Welcome to Riff Of The Decade, a new series from Guitar.com. We’re on a mission to find the best guitar riff of every decade – and we need you to vote for your favourite.
To kick things off: we’re getting contemporary. The 2020s might have only been going for two years, but they’ve given us countless excellent guitar riffs. Check out our shortlist below, and vote in the form at the end of this article – voting closes on 2 June.
If you need to ruminate on the riffs, why not head over to Guitar.com’s Spotify page and give the shortlist a spin? We’ve turned it into a playlist, so you can check it out right away. It can be found below, or here.
Black Midi – John L
Black Midi have a strange ability to create riffs that are simultaneously intricate, virtuosic, utterly chaotic and catchy. The opener from 2021’s Cavalcade, John L, ramps this up to 11 with the help of some horns, and a spiralling, hypnotic riff that we guarantee will be stuck in your head for days.
Mdou Moctar – Chismiten
Mdou Moctar’s first record on Matador saw the Tuareg guitarist take his expressive and unique guitar approach to the next level. The whole album is a showcase of brilliant guitar playing, but Chismiten shows just how good he is at taking a cocktail of Hendrix, Van Halen and traditional Tuareg guitar music and using it to dissolve the boundaries between rhythm and lead playing.
Amyl And The Sniffers – Hertz
Amyl And The Sniffers continue Australia’s proud tradition of making driving, jangly guitar music, with Comfort To Me being one of the best punk records of last year. The main riff to Hertz is a highlight, a song so driving it’ll make you want to kick a door off its hinges, hijack the nearest convertible and careen into the sea. We still need you to vote in this poll, so please resist the urge.
Gojira – Sphinx
French metallers Gojira have always had a knack for a grimace-inducing guitar riff. In 2021 with an album that harkened back to each of their discrete eras – but Sphinx makes its way onto this list by virtue of being the most overall Gojira-y riff on Fortitude, one that sounds like it could be at home on any of their records. This is, of course, thanks in part to their ever-welcome signature pick-scrape.
Loathe – Gored
Yes, driving up the price of used Squier baritones wasn’t the only thing Loathe were up to over the last couple of years – they were also using their own to create a heady blend of shoegaze, metalcore and Deftones-inspired alt-metal. While I Let It In And It Took Everything has its moments of pure beauty, Gored is a masterclass in brutality – the hilariously-low tuning is used like a hammer to smash your ears apart, all to an unrelenting jackhammer rhythm. (For the non-metal fans reading this, that’s a good thing).
Deftones – Urantia
Speaking of Deftones: Deftones! 2020’s Ohms has absolutely no shortage of excellent riffs, but the intoxicating gallop of Urantia makes the shortlist due to just how groovy and tight it is, and how well the song as a whole uses its riff. It’s spaced out so perfectly that by the time you’re hankering for some chugging, the main riff gallops back into frame.
Wet Leg – Angelica
This is another one of those riffs that we have to apologise for in advance as it’s going to be stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Locked straight in with the vocals and the driving drums and bass, its sticking power is bolstered by just how weird it sounds. Truly an excellent riff.
Black Country, New Road – Athens, France
Emerging from the same offbeat London scene as Black Midi, Black Country, New Road meld disparate corners of alt-rock to create something new entirely. The main riff to Athens, France is a good summation of their sideways approach to genre – starting as one thing, becoming something else entirely by the end of the song without ever losing its own discrete identity.
Jack White – Taking Me Back
Jack White’s not done releasing solo albums in 2022 just yet, but that’s not stopping us from declaring Taking Me Back as one of his best riffs yet. Simple, fuzzed out, bluesy, weird – it’s everything that makes for a good Jack White Riff.
Rina Sawayama – XS
XS might prove to be a prophetic song for the guitar’s place in pop music across the 2020s, with a metal riff blasting down the doors of what’s otherwise a mid-2000s-esque dance-pop banger. Metal, riffs and killer guitar solos have all become another string to the bow of hyperpop, and we owe a thanks for that (in part) to these six power chords.
Animals As Leaders – Monomyth
Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes can still boggle minds with their skills, but Monomyth demonstrates just why Animals As Leaders gained their status as the de-facto djent virtuosos. It’s such a tightly-composed song that never feels excessive, using the thundering sounds of metal to evoke something far more primitive.
Orville Peck – C’mon Baby Cry
Orville Peck clearly has a great ear for a catchy guitar line, one that reframes classic country guitar playing to fit into his cinematic, emotional take on the genre. And boy is it emotional – Guitar.com bears no responsibility for any actual crying induced by the above.
The Strokes – The Adults Are Talking
Driving, catchy, slightly weird, The Adults Are Talking is absolutely a guitar standout from the Strokes’ return in 2021. As production has tended towards the more bombastic recently, it’s refreshing to hear something so dry, in a way: the guitar parts feel like they’re playing through tiny amps in your ear canals.
Måneskin – I Wanna Be Your Slave
Måneskin deservedly swept the floor (but not the table, those allegations were false) in the 2021 Eurovision competition, and proceeded to explode and revitalise rock music’s presence in the charts. I Wanna Be Your Slave is a fantastic showcase of their modern update on sleazy glam rock, with a simple-yet-perfect guitar riff.
The Abysmal Eye – Meshuggah
A guitar riff doesn’t need to be written in a labyrinthian time signature to be good, but sometimes it helps. Human metronomes Meshuggah returned in 2022 with a devastatingly heavy album, with The Abysmal Eye being our riff highlight for wasting absolutely no time in getting into a heavy groove and inducing a severe case of ‘breakdown face’ in 99% of those surveyed.
Dry Cleaning – Her Hippo
Post-punk guitar is alive and well, and there seems to be no limit to what musicians are able to conjure from the form. Dry Cleaning’s music makes you feel like you’re in the end credits of an overlooked British indie movie from 2008, with the appeal of their spiky, reverb and chorus-soaked guitar lines summed up in the brilliant and weird Her Hippo.
Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard – New Age Millennial Magic
Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard seem to have stepped out of an alternative 2020s, one that’s set in the 1970s – their groovy pop rock evokes The Beatles, Queen and Bowie without sounding derivative, and the guitar playing and tones both have a brilliantly fuzzy edge to them, all helped by production that likely could have been achieved on an old-school tape machine.
Covet – Atreyu
Covet are arguably the best torchbearers for modern math rock out there, with Yvette Young drawing a delicate balance between technicality and melodicism. Atreyu is a stellar example of the appeal of this genre – after a million listens you’ll still be hearing new detail in the playing.
Mammoth WVH – You’re To Blame
Wolfgang Van Halen didn’t exactly have a low bar to clear when it came to expectations, but he absolutely knocked it out of the park with his debut solo record as Mammoth WVH. His role as a bass player for a long time – including in Tremonti – clearly informs his guitar playing, with a heavy, rhythmic sensibility when it comes to riffs. You’re To Blame is a headbanging inducing slab of good old-fashioned rock with an absolutely stonking riff on it.
The War On Drugs – Change
Need to feel alive again? Hit 70 mph on a lonely motorway on a warm summer evening with The War On Drugs’ Change blasting from your speakers, and feel the strangely warm melancholic nostalgia wash over you well before the first vocal line hits.
Wolf Alice – Smile
Smile’s spiralling, hypnotic and heavy riff is why Wolf Alice should be one of your go-to’s in case of a category four “rock is dead debate” incident.
Black Keys – Happiness
Swampy, sleazy blues guitar may not be all over the charts but that doesn’t mean it’s not being driven forward. The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach knows how to make the age-old formula captivating with some nifty playing – and just listen to that guitar tone. Bliss.
Greta van Fleet – My Way, Soon
Speaking of swampy blues riffs – Greta Van Fleet also have one heck of a knack for them. My Way, Soon is a standout moment from 2021’s The Battle at Garden’s Gate, with an ascending, hopeful feeling to it that evokes the most romantic aspect of the 1970s.
beabadoobee – Last Day On Earth
The 30-year nostalgia cycle means the 2020s are technically the 1990s version 2.0. One of the many ambassadors for a second 90s is beabadoobee, who seems to have no shortage of jangle-pop riffs catchy enough to get you to replace your smartphone with a GameBoy, dust off some JNCO jeans and start starving a Tamagotchi to death.
Nova Twins – Devil’s Face
Nova Twins riffs, conjured from gargantuan pedalboards and delivered with a punky aggression, are notoriously hard to put a label on. A genre label, that is – we have no qualms labelling the riff to Devil’s Face as “really, really good.”
Shame – Born In Luton
Here we have the discordant, aggressive side of the British post-punk scene out in full force. Never has a discordant chord shredded apart by fuzz been so perfectly tremolo-picked midway through a bar.
Fontaines D.C. – Televised Mind
It’s not just Britain that’s seeing a post pink revolution right now. Other members of the British Isles are getting in on the trend too! The riff to Televised Mind from Irish band Fontaines D.C. might be one of the spookiest post-punk riffs of the decade, with an eerie chord progression giving this driving, forceful track a weird, intriguing edge.
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