10 Best Hard Rock Guitar Riffs of the ’80s
The ’80s were a golden age for guitar-driven rock and roll. Coming strong off the hard rock scene of the ’70s and bolstered by the emergence of MTV, riff rock has never been as popular as it was thirty years ago. During this golden era, guitars ruled the day. Bands like Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses and Skid Row made the girls scream and the guys shred on their air guitars.
While many people think of the ubiquitous power ballad when reminiscing on this bygone age, another bit of the hard rock puzzle fueled the hard rock machine: the riff. What makes a riff a riff? It’s hard to pin down, but some elements are a must. It has to be heavy. It has to be catchy. And it has to make you want to move. Picking just 10 songs to best represent this section of musical history is no easy task. This is our list of the 10 Best Hard Rock Guitar Riffs of the ’80s.
‘Gimme All Your Lovin’
ZZ Top is the picture-perfect ideal of “Texas cool.” They got their start in the ’70s playing hard-rocking blues licks. Then they hit the ’80s hard with songs that just grooved. The verse riff of ‘Gimme All Your Lovin,’ while simple, makes you want to stomp your foot and bob your head.
‘Shoot to Thrill’
While there is a large population of die-hard AC/DC fans who swear by original singer Bon Scott, Brian Johnson-era AC/DC still deserves a spot on our list of 10 Best Hard Rock Guitar Riffs of the ’80s. ‘Shoot to Thrill’ just screams fast-paced action. This song is almost impossible to ignore, and the riff is one that is undeniable. It even got some attention when it was used in the film ‘Iron Man 2,’ thanks to director Jon Favreau’s love of the band.
If there was a town called Riffville, Motorhead would be the permanent town council, with bandleader Lemmy Kilmister given a lifelong term as the chairman. ‘Iron Fist’ is just as heavy as it sounds. The riff for this song is relentless, and yes, pummels you just like you’d expect. Crank it up. ‘Iron Fist’ will not be denied.
‘Keep Me Coming’
KISS‘ 1982 album ‘Creatures of the Night’ wasn’t considered a big success for the band, even though it spawned some of their heavier songs. Among those was this gem. ‘Keep Me Coming’ is propelled forward by a groove-centric riff that underscores Starchild Paul Stanley‘s less-than-subtle lyrics. It’s grungy, gritty and riff-heavy, just like we like it.
Def Leppard helped kickstart the British invasion of hard rock and metal bands in the ’80s with their debut album, ‘On Through the Night.’ ‘Rocks Off,’ criminally buried on side two, is a shining example of a near-perfect riff. The band would later move away from flamboyant guitar riffs in favor of a poppier sound. But this songs proves they could bust out an awesome riff now and again.
‘Still of the Night’
If you were around during the ’80s, you probably remember Whitesnake for songs like ‘Is This Love?’ and ‘Here I Go Again,’ tracks destined to fill out ‘Hits of the ’80s’ compilations for years to come. But hopefully you also remember ‘Still of the Night.’ It was a brightly-shining moment of hard rock perfection. Every part of this song, from the intro, to the verse, to the chorus, is filled awesome riffing. And the video, featuring rock video goddess Tawny Kitaen, isn’t too shabby either.
‘Here I Am’
Then-youngsters Skid Row barely made it to the ’80s metal scene, releasing their self-titled debut in 1989. With their debut, guitarists Dave ‘Snake’ Sabo and Scotti Hill set a new standard for riffery. Picking just one song from this album for our list of 10 Best Hard Rock Guitar Riffs from the ’80s was difficult, but ‘Here I Am’ won out. This track throws down the riff gauntlet right off the bat, daring you to challenge it.
We’d probably be accused of crimes against humanity if we left Guns N’ Roses off our list of 10 Best Hard Rock Guitar Riffs of the ’80s. ‘You’re Crazy’ defines high-energy and, while Axl Rose commands your attention, it’s the blistering guitar work of Slash and Izzy Stradlin that really drives this song. The opening riff speeds along like a souped-up Plymouth Duster squealing through the turns of Mulholland Drive.
What can we say about the single that made the world first take notice of Motley Crue? ‘Live Wire’ could be seen as the Crue’s mission statement. It’s fast, energetic, and it was the perfect single to come off of an album called ‘Too Fast for Love.’ No matter what era this came from, ‘Live Wire’ would rock in any period.
While the origins of the hard rock riff are clouded in a fog of smoke and bell bottoms, its history couldn’t be written without several chapters dedicated to Van Halen. While Eddie Van Halen may not have invented the riff, he certainly helped perfect it. ‘Mean Street’ didn’t climb up the charts like ‘Jump’ or ‘Hot for Teacher,’ but the squealing opening notes make it stand out among the Van Halen library and come out in the No. 1 spot on our list of the 10 Best Hard Rock Guitar Riffs of the ’80s.