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10 Best Hard Rock Riffs of the ’90s

Andrew Burton, Kevin Winter, and Kevork Djansezian; Getty Images

The ’90s were a confusing period in musical history. Hair metal was on its way out, but it hadn’t quite died yet. Grunge and “alternative” rock were just finding their way into the mainstream. According to noise rock pioneers Sonic Youth, 1991 was the year punk finally broke through. Many artists and bands that emerged during the ’90s straddled genres or just created their own.

While all of this may have been hard to suss out, we the fans became the beneficiaries of a rich musical treasure. Included in this musical abundance was a trove of hard rock riffs the likes of which hadn’t been heard before.

A lot of bands making music the ’90s didn’t seem interested in sticking to a wheelhouse. The hard rock riff, invented in the ’60s and refined throughout the ’70s and ’80s, went through a whole new level of evolution in the ’90s. Our quest for the best has taken us to some interesting places. As such, we are happy to present our list of the 10 Best Hard Rock Riffs of the ’90s.


WhiteZombie-AstroCreep2000
10

'More Human Than Human'

White Zombie
 
 

White Zombie helped shape the sound of hard rock in the '90s, adding groove-driven drums to heavy riffs. 'More Human Than Human' exploded when it was released in 1995. The slide guitar riff in this song is instantly recognizable to anyone who watched MTV when it came out. It's a perfect track to kick off our list of the 10 Best Hard Rock Riffs of the '90s.

 
Filter_shortbus
9

'Dose'

Filter
 
 

Filter capitalized on the new industrial tones that began seeping into music after Nine Inch Nails hit the scene. 'Dose' was the second single from their debut album, 'Short Bus.' While it wasn't as big a hit as 'Hey Man, Nice Shot,' all of the riffs in this track flow smoothly from one to the next. This song is a dense wall of focused, angry sonic energy.

 
Helmet-Betty
8

'Wilma's Rainbow'

Helmet
 
 

Helmet was one of those '90s bands that was hard to pin down, and 'Betty' only made that task more difficult. Page Hamilton's riffs move from staccato to grating, and John Stanier's unique drumming style really pushes this track over the edge.

 
RageAgainsttheMachineRageAgainsttheMachine
7

'Take the Power Back'

Rage Against the Machine
 
 

It would be unforgivable to make a list of the 10 Best Hard Rock Riffs of the '90s without including Rage Against The Machine. While folks seem to think first of Tom Morello's wild experimentation with new guitar sounds, let us not forget that he was also a true master of the riff. From the simple yet commanding verse riff to the raw, heavily grating chorus, 'Take the Power Back' is sweet all the way through.

 
Clutch_-_The_Elephant_Riders
6

'The Soapmakers'

Clutch
 
 

One defining aspect of '90s hard rock was the groove. Bands started playing heavy songs over swinging beats. Clutch are one of the best at swinging and rocking at the same time. The guitar line for this song gets in your head and does some funny stuff to your brain while you're hypnotized by the kick and snare drums. All this serves as the perfect bedrock for the tale of some strange events occurring behind a cliffside inn.

 
Stonetemplepilotscore
5

'Dead and Bloated'

Stone Temple Pilots
 
 

Stone Temple Pilots came out of the hard rock gate swinging with their debut album, 'Core.' The riff for 'Dead and Bloated' can best be described as elegant. It's huge and raunchy, but still classy. Guitarist Dean DeLeo's tone makes this song larger than life, blending layers upon layers of guitars on top of one another. This one must be played loudly -- very loudly.

 
skid-row-slave-to-the-grind1
4

'Mudkicker'

Skid Row
 
 

Skid Row got lumped in with the hair metal movement, which was in its death throes when they showed up. Their second album, 'Slave to the Grind,' was overall heavier than anything the hair metal trend had to offer, and many of the tracks would fit in well on our list of the 10 Best Hard Rock Riffs of the '90s. 'Mudkicker' is one of the heaviest songs to come out in 1991. The guitars drag your head through the mud during the verse, then give you a kick with the chorus.

 
AIC Dirt
3

'Dam That River'

Alice in Chains
 
 

While people may not have noticed immediately, Alice In Chain's sophomore effort, 'Dirt,' changed hard rock and metal drastically. Many of today's bands sound like the members all wore out a few copies of 'Dirt' and 'Dam That River' helped bridge the gap between metal and grunge. While the song's slick production and shredding solos seem to eschew the punk ethos, the raw emotion and monster guitar sound doesn't fit in with the hair metal scene at all.

 
Soundgarden-Badmotorfinger
2

'Jesus Christ Pose'

Soundgarden
 
 

Many different images come to mind when listening to Soundgarden's 'Jesus Christ Pose,' most of them involving a machine gun of some sort. This song is brutal. Kim Thayil said it pretty well: "The song's groove reminds me of helicopter blades." Matt Cameron may have summed it up best though: "The approach we took on this one was pure assault of the senses."

 
NirvanaNevermindalbumcover
1

'Breed'

Nirvana
 
 

Many people credit Nirvana's 'Nevermind' with giving the axe to hair metal once and for all. But while Kurt Cobain was influenced by many noise and punk bands, it's still clear that he listened to his fair share of hard rock, too. 'Breed' is a sprint; the relentless tempo never lets up. And Krist Novoselic's fuzzed-out bass propels the song while the guitar rips through your speakers. It's no wonder Nirvana's 'Breed' tops our 10 Best Hard Rock Riffs of the '90s list.

 

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