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“Dolby’s Top 10 Guitar Riffs of All Time”

10 Led Zeppelin – “How Many More Times”

With this tune that closes Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut, part of the essence of this list is poised to value a riff’s overall function, like how spiritedly it’s embraced by the song itself. In this case, Page repeats this thing on pretty much the whole bumpy ride, and even lunges back to it with wolverine fervor following the middle tempo foray and drum lead-in. The results make for one of Zeppelin’s most scintillating moments of their career.

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9 Nirvana – “Mr. Moustache”

Early on, Kurt Cobain would complain that it was hard to sing and play guitar at the same time. Of course, this comes off as a sort of hilariously juvenile and plaintive bit of bit**ing (to which Cobain was certainly capable of succumbing, in general), but listening to “Mr. Moustache,” a blistering firebrand of grunge rock like the Melvins on coffee and a lot of Atari, you can begin to honor such a complaint, or at least justify its presence, to more of an extent.

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8 The Jimi Hendrix Experience – “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”

Likely the first guitar riff ever recorded for commercial purposes to feature the wah-wah pedal, the “Voodoo Child” run certainly isn’t hindered by the presence of this wonderful device (which was likewise propagated by Hendrix on “Up from the Skies,” only not on an actual riff). It’s the way, though, that the riff has of climbing and descending, as if scaling a “mountain,” a lyrical theme, that helps cement it in the pantheon, as well. 

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7 T. Rex – “Bang a Gong (Get it on)”

I can’t say enough about this song and what it did, in 1971, for classic rock as a whole. You won’t find too many more egregious cases of plagiarism than the following year and The Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress,” which totally mimics not only the opening riff to “Bang a Gong” but even the “get it on” lyrical theme, unthinkably enough. It’s a classic case, anyway, of the British just doing classic rock better, and one particular thing I love about the riff itself in “Bang a Gong” is the cool way it has of morphing from a chordal cluster to a set of single notes, and back, like a shell to a mollusk and then into a shell.

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6 My Morning Jacket – “Lay Low”

Now I do have a spiel on Z and really it might not be alone in this company but it’s how, despite the fact that MMJ keeps putting out music that’s so mind-bogglingly loathsome and uninspired, Z has a way of sounding better and better every year, to counterbalance that, and allow MMJ to sustain their stature as a great band. “Lay Low” might be the best song on the album; it’s debatable but one thing I like about it, along with the clever, bounding and frolicking riff, is the way the song has of staking its claim as within a rock album by just devolving into the second half into an almost guitar-only thesis, allowing Jim James to amass enough anatomical axe firepower that you KNOW it’s his song, on guitar, at its core.

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5 Steve Gunn – “New Familiar”

For an artsy NYU dude, this stuff is pretty danged inspired and clear. Then, Gunn was apparently taken to going out into more pastoral settings to do his writing, and sure enough, this tune, the undeniable centerpiece on The Unseen in Between (a tribute album to his newly deceased father), like Fleet Foxes, has the undeniable penchant for conjuring up wide-open spaces, like mountains, horizons and expanses. My favorite thing about it, though, is the way that it’s built on guitar, but then the solo comes around and upstages the sublime introductory riff, even, expanding it in structure well like “Lay Low” and positioning Steve Gunn as a sort of masquerading, clearer-sounding Neil Young, of sorts.

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4 Third Eye Blind – “God of Wine”

For all the eye-rolls I’m bound to get for throwing Third Eye Blind here (you can probably tell when I went to eighth grade, if you think hard enough), I’m sure to double them for positioning Kevin Cadogan, the band’s original guitarist who got kicked out of the band for not agreeing to sign a contract to record a bogus EP, in what turned out to be a bogus band, as the third-best guitarist of the ’90s. I mean, sure, it really wasn’t a decade of guitar virtuosity, and neither was Kadogan a virtuoso, really, aside from the objective of just infusing the music with textural dynamics and memorable, gorgeous guitar runs, like this one that caps off their self-titled debut and hits this ultra-trippy octave, in its innards.

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3 Muddy Waters – “I Feel Like Going Home”

Even one slot ahead of Hendrix, Muddy Waters would probably get my claim for best guitarist of all time, and part of it is the way he plays these awesome riffs and even bends the notes perfectly, on songs like this. He’s playing electric but the music has the intimacy and hearty wholesomeness of folk, as, on this early stuff, his only accompaniment was usually his guitar, voice and harmonica, and maybe some really restrained drumming in the background.

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2 Eat Fire Spring – “One Horse Town”

You know, I can’t even remember the “one horse town” in Massachusetts this band hails from, but I’ll never forget this riff, which lasts pretty much the whole song and lords over the emo transcendence issuing with primordial authority. This is piercingly beautiful music, as an aside, made for longing for innocence on a crisp, cloudy fall day, or soundtracking every day of my junior year in high school, had it been out back then, of course. 

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1 Big Head Todd and the Monsters – “Please Don’t Tell Her”

“Career-defining statement” probably isn’t too lofty of a goal for “Please Don’t Tell Her,” which spawns from the band’s ’97 album Beautiful World, their fifth LP in total, according to Wikipedia. Actually, I’m not really sure how I got wind of this song, since it was never released as a single: my dad must have heard it on WXRT and dubbed it to a tape he played in his car. Yeah, I had THAT dad. But for a song to be this organic, built from the ground up on a simple but spirited guitar run, and to bubble up into something that’s so fun, entertaining and repeatedly gratifying to consume, is a rare sort of accomplishment, indeed. 

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