Learn 10 essential guitar rock riffs for beginner players

Guitarist with SG guitar
(Image credit: Kunihito Ikeda/Getty Images)

As a developing and beginner guitar player, learning riffs from your idols is a great way to push yourself to that next level. By learning classic riffs, you expose yourself to a range of techniques and note patterns that you may not find in simple chord-based songs.

Learning classic riffs is also a really fun thing to do. You can compare your own learning and progress against the recorded version of the song as a benchmark of how far you’ve come. 

It’s also fun when those around you recognise riffs that you play as being from songs they know!

The 10 riffs in this lesson are all classic, well-known riffs that will give you a range of skills you need to take your guitar playing to that next level. Across the 10 riffs you’ll encounter a range of challenges, all designed to help you be a better player.

1. Cream – Sunshine Of Your Love 

This riff is from '60s British supergroup Cream, featuring Eric Clapton, and this single note riff is a great one to get you started with changing strings while picking single notes. During this riff you’ll only be playing one note at a time at all times.

The riff also contains a three note chromatic line on the A string, starting at the 12th and ending on the 10th fret. This is useful for working on using multiple fingers.

The final phrase also contains a slide and a small string bend, check out the video for a full demonstration of how to play this.

This riff is great for practising alternate picking, but, it is slow enough that you can downpick it all if you wish.

2. Black Sabbath Iron Man 

This riff is definitely one for the fans of heavier music. Tony Iommi is one of the Godfathers of heavy metal guitar, and this riff is just one of the many crushing rock riffs he delivered in the early Black Sabbath years.

This riff is played entirely with power chords and contains some chord slides which can be tricky for new players so start slow when working on the slides. 

The original was played entirely on the Low E and A strings but in the video this is shown rooted on the A string as this feels a little easier for the slides.

3. David Bowie – Rebel Rebel

This iconic Bowie riff sounds simple, but it has a few little surprises under the hood.

Starting with an Open D string, the guitar then jumps to the B string where it slides from the 3rd to the 5th, but pay attention to how this slide takes place, at the same time as the sliding note, the high E string is played open and let ring. This creates a drone against the note on the B string.

This open string drone is played across a few other notes along the B string too.

There are a few moments in this riff where you will need to play open strings as single notes or double stops but keep them snappy and prevent them from ringing. This is to maintain the tight sound of the riff. Nothing in this riff should blur into anything else.

4. Metallica – Enter Sandman

This is a masterclass in showing that you don’t need many notes to make a memorable riff. 

There is a note on the 7th fret of the A string that you’ll be playing twice, I’d recommend playing this note with your third finger and keeping that in place for the duration of the riff. This allows that note to ring and blend with the other notes around it. 

The same is true for the open G string, you want this note to ring and drone against the notes that follow it.

You’re only playing 6 notes in the entire riff, and one of those just so happens to be played twice!

5. The Beatles - Day Tripper 

This is a fun riff to learn and it also gets you working on playing across three strings at the same time. 

The riff starts on the Low E string which is played open, and the first fretted notes you see are the 3rd and 4th frets on that string but resist the temptation to play either of these notes with your fretting hand index finger, you’ll need that for the next part.

Using your index finger, play the A and D strings at the 2nd fret, you can either fret both together, or roll from one to the other.

This cross-string motion is great for getting your left and right hands coordinated. 

You’ll also be revisiting a power chord shape, as seen in Iron Man, although this time the notes are played separately. 

6. Rolling Stones – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

This riff was actually never intended to be a guitar riff at all. When the band were in the studio tracking this song, Keith Richards had a vision for a horn section hook. He switched on his trusty fuzz pedal and laid down this iconic riff as a guide track for the horns, and the rest is history.

This riff is entirely played on the A string and is only three notes. You’ll just need the 2nd, 4th and 5th frets here.

There are a few legato shifts in this riff, it uses slides, hammer ons and pull offs to create a slinky, horn like feel, but you can pick every note if you wish.

This one is easy to learn, but so much fun!

7. AC/DC – Back in Black

This AC/DC classic can be played with open chords or power chords. If you choose to use the open chords, as shown in the video, you can use E, D and A major.

This riff has a lot of space, so there is plenty of time for you to focus on nailing the chord changes that you have in front of you.

Where this riff does present some challenges is at the end of each repeat. On the first repeat, these is a short, E Minor Pentatonic lick. This lick descends the higher part of the scale before playing a bend, release pull-off combo. The phrasing of this is quick tricky to get right, the only person who can really nail this is Angus Young himself!

8. Jimi Hendrix – Foxy Lady

This funky Hendrix riff isn’t that easiest riff, but it’s great for your string skipping and accuracy building.

The first three passes of the riff are the same, it’s a low note, a double stop on the B and E strings and a muted hit. The only thing that changes is the low note you play. On passes 1 and 3 it’s the 2nd fret of the Low E, on the 2nd pass of the riff it’s the 4th fret of the D.

The final bar of this is a simple 4 note ascending run before it starts all over again.

The biggest thing to focus on in this riff is getting the two strong hits on the lower notes then making sure they’re muted before you hit that double stop.

9. Arctic Monkeys – Do I Wanna Know?

This riff is becoming a bit of a modern classic, and it’s really useful for working on your timing as some of the phrases are played just ahead of the beat.

Don’t worry too much about the timing at this stage, just focus on playing the riff as you hear it. You can worry about the intricacies of the timing later on.

This riff combines notes on 3 strings as well as hammer ons, slides and quick position shifts. There is even one section where you do a hammer on and a slide in one motion. You may recognise a similar finger roll motion from the Beatles track you learnt earlier in the lesson.

Take time your timing learning this one, it’s trickier than it seems.

10. Deep Purple – Smoke on the Water

This is probably the most iconic guitar riff of all time. And it’s been overplayed, overused and overhyped. It’s been frowned upon by every guitar store owner in the world and it’s been played incorrectly on the Low E string by thousands of guitar players.

This is the Deep Purple classic Smoke On The Water. This track was written as a joke after the band witnessed a music venue on fire in Montreux after a Frank Zappa concert. The smoke in question is the smoke from the fire that seemed to glide across Lake Montreux.

This riff is made up entirely of double stops and for the most accurate and authentic recreation, should be played with just your fingers. Playing this with your fingers gives is a rounder, warmer sound.

The ultimate beginner guitar lesson: 11 essential steps to get started as a new guitarist today

Leigh Fuge

Leigh Fuge is a guitar player and content creator with a love for all things '80s. When he’s not creating gear demos for his Youtube channel he’s teaching students via his online guitar course Right Notes Music Tuition. Off camera he spends most of his time travelling around the UK performing at functions and corporate events.  www.instagram.com/leighfugeguitar