Start Me Up

They reach out of your speakers and seize you, typically within the first four or five seconds and often in a brilliantly simple way, compelling your attention and propelling the tune forward. They’re the opening guitar riffs, immediately recognizable and unforgettable signatures of some of the most notable and celebrated songs in music history.

So what do you say we compile a So Much Great Music Top 10 list (even though it’ll be way more than 10) and rank the greatest ones of all time?

And, in so doing, we’ll need some qualifier, some analysis point to which we can refer. How about we make this our overarching principle:

When you see the song title and band in front of you on the list to follow, you should be able to hear the guitar intro playing in your head.

Now, this may not happen for all of you, or certainly for all of the songs (“your results may vary” as they say in the pharmaceutical advertising game). But it still seems like a valid enough tentpole. These opening riffs are such landmarks of rock and roll, such instantly identifiable surges of melodic adrenaline, they’re largely seared into memory. At least that’s the hope — but just in case not, you will find a handy SMGM playlist at the bottom to sample the selections and aid your recollections.

Alright, as is our list-making custom here, a few quick ground rules before getting started.

  • First, we did say opening riffs. Some pretty famous ones are quite tempting but must be deemed ineligible as the key guitar riffing section occurs not at the very outset but after some other significant musical activity or interval takes place (we’ll visit some of those examples later on).
  • Next, in case it wasn’t previously made clear, we’re talking about electric guitar. There’s a valued place (and perhaps someday another list) for pretty, acoustic guitar intros. But those are, naturally, quite distinct from the plugged-in speaker shakers about to be coming at you. Sorry, but step aside ‘Stairway to Heaven.’
  • And last, even as much as this immediately complicates things, we’re going to impose the one entry per band rule. Now, this is especially burdensome when it comes to four particular bands and their respective riff-masters. In Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Angus Young, and John Fogerty – there are plenty more, but these jump out the most – you have veritable rock & roll riff machines. They could seemingly fall out of bed (or in one case, stay in it…we’ll get to that later, too) and create more indelible guitar riffs than mere mortals could ever dream. Otherworldly riff automatons are they…but we’re still going to try to stick to one per customer.

Well, you know that tingling feeling of anticipation that gets you all keyed up when you’re presented with an incredible song-opening guitar riff? I trust you’ve got a similar sensation now. Let’s get started.

Greatest Opening Guitar Riffs (50-41)

50. Mysterious Ways — U2
49. Glory Days — Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
48. Walk Away — James Gang
47. Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love — Van Halen
46. Takin’ Care of Business — Bachman-Turner Overdrive
45. Red Neck Friend — Jackson Browne
44. Alive — Pearl Jam
43. The Boys Are Back in Town — Thin Lizzy
42. American Idiot — Green Day
41. Secret Agent Man — Johnny Rivers

How’d that opening ten, the back of our top 50, hit you? You’re mentally humming some of those to yourself now, right? Weren’t expecting to see a Johnny Rivers appearance, were you? Questions abound, and so do these memorable intros. On to the next block.

Greatest Opening Guitar Riffs (40-31)

40. The Core — Eric Clapton
39. Message In A Bottle — The Police
38. Sweet Child O’ Mine — Guns N’ Roses 
37. Don’t Fear (The Reaper) — Blue Öyster Cult
36. Should I Stay or Should I Go — The Clash
35. Tush — ZZ Top
34. Rebel Rebel — David Bowie
33. Oh Well (Pt. 1) — Fleetwood Mac
32. Do Ya — Electric Light Orchestra
31. Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong — Spin Doctors

There’s just no riff-raff among these phenomenal riffs. I bet a ’90’s Spin Doctors selection is a bit of a shock, but go back and listen to that start. Did we hit any of your favorite picks yet? By the way, if you don’t think you know ‘Oh Well (Pt. 1)’ by the title, oh, well, don’t worry you do (remember, the master playlist awaits you below for future reference – but no sneaking peeks yet, we’ve still got 30 more amazing guitar riff greats to go).

But first a quick diversion. This theme topic brings so many fantastic songs into play, including many that would seem to be sure-things within our list. But, they’re not. Why? Because, what you may have long thought of as a song’s beginning really just isn’t. You’ll recall our first rule from above regarding an opening guitar riff (prior to any other “significant musical activity or interval” having taken place), and then note the following grouping of songs: the top 25 songs whose “opening” guitar riffs might otherwise have qualified them for our list of the greatest 50, except that it’s not actually the opening (Don’t believe it? Have a re-listen sometime, be a stickler, and get back to me). And, sorry, I’m not going to bother to rank them, so here they are alphabetized.

Best Not Actually Opening Riffs (1-25)

  • Back in Black — AC/DC
  • Black Dog — Led Zeppelin
  • Can’t Get Enough — Bad Company
  • Can’t Stop — Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • Carry On My Wayward Son — Kansas
  • Crazy Train — Ozzy Osbourne
  • Enter Sandman — Metallica
  • Funk #49 — James Gang
  • I Feel Fine — The Beatles
  • I Just Want to Celebrate — Rare Earth
  • Iron Man — Black Sabbath
  • La Grange — ZZ Top
  • Long Cool Woman (in a Black Dress) — The Hollies
  • Mississippi Queen — Mountain
  • Money For Nothing — Dire Straits¹
  • More Than A Feeling — Boston
  • Murder Incorporated — Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
  • Purple Haze — Jimi Hendrix
  • Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting) — Elton John
  • Song 2 — Blur
  • Sweet Jane — The Velvet Underground
  • Walk This Way — Aerosmith
  • Vertigo — U2
  • Voodoo Child (Slight Return) — Jimi Hendrix
  • You Shook Me All Night Long — AC/DC

¹the longest delay champ, Mark Knopfler’s famous “opening” riff doesn’t appear for one minute and 36 seconds

So many of those were such tough calls. It pained me to have to leave them out, really it did. Well, truthfully some more than others. Ozzy’s two contributions are iconic but musically rather ugly (come out swinging, metal heads). But my god, ‘Sweet Jane.’ Those few simple chords are about as good as they come. An absolute top 10 contender, if not for that twinkly 15-second interlude that precedes them. Not to mention, for the definitive version on Lou Reed’s live Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal album, the multi-minutes-long unadulterated genius of the “intro” section before those legendary chords ever arrive.

But, we digress.

And fortunately, we’ve got even greater, wholly legitimate guitar riff openings to come. Starting next with these.

Greatest Opening Guitar Riffs (30-21)

30. School’s Out — Alice Cooper
29. Rock & Roll Band — Boston
28. Heart Full of Soul — The Yardbirds
27. Gimme Three Steps — Lynyrd Skynyrd
26. Smells Like Teen Spirit — Nirvana
25. Johnny B. Goode — Chuck Berry
24. Life in the Fast Lane — Eagles
23. Free Ride — The Edgar Winter Group
22. Stay With Me — Faces
21.  Barracuda — Heart

Look at that list of tunes. Anytime you can stack Chuck Berry next to Kurt Cobain, Edgar Winter with Alice Cooper, Yardbirds and Faces…there’s just a lot of damn impressive stuff going on there.

Listen, I’ve done a pretty fair amount of research in preparation for this piece. Multiple weeks, let’s just say. Conservatively. The remarkably sticky, earworm openings of these songs (to say nothing of the scores more that ultimately needed to be excluded) have become mentally ingrained, even more so than what the decades of prior regular listening would have already equated. At this point it’s hard for me to sit still just imagining them playing over and over. I’m, ah…I’m a bit overwrought. We may need another redirection. Let’s try this.

Here’s a quick side-list of 10 more (okay it’s 11, so shoot me). The connection for these being, even if I’m not exactly a huge fan of the band, not as extensively attached to their more widespread catalogs, these songs have some undeniably awesome intro riffs. Again, alphabetized not ranked.

Lesser-Loved Acts, Undeniable Intro Riffs (1-10)

  • Bulls on Parade — Rage Against The Machine
  • Celebrity Skin — Hole
  • God Save The Queen — Sex Pistols²
  • Limelight — Rush
  • No One Knows — Queens of the Stone Age
  • Plush — Stone Temple Pilots
  • Rock You Like A Hurricane — Scorpions
  • Spoonman — Soundgarden
  • Stranglehold — Ted Nugent
  • Supermassive Black Hole — Muse
  • Take It Off — The Donnas

²in fairness they had only one album, though it was momentous

Alright, back to the main list of our Top 50. And we’re nearing the home stretch. Nothing but more classic guitar riff openers await you, one more gripping than the next, and accomplished in mere seconds. Picking back up, then, with #20…

Greatest Opening Guitar Riffs (20-11)

20. Crossroads — Cream
19. Runnin’ Down A Dream — Tom Petty
18. Day Tripper — The Beatles
17. China Grove — The Doobie Brothers
16. Are You Gonna Go My Way — Lenny Kravitz
15. Born To Be Wild — Steppenwolf
14. All Right Now — Free
13. What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? — R.E.M.
12. Up Around The Bend — Creedence Clearwater Revival
11.  Highway To Hell — AC/DC

You had to see some of those coming, yes? But, maybe not certain others. I’d like to think your mind is now just swimming in these glorious six-string starters. And, perhaps for some others of you, you’re instead starting to glower at the screen: how could some of these songs possibly be ranked up this high? What a joke. And worse, how in the name of Les Paul could my personal choice(s) still be nowhere to be found? I mean, there’s only the Top 10 left. It’s madness. Madness, I tell you!

Let’s try to address that latter point, at least in part, with one final bit of rerouting. Recalling our own self-imposed limitation – only one place on the Top 50 list per band³ – that knocked out some real, otherwise obvious keepers. So at a minimum let’s address 20 of them, heavily populated by the work of the four gents (Page/Richards/Young/Fogerty) called-out at the top, but also numerous other notables. Too much pork for just one fork, so we just had to choose another track.

³and yeah, even that leaves some grey area; Clapton is represented within the list by Cream, Derek’s Dominos, and solo…yup, those are considered different

Best Opening Riffs By Bands Already/Elsewhere On List (1-20)

  • AC/DC — Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
  • AC/DC — It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll)
  • The Beatles — Revolution
  • Boston — Smokin’
  • David Bowie — Suffragette City
  • Cream — Sunshine of Your Love
  • Cream — SWLABR
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival — Bad Moon Rising
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival — Green River
  • Green Day — When I Come Around
  • The Kinks — You Really Got Me
  • Lenny Kravitz — Fly Away
  • Led Zeppelin — Custard Pie
  • Led Zeppelin — Houses of the Holy
  • Led Zeppelin — Immigrant Song
  • Led Zeppelin — Whole Lotta Love
  • Rolling Stones — Beast of Burden
  • Rolling Stones — Brown Sugar
  • Rolling Stones — Tumbling Dice
  • The Who — I Can’t Explain

…And no, we’re not even including Start Me Up by The Stones because it’s too damn obvious.

⁴gun to my head, this is probably my all-time personal favorite

*Best Opening Guitar Riff in a TV show theme? Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – I could listen to that sh#t on a loop*

Well, in this feast of extraordinary song beginnings, we’ve made it to the end. The actual Top 10, at last. Contemplated and created using a systematic process of sublime subjectivity. Let’s do it, let’s finally reveal So Much Great Music‘s Ten Greatest Opening Guitar Riffs of all time. A few locks, maybe a few surprises. Can you hear them yet? Here we go.

Greatest Opening Guitar Riffs (10-1)

10. Go All The WayThe Raspberries
9. What Is Life — George Harrison
8. Layla — Derek & The Dominos
7. Smoke On The Water — Deep Purple
6. Aqualung — Jethro Tull
5. American Woman — The Guess Who
4. The Seeker — The Who
3. All Day and All of the Night — The Kinks
2. Heartbreaker — Led Zeppelin
1.  (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction — Rolling Stones

Come on, like there’s really a more perfect and engraved-in-memory opening in rock and roll history than ‘Satisfaction’? Say what you want about any of the other preceding choices, but as far as this being the #1 answer, as Poppie said in Seinfeld, “Now onna this issue there canna be no debate!” I guess the only thing more incredible than this perfectly pristine intro is how it was created. The best known opening riff in rock history came to Keith Richards in his sleep.

“Yeah, that came to me in a dream,” said the inimitable Keef. It was May of 1965, and Richards had a guitar at the foot of his bed and a little Phillips cassette player nearby. “I put a fresh blank tape in, a new one, y’know, just in case. When I woke up the next morning, I just glanced at the tape and (saw) it’s run all the way to the end. And then all of a sudden I realized that my guitar was now in the bed lying next to me. And so out of curiosity I ran the tape back to the beginning, and there it is…’dun, dun, da na nun, da nanna nanna…‘. But I had no recollection of actually doing it.”

And thus was the most iconic opening guitar riff ever (along with about 40 minutes of snoring) captured to history. This, fellow music-lovers, must only be considered a miracle. As well as proof that Keith’s not human (on that, I suppose, ample evidence has long been present). Regardless, thank goodness for Keith somnambulantly hitting the record button on that Phillips cassette player. Somehow. A world without that riff would’ve offered a lot less satisfaction.

*   *   *   *   *

Here’s the full Top 50 Playlist. Obviously, the songs are all there in their entirety. But for this exercise, we’ll understand if you only listen to just the first few seconds of each.

(but by all means open the playlist in the Spotify app so you can hear the beginnings and not the random middle that’s played in preview mode)

***And see the continuation, More Great Opening Guitar Riffs here***