What is the heaviest guitar riff of all time? Metal musicians have their say

(Image credit: Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images for P+ and MTV)

There is one sure way to start an argument and that’s to ask the most contentious questions in metal guitar: what is the heaviest riff of all time? 

The question invites generational dispute; between ‘70s long-hairs against the neck-tattooed cohort of the post-Destroy Erase Improve epoch, between those weaned on the radioactive milk of ‘80s thrash and those tuned down to nu-metal’s 7-string registers. It pits the underground against mainstream consensus, bandmate against bandmate, and Revolver has just opened this can of worms again, polling performers at Louder Than Life 2022 festival for their thoughts. 

The video segment shows you just how split opinions are, just how vexing the question is. John Dyer Baizley of Baroness looks like he’s passing a kidney stone at the very mention of it.

“This is a hot take,” he protested. “I’ve got to come up with the heaviest riff of all time right now? That’s such a hard question.”

But sitting along side bassist Nick Jost, he could just about agree that Metallica’s Sad But True, track two of the era-defining Black Album, took the cake. “In terms of power versus execution versus reach in the audience, Sad But True,” said Baizley.

They weren’t alone. Halestorm’s Lzzy Hale and Arejay Hale co-signed Sad But True, but argued that Pantera’s Cowboys From Hell and Pantera’s Cowboys From Hell should be in the conversation alongside Jerry Cantrell's riff on Alice In Chains’ Check My Brain. 

“Jerry is so famous for those heavy, sludgy, weighty riffs,” said Arejay. “I think we gravitate towards those riffs that are really heavy and weighty rather than really flashy. [But] In terms of weighty, heavy and aggressive, maybe Sad But True, yeah.”

Orbit Culture’s Niklas Karlsson and Richard Hansson were in agreement. Even after 30 years of metal’s evolution, Sad But True retained its power. It was the riff that came up the most. Metallica’s Enter Sandman got a couple of mentions. Airbourne cited Fuel. Perhaps surprisingly, given how often Metallica came up, there was not no mention of The Thing That Should Not Be or Blackened.

Speaking to MusicRadar in 2011, Bob Rock, the producer of Metallica’s Black Album, said when he first heard Sad But True he thought it was “the Kashmir of the ‘90s” but he had one suggestion to make, and it would help make it the heaviest track on the record.

“They played me the demo, and I told them I thought it was the Kashmir of the ‘90s,” said Rock. “The riff was astounding. To my knowledge, they never had anything so heavy, so punchy and powerful. Rhythmically, I could tell it had the potential to be absolutely crushing!

“We were in pre-production, which was uncomfortable because nobody had ever made them go through their songs in such a deliberate way before, and six songs in Sad But True came along. Suddenly, I realized that every song, including this one, was in the key of E.

“I brought this to the band’s attention, and they said, ‘Well, isn’t E the lowest note?’ So I told them that on Motley Crue’s Dr Feelgood, which I produced and Metallica loved, the band had tuned down to D. Metallica then tuned down to D, and that’s when the riff really became huge. It was this force that you just couldn’t stop, no matter what.”

Tuning down was a theme among Revolver’s subjects. Suicide Silence guitarist Chris Garza cast his vote for Korn’s Blind, a track that single-handedly launched nu-metal as a pop-cultural force, and reanimating interest in Steve Vai’s signature Universe 7-string guitar.

“There is something about that riff, that record,” he said. “It’s heavy. I am a rhythm guitar player. There’s a darkness to a rhythm guitar player that really has the wrist feel that way and sound that way. There’s something about that riff is darkness. And you see it live and… Korn is the heaviest live band of all time. When they play Blind, that riff? Come on.”

Korn is the heaviest live band of all time. When they play Blind, that riff? Come on

Chris Garza, Suicide Silence

There was a lot of love for Pantera. Lamb Of God’s Redneck was in the conversation alongside various shouts for Gojira (Flying Whales, Where Dragons Dwell, The Heaviest Matter Of The Universe). But Courtney LaPlante, vocalist for Spiritbox, made a persuasive case for Meshuggah’s Bleed, from 2008’s obZen.

“I think, technically, the heaviest thing that I’ve ever heard would be just the opening riff from Bleed by Meshuggah,” she said. “The thing that makes it so heavy for me is just how fast the double-kick is and how low the guitar is. It’s also the way the riff speeds up and slows down when they are bending it, the way the double-kick is interfering with the guitar.”

Of Revolver’s subjects, only Taipei Houston’s Myles and Lane Ulrich went all in for Black Sabbath's Into The Void. Andy Glass, bass guitar wrangler for We Came As Romans, also cited Iron Man, though as much an afterthought to Meshuggah face-ripper Rational Gaze.

Once upon a time, opinion might have coalesced around vintage Black Sabbath. Tony Iommi at his heaviest – think Into The Void, the breakdown in Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, the eponymous Black Sabbath intro riff, Lord Of This World – remains unimpeachable.

In 2020, Metal Hammer polled pro guitarists and Iommi’s Symptom Of The Universe riff came out top. 

When Speaking to MusicRadar, Iommi said that the sign of a riff working was how memorable it was. Those that didn’t stick, got left behind. This was how Paranoid came about.

“You had to remember riffs back in the old days,” he said. “When we did get a tape machine it was a big reel to reel but in the early days we’d have to keep playing the same thing so we’d remember it, because you’d forget. We’d rehearse again the next day and everyone would come in. You’d ask, ‘Does everyone remember it?’ ‘I think so…’ and you’d have to try and drum it into yourself but you might play it slightly differently.”

You can check out Revolver’s vox pops with metal pros above. What else did they miss off? Death metal was underrepresented, though kudos to GWAR’s Pustulus Maximus for repping Dehumanized’s slept-on brutal death metal classic Prophecies Foretold, and Deicide’s superlative Once Upon The Cross, and to Anders Fridén of In Flames for mentioning Crowbar’s Odd Fellows Rest.

There was no Procreation (Of The Wicked) by Celtic Frost, no Where The Slime Live by Morbid Angel, no… oh, it’s contentious. Maybe we need to put it to the vote and run another poll. That should settle it, right? No chance...

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.