Learn to play 7 of the greatest guitar riffs of the 21st century

Matt Bellamy of Muse performs at the Muse Will of the People Tour 2023 held at Madison Square Garden on March 17, 2023 in New York City
(Image credit: Nina Westervelt/Variety via Getty Images)

When we think of top-ranking guitar lists, we often find they are populated with the same old stuff. Every list of riffs will feature Eric Clapton, Hendrix, Page and Beck among others.

But what if we looked forward to the modern day and learnt some exciting new riffs that came into existence after the year 2000!

The 21st century is jam packed with great guitar music, from nu metal to indie and beyond, this century has given us a plethora of fantastic guitar bands.

The riffs in this lesson are inspired by MusicRadar's own 21st century riffs reader survey vote to hone down to seven of my favourites… let’s get started!

1. Muse – Plug in Baby

This fuzz-soaked Matt Bellamy riff will seem pretty tricky to learn at first. When you’re learning it you’re going to need to play it slow. Start off by getting some of the four note groupings linked together and you’ll see a theme through parts of the riff.

Parts of this riff may resemble some scalic exercises you may already be using.

There is a four string arpeggio inside this guitar riff which can be somewhat tricky. When playing the arpeggio make sure to not let the notes blend into each other. You want to try to achieve the full note separation to make everything sound crystal clear.

2. Audioslave - Cochise

This riff, played by the Rage Against the Machine’s very own Tom Morello, is a hard-hitting riff with plenty of power and groove but very little gain! 

The riff is a simple, classic rock-inspired single note run starting with a quick hammer on between the 5th and 7th frets of the A string before walking down on the Low E to an open string.

The second half of the riff is similar to the first with the phasing slightly changed.

3. The Darkness – I Believe in a Thing Called Love

This power chord riff might just be the riff that saved rock 'n' roll at the time. When the Darkness hit the scene in 2003 they brought back all the fun and bombastic characteristics that had been missing from rock for many years.

This riff is made up of just 4 different power chord shapes with a few muted notes between and end with a short single note line on the E and A strings.

The riff can be played without the muted notes if you prefer, but for full authenticity you should aim to get them in there.

For the single note line at the end, the first note can be played with a slight pinch harmonic and plenty of vibrato.

4. The Killers – Mr Brightside

Any guitarist that has ever attempted to learn this riff will agree on how tricky this one is to get started with.

The original recorded is tuned down half a step down but for ease, the version for this lesson was recorded in standard tuning.

The hardest thing with this riff is playing a very complex chord shape in a very tight space high up the fretboard. The chord is based around a D9 chord with the high E played open. Once this chord shape is in place, an octave higher than it usually is, the little finger will reach over and play the 19th fret of the G, adding an octave of the root.

This riff has a repeating picking pattern with a moving bass note. At the end of each chord, you will need to play an open D string.

In the video, you’ll also see an easier way to approach this riff.

5. Papa Roach – Last Resort

This nu-metal classic is tuned to Drop D Tuning (D A D G B E). Drop D tuning unlocks some additional low notes that are unavailable in standard tuning.

The song starts with a vocal refrain which sits ontop of some chord stabs. The chords are power chords rooted on the A string with a lower note added on the low D.

The main riff is a simple repeating motif between the 9th and 10th frets of the A and D strings but with a moving bass note that goes lower each repeat.

This riff calls for alternate picking throughout to maintain the flow. Aim to get an even attack on every note in the bar.

6. Velvet Revolver - Slither

Picking up where Guns N Roses left off, Velvet Revolver was a supergroup that featured guitar hero Slash along with GnR bandmates Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum behind him in the rhythm section. 

The first single from Velvet Revolvers debut album Contraband gave us a hard-hitting Drop D riff that had bags of Guns-style swagger and attitude.

The riff climbs the neck before moving back down again. It’s a very straight riff, played as straight 8ths, but it sounds loose and still retains some groove.

On the fourth repeat, Slash jumps 2 octaves higher to mirror the riff with a lick that runs into the verse of the song.

7. Gary Clark Jr – Bright Lights

Not many guitarists would dare to fuse blues, RnB, hip hop and fuzz-laden garage rock, but Gary Clark Jr is the guitarist that did dare, and succeeded.

Bright Lights is an early example of Gary’s genius when it comes to blending genres together. The song opens with a simple, staccato chordal groove that sits on an A minor chord before going to an Am7sus4 via an Am7 and back again. 

Just when you thought you had it vibe figured, a huge fuzzy single note riff enters full of low string full step bends, vibrato and double stops.

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