Jimmy Page tops Total Guitar readers poll for Greatest Guitar Riff of All Time

Jimmy Page
(Image credit: Robert Knight Archive/Redferns)

Total Guitar readers have voted Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love as the greatest guitar riff of all time. Jimmy Page's overdriven groover edged out Randy Rhoads' electrifying motif on Ozzy's Crazy Train, with AC/DC's Black In Black coming in third.

Opening Led Zeppelin's epoch-defining second album, Whole Lotta Love left an indelible mark on popular culture, changing electric guitar music for good. 

Such was its success, it would become consumed by culture at large, the TV watching public reminded each week of its magisterial energy when it would be reprised for the Top Of The Pops opening theme. Indeed, when it came time to record Led Zeppelin III, A&R people would ask Page where the singles were – a question he gave short thrift, for he had no intention of doing the same thing twice.

Total Guitar put forward a laundry list of great riffs for the poll, with readers asked to vote via Guitar World. In appraising Page's riff, they likened it to Neil Armstrong's moon landing – both events from 1969 have transcended the tumult that brought the 60s to its conclusion.

”Whole Lotta Love's guitar figure took just 2.7 seconds to play, but it immediately projected music into another decade,” writes Total Guitar. ”While everyone else was still playing the 60s, Zeppelin were now playing the 70s.”

”It wasn't the first great riff, but it is the defining one. It's why riffs became central to guitar music, the reason bands search for the guitar hook that can propel a whole song – or even a whole career.”

Total Guitar whittled their list down to a Top 50, with the readers propelling some familiar tunes into the Top 10. 

At four, you've got the everyone's first riff, Deep Purple's Smoke On The Water.  The more tricksy yet melodically irresistible Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love by Van Halen comes in fifth, while Metallica's Enter Sandman, another Saturday afternoon at the guitar shop favourite, comes in sixth place. 

Rounding out the Top Ten you'll find Black Sabbath's Iron Man in seventh, followed by Pantera's monochromatic 12/8 shuffler Walk, ZZ Top's La Grange, and Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze at 10th.

As with any 'greatest ever' list, there are bound to be controversies, but let's not forget that this exercise has been subjected to the democratic process, and the people have spoken. And sadly for Slowhand, there were not enough of them to nudge Layla into the Top 10. It is bubbling under in 11th. 

It is also surprising to find Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit in 17th. As with Whole Lotta Love, Kurt Cobain's riff ushered in a new era for rock music; it was the riff that killed the guitar solo – in a manner of speaking – for many years, and is another elemental piece in the beginner guitar trick bag.

Despite popularising the fuzz pedal and creating a song for the great Otis Redding to make his own, the Rolling Stone's (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction comes in at number 20. You can read more about these riffs in the July 2021 issue of Total Guitar

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.