Is Prince's Purple Rain really the second-greatest guitar riff of all time? A new survey says 'yes'

Prince Purple Rain album cover
(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Now that the outrage around the Rolling Stone top 200 guitarists list is dying down a little, it's time for a new debate: is the art of the guitar riff dying?  When it comes to great examples there was only one remotely recent riff that made the top 20 in a new Sky Arts survey.

Jack White's Seven Nation Army riff was the only example to be chosen by enough of the 2,000 listeners and players who responded to make the top choices, and even that is 20 years old.

The next most recent example in the favourite 20 was the top overall choice; Slash's 1987 Sweet Child O' Mine intro bonanza for the Guns N' Roses classic, while Dire Straits were the only band to have two appearances with Mark Knopfler for Sultans Of Swing and Money For Nothing both making the top five. 

The latter's placing might even add even more value to Knopfler's Brothers In Arms-era Les Paul when it goes up for auction early in 2024.

More surprising was Purple Rain's placement, not just at number two but making a top 20 riffs at all. If it's Prince's chord progression people chose, that one is definitely unexpected! 

  • 1. Sweet Child O' Mine - Guns N' Roses
  • 2. Purple Rain - Prince
  • 3. Sultans of Swing - Dire Straits
  • 4. Smoke on the Water - Deep Purple
  • 5. Money for Nothing - Dire Straits
  • 6. You Really Got Me - The Kinks
  • 7. Beat It - Michael Jackson (Eddie Van Halen)
  • 8. Every Breath You Take - The Police
  • 9. Walk This Way - Aerosmith
  • 10. Sweet Home Alabama - Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • 11. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – Rolling Stones
  • 12. Born to Be Wild - Steppenwolf
  • 13. Whole Lotta Love - Led Zeppelin
  • 14. Purple Haze - Jimi Hendrix
  • 15. Johnny B. Goode - Chuck Berry
  • 16. Rebel Rebel - David Bowie
  • 17. Seven Nation Army - The White Stripes
  • 18. Day Tripper - The Beatles
  • 19. Back in Black - AC/DC
  • 20. Thunderstruck" – AC/DC
  • 21. Paranoid - Black Sabbath
  • 22. Enter Sandman – Metallica


(Image credit: Joby Sessions / Future)

Sky Arts organised the survey to mark the release its new star-studded three-part series, Greatest Guitar Riffs, which features Brian May, George Benson, Andy Summers, Tony Iommi, Hank Marvin and Nancy Wilson.

There is at least some hope for 'modern' guitar music with the news Sam Fender’s Seventeen Going Under, Pharell Williams’ Happy and Arctic Monkeys Do I Wanna Know all making the top 40. ie.

“There’s new talent coming through constantly," reflected Sky Arts Director Phil Edgar-Jones. "The appetite for new tunes and sweet riffs is as great as it ever has been.”

Not quite enough to topple giants like Smoke On The Water. But the survey wrongly attributed the riff for Beat It to Eddie Van Halen, who came in and recorded a solo for the song after the riff had already been written by Michael Jackson and played by Steve Lukather.  

The survey also found that respondees considered the electric guitar the most important instrument to make a song truly great (58%), ahead of the drums (58%) and bass guitar (41%). An impressive 65% said felt the guitar is one of the coolest instruments you can play. Absolutely correct! 

Please don't shoot the messenger here, rhythm section players – MusicRadar knows that groove conquers all. 

Despite not making the top 20 riffs, Queen’s Brian May was voted the greatest guitarist of all time, ahead of even Jimi Hendrix in the top 20 list below. Respondees also thought being unique (41%) and helping listeners identify the song within seconds of it starting (37%) were the other key factors in making a guitar riff great. That last point definitely applies to Slash's Sweet Child 'O Mine riff. 

  • Brian May 
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Eric Clapton
  • Mark Knopfler 
  • Slash 
  • Jimmy Page 
  • Carlos Santana
  • David Gilmour 
  • Keith Richards
  • Dave Grohl 
  • Chuck Berry
  • Angus Young
  • Johnny Marr
  • Eddie Van Halen
  • Tony Iommi
  • Jeff Beck
  • Kurt Cobain 
  • B.B. King
  • Pete Townshend 
  • Joe Satriani

But the most worrying reveal of all was that 53% believed the guitar riff is dying out – with 74% of those people believing it’s a bad thing. 

Greatest Guitar Riffs will air on Sky Arts, Freeview and NOW from 24th November 2023

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.