For most beginner guitarists, playing riffs is a daunting exercise. The reason is that riffs sound technical and seem to pack so many notes – especially for fast tempo riffs.
But having a decent number of riffs in your repertoire is golden, as this demonstrates your wealth of knowledge in music standards as a guitar player.
In this piece, I will be showing you how to play some of the most popular, beginner-friendly guitar riffs. These riffs will not only spice up your playing but will help you learn other techniques faster. It will also increase your confidence while adding more fun to your playing sessions.
So, if you’re ready, let’s dive in!
What are Guitar Riffs, and Why Are They Important?
Guitar riffs are simply note sequences or chord progressions played repeatedly using specific rhythm patterns. Playing guitar riffs are not only essential to give structure to a song, but acts as a backup to a singer, a rhythm guitar, or another solo instrument.
Guitar riffs played as intros to songs is often the case and an abundance of brilliant riffs are the reason why so many songs are simply unforgettable.
Most of the riffs covered here are better played using electric guitars, with some requiring guitar effects like distortion, overdrive, and chorus effects, to reproduce the original sound of the riffs. But if all you’ve got is an acoustic guitar with no pedal effects, then it’s still ok to learn the riffs and be able to play it correctly.
Choosing Between Chord Riffs and Note Riffs?
Riffs can either be entirely composed of chords (usually power chords), melodic notes, or a combination of both. As a beginner, you might find it challenging knowing which one to try out first.
Depending on where you are in your learning process, you might find that you’re more comfortable with either chords or scale notes. This reason is why I have divided the riffs in this article based on chord riffs and notes riffs.
Feel free to start with any category you are most comfortable with, but move on to the next group once you’ve perfected a few of the riffs from one class.
Some Easy Note Riffs
You’ll find here some of the most iconic albeit smooth guitar riffs composed entirely of notes. These riffs should help you develop your skills faster, while also boosting your confidence, knowing that awesome guitarists who are revered the world over, played them.
Come as You Are – Nirvana
This grunge-styled song has some unique features that make the sound authentic.
Firstly, you’ll be playing the whole riff on the two thickest string (low E and A strings), which have been tuned down a whole step, to low D and G respectively. Secondly, you’ll need a chorus effect if you want to reproduce the original sound of the riff.
The two-bar riff starts with a three eighth-note fractional pick-up (D, D, and D#) to usher in the first bar in a syncopated fashion, giving the rhythm a bit of flavour.
All you’re playing are the notes D, D#, E, G, A, while alternating between the open, 1st, and 2nd fret positions of the guitar. The notes are eighth notes with a common time signature (4/4). The D, D#, and E notes are played on the 6th string in open position, fret 1, and fret two respectively. The G and A notes are played on the 5th string in open position and on fret two respectively.
You’ll be playing E, G, E, G, E, E, D# for bar 1, and D, A, D, D, A, D, D# for bar 2. See the Tab below.
Guitar Tab Notation For Come As You Are by
How to play Come as You Are riff
Beat It– Michael Jackson featuring Van Halen
This Pop riff is quite straight forward with little to no difficulty with articulations. With a talented Van Halen on the guitar playing for an equally brilliant performer like Michael Jackson, this should be a good riff to score.
This four-bar riff plays best on an electric guitar with distortion effects for a more authentic sound. You’re merely playing the notes G, B, G, E, F# in sequence for the 1st bar and E, D, D, E, for the 2nd bar. Repeat the notes of the 1st bar for the 3rd bar and play notes E, D, for the 4th bar.
The only articulations you’ll encounter is a slide down to note G on the 3rd fret of the 6th string at the beginning of bar 1, and note E on the 2nd fret of the 4th string at the start of bar 2. See Tab notations below
Tab notations for Beat It riff by Michael Jackson
How to play Beat It riff by Michael Jackson
Day Tripper – The Beatles
This rock riff by the Beatles is (in my experience) one of the easiest and awesome note riffs for beginners. A more precise sound will require a distortion effect, but you can play it on both electric and acoustic guitar without losing its effect on audiences.
Based on the E minor pentatonic scale, this riff has 2 bars repeated several times throughout the song. Scoring this will help you master the minor pentatonic scale – which is a plus.
Notes played are on the thickest strings of 6th, 5th, and 4th strings varying from open positions to fret 4.
The 1st bar notes played in the sequence are E, G, G#, B, E, D, while 2nd bar notes are B, F#, B, D, E. See Tab notations below
Tab notations for Day Tripper riff by the Beatles (Self-taken)
How to play Day Tripper riff by the Beatles
Redemption Song – Bob Marley
This reggae song by Bob Marley is a classic and, may re-enact some fond memories for a lot of listeners if you can play this intro riff precisely.
The riff was originally played on an acoustic guitar in the key of G, with a low to medium tempo. All you need is the knowledge of your major scale notes in the key of G, and you can play the notes of this four-bar riff.
The note sequence for the 1st bar is G, A, B, G, while notes C, E, D, B, are played in the 2nd bar. The 3rd and 4th bar notes are G, A, B, D, B, and C, B, A, G, respectively. See the Tab notations and video below.
Tab notations for Redemption Song riff by Bob Marley
How to play Redemption Song riff by Bob Marley
Breaking The Law– Judas Priest
Another easy riff you can start playing almost immediately as a beginner. This Rock riff is based on the minor scale, with an overdrive effect to give it that signature sound typical to rock songs.
The mid-tempo riff has 4 bars repeated twice for the song intro. You’ll be playing notes A, B, C, A, B, in sequence for the 1st bar, C, A, B, C, for bar 2, notes F, G, A, F, G, for the 3rd bar, and A, G, C, B, for bar 4. Repeating the 4 bars one more time completes the intro for the song. See the Tab Notation below.
Tab Notation for Breaking The Law riff by Judas Priest
How to play Breaking The Law riff by Judas Priest
Some Easy Chord Riffs
The chord riffs compiled here mostly make use of power chords and are easy to grab. Like most power chords, they are played on strings 6,5,4 and sometimes on the 3rd string. Consequently, all other strings will have to be muted – or they may begin ringing excessively and muddle up the sound.
So make sure to hold the chord shapes and strum correctly while you mute other strings with your palm.
Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple
Guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore of the British Hard Rock band, Deep Purple, produced one riff that has remained popular over many decades. With straightforward chord shapes and rhythm, this riff is very achievable for a beginner guitarist.
The power chords (D5, F5, G#5, and G5) are played entirely on the 5th and 6th strings while moving through open position to the 6th fret.
A tempo of 120bpm, coupled with an overdrive effect on an electric guitar, will deliver an authentic sound. Check the Tab notation below.
Tab Notation for Smoke on the water riff by Deep Purple
How to play Smoke on the water riff by Deep Purple
Boulevard of Broken Dreams – Green Day
This is a two-bar Rock riff played twice as the intro to this song by Green Day.
The power chords used here are E minor, G5, D5, and A5, all played in sequence, with each played twice using quarter notes at a low to medium tempo. You’ll also be sliding from E minor through to D5, except when moving from D5 to A5, which is a movement up the strings. The beauty of these power chords (or any other type of guitar chord) is that they transpose to any key just by shifting the chord shapes by the number of frets corresponding to the intended key of the transpose. See the video below.
For originality, use an overdrive and tremolo effects on an electric guitar, or any other guitar, so long as you play the chords correctly.
How to play Boulevard of Broken Dreams riff by Green Day
Eye of The Tiger – Survivor
This riff was used and popularized by a boxing movie – Rocky. Ever since then, beginner guitarists have not stopped scoring it simply because of the ease to lay it down on the guitar.
The power chords used in this riff are C5, A#5, G5, G#5, where you play C5 and A#5 on the 5th, 4th, and 3rd strings. G5 and G#5 are fingered on the 6th, 5th, and 4th strings, sliding through the chords when playing them. See Tab notation below.
Tab Notation for Eye of The Tiger riff by Survivor
An overdrive effect is needed to interpret the riff perfectly, and don’t forget to mute other strings which should not ring out.
How to play Eye of The Tiger riff by Survivor
Glory Days – Bruce Springsteen
This riff is probably the easiest of the riffs so far since it uses two power chords only.
The A5 played on 5th, and 4th strings, as well as the D5 power chord played on the 4th and 3rd strings, are the only two chords you need to play for this one here.
The hammer-ons on the 4th fret are the only articulation needed to add to the chords for a perfect riff score. There is also a bit of a syncopated feel with the rhythm, which gives it a unique sound.
The last thing would be an overdrive effect to give that authentic Rock voice. See the video below.
How to play Glory Days riff by Bruce Springsteen
Owner of a Lonely Heart – Yes
This final riff utilizes four power chords played in sequence over four bars as the intro and intermittently throughout the song.
A5, B5, C5, and D5 are all the power chords you need to play this riff, holding down strings 6,5, and 4. The shape stays the same as you slide from A5 through D5 playing at a medium to fast tempo with overdrive for effect.
You’ll need to be careful with the strumming so that you don’t accidentally hit the wrong strings as the tempo is slightly faster. A palm-muted technique is thus required. See the video below.
How to play Owner of a Lonely Heart riff by Yes
Learning guitar riffs is essential to understanding other aspects of music composition and performance like rhythm, harmony, and melody. It also helps you develop your own unique style.
The aim of this piece – which I hope I have achieved, is to spur you to learn this less stressful guitar riffs and move on to more difficult riffs. You may soon begin to turn heads once you’ve learned a handful of riffs. Some people might even think you’re one guitar god of a sort because you can play some of these riffs.
But I hope that you soon begin to compose your riffs after mastering the ones here.