Horse line-up, too, Danny Whitten’s guitar fizzing alongside Young’s to devastating effect.