Playing the guitar is one of the best, most rewarding hobbies you can enjoy. Once you start strumming, you can quickly lose hours with the thousands of different chord progressions, melodies, and licks you can play.
And what better way to master the skill of the guitar than to start with the best guitar riffs for beginners? Not only are riffs fun to play, but they also are great to expand your skill set, while also sounding professional without having to put in decades worth of practice.
What Is a Guitar Riff?
While most people think that a riff is just a series of notes, a guitar riff can be simpler guitar chords, too. Really, a guitar riff is any short music idea or theme that is repeated throughout the song. It can be the main hook, or it may only be played once. However, no matter how many times the riff is played, it typically is a very memorable piece to the song.
For example, most people recognize Deep Purple’s riff as the main element to the song, and as a result, it helps the song gain instant recognizability. A riff can also be played on the lower strings as more of the rhythm, or it can take the lead guitar part and be played up higher on the guitar neck.
Another defining feature of a riff is that an entire song is often constructed around one riff. It acts as the centerpiece and the anchor of the whole song. Typically the riff serves as a jumping-off point for designing the rest of the song.
Some people can get confused about what the difference is between a guitar riff and a guitar lick. Since some players use the terms interchangeably, it’s easy to get confused. For the most part, if the riff is used repeatedly throughout the song or is a main idea to the song, then that is a guitar riff. On the other hand, if the melody is used only once, that tends to be more of a guitar lick or guitar solo.
Another way to tell them apart is that guitar riffs can stand alone and still sound complete. If the guitar lick is played alone, it sounds out of place and feels like it’s missing a piece.
Now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, here are 15 easy guitar riffs any beginner guitar player can learn. Rock on!
1. Take on Me (By A-ha)
Who says easy guitar riffs have to be from a classic rock song? Take on Me by the band A-ha took the world by storm.
Surprisingly, this song was released three times previously and bombed each time. It wasn’t until the fourth and final version was released that Take on Me gained incredible popularity.
When the fourth version was released in 1985, Take on Me stole the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Additionally, MTV bestowed 11 Video Music Awards nominations on the song, of which it won eight.
But this riff is excellent to learn for other reasons besides its simplicity. The base chord progression found in Take on Me is also a common base in other popular guitar songs. Take on Me is a great entry point to guitar playing because it not only keeps your fingers around the same frets, but it also stretches out your fingers to help you gain new muscles and helps you pave a path towards developing new skills.
To learn Take on Me with guitar tabs, check out this helpful tool to get you strumming this hit pop song in no time.
2. Billie Jean (By Michael Jackson)
Another gem from the 1980s, Billie Jean is one of those songs that once you get it stuck in your head, you just can’t get it out until you pick up your guitar and strum it out.
Released in 1982, Billie Jean sent shockwaves that rippled through American music. It racked up a significant amount of awards for Michael Jackson, including two Grammy’s, one Juno award, and one American Music Award for Favorite Pop/Rock song.
And the beat is incredibly infectious. Once you start rocking out this riff, you and everyone in ear-shot will be dancing the night away.
But Billie Jean is a great song to play for another reason, too. Most of the riff is played on the last three strings and on only the first two frets. That’s great because it’s easy to memorize and easy for newer guitar fingers that don’t have as much finger strength; beginners can still keep up and groove right along.
Once you nail the first part to the riff, there’s a second part where you have to put your fingers over multiple strings, which helps diversify your skillset and significantly improve your finger strength in playing the guitar.
For complete instruction on how to play the Billie Jean guitar riff by Michael Jackson, click here for both tab and traditional sheet music.
3. Come As You Are (By Nirvana)
Kurt Cobain reveals a much more sensitive side in his hit song Come As You Are from the early 1990s. Simple, melodic, and instantly recognizable, this beautiful melody and rhythm is a perfect way to start your guitar learning journey. You’ll be able to impress friends and relatives with this instantly recognizable, elegant guitar riff.
The song begins with the riff itself, which is played on the 6th string. Because the riff alternates between just two strings and a few frets, it’s easy enough to master quickly. Easy riffs like these are wonderful when you’re just starting with the guitar, as they help improve your skills and also help to improve your confidence.
Not only that, but it is also easy to memorize, and once you get good at it, the flow gets easier and easier to nail.
Have a blast learning this excellent riff! Check out further instructions here.
4. Smoke on the Water (By Deep Purple)
Smoke on the Water is one of those quintessential rock songs on guitar that truly embodies the feeling, the sound, and the atmosphere of classic rock. It also happens to have an insanely easy and playable riff that virtually anyone can learn to play on the guitar, even if they have next to no experience. This is why this song is one of the first songs most players learn how to play.
But Smoke on the Water it’s a great song to learn for other reasons, too. It allows you to freely move between the 0 and the 6th fret, which builds your muscles more so than other riffs as many beginner riffs don’t go beyond the 4th fret.
Another great skill that comes with this song? Smoke on the Water teaches you how to bar over multiple strings, which is extremely common in most guitar songs and is an invaluable skill that you must learn how to do early if you plan on progressing far with the guitar.
Most people starting on this song can get frustrated quickly, though, because they can’t figure out how to make the riff get that twangy sound that’s so essential with the original. To get that sharp, rough sound, you need to ditch your pick and strum directly with your fingers by plucking the strings.
While this may cause a bit of discomfort at first, when you play the song with a pick, the sound becomes a little too smooth and polished. If you want to fully encapsulate the rough and tumble tone and essence of Smoke on the Water, you need to push through the pain, as plucking with your fingers is the way to go.
You can also add distortion, but be careful not to overdo it. If you add too much gain, you not only sound inexperienced and new, but it will also be pretty hard to decipher the sound at all. This will defeat the whole purpose of playing a song, because even if you nail the notes and the riff itself, it still will sound like a jumbled mess.
5. Brown Eyed Girl (By Van Morrison)
Van Morrison’s classic song, Brown Eyed Girl, is a delightful song with an easy guitar riff that earned Morrison worldwide acclaim and praise.
Once you master the Brown Eyed Girl riff, you’ll be the biggest hit at any party. Catchy and memorable, everyone loves and recognizes Brown Eyed Girl, and because of this it is a fun riff to play.
Plus, it’s a great riff that helps you flex your memory. Because of its simple notes, this riff is great for beginners because it’s straightforward to remember it.
The Brown Eyed Girl riff also utilizes third intervals on the main riff, which is an incredibly popular harmonic for the guitar but in all music in general. That means that once you nail this riff, you’ll be familiar with a harmony structure that is present across all different types of music. Think of this song as your gateway into popular harmony.
For more information on how to play this delightful, upbeat riff, check out the tab instructions here.
6. Iron Man (By Black Sabbath)
True metal rockers to their core, Black Sabbath is one of those distinct bands that only comes around once a lifetime. Their hardcore riff from Iron Man is loved by even music fans who aren’t especially keen on heavy metal.
They even won a Grammy award for best metal performance. All in all, the Iron Man song comes with all the bells and whistles. From the iconic low wailing before the music starts to the intense riff, this is an instantly recognizable song that every metal lover cherishes.
The song was released in 1970 on Sabbath’s album Paranoid. A little fun history: it has nothing to do with Iron Man, the comic, as most people assume. The band hadn’t even heard of the Marvel character until the song became popular.
Instead, the song is supposed to be more sci-fi. According to an interview, the band said: “I can’t exactly recall what Ozzy said, but it was something like: ‘Why don’t we do a song called Iron Man, or maybe Iron Bloke’. That got me thinking about a lump of metal and then putting it all into a science-fiction context. It all flowed from there.”
The main riff is played on the two lowest strings: a and e. But this is a fun riff to play because it moves up to the 17th fret, so you get a dynamic and broad range of different notes to play in various areas of the guitar neck. Because it moves around so much, this riff helps beginner guitar players get comfortable with different frets fast. Plus, it sounds really cool.
Before this riff kicks in, Iommi bends behind the note to allow his guitar to scream before kicking off the main riff. To make your riff sound as authentic as possible, make sure to bend the E string before playing.
7. You Really Got Me (By The Kinks)
This simple song by The Kinks is a great song to learn on the guitar as it’s so straightforward that even the newest guitar players can learn this riff quickly. Additionally, it’s great to practice power chords, which are essential to learning how to play the guitar.
The verses are played mainly on the lowest three strings. Still, the riff actually breaks out into the middle and higher strings and works its way down to the 6th fret, which gives you a lot of room to play with. Plus, you get a great sense of a lot of different areas on the guitar, so your fingers get used to moving up and down the neck.
It’s important to know that when The Kinks recorded the song, they raised the pitch slightly. What does this mean for you? The version you’ve probably grown up listening to has a higher-sounding pitch than possible to create when playing normally. So if you can’t nail down the sound exactly, don’t worry about it. You’re not doing anything wrong.
For the complete guitar tab, check it out here.
8. Sunshine of Your Love (By Cream)
Cream’s classic psychedelic rocker Sunshine of Your Love is a cherished song adored by many musicians throughout the years. And it’s easy to see why. It’s fun to play, it’s catchy, and it’s fun to belt out and sing along to.
This is a great riff to learn on the guitar because the whole song originated and stemmed from the guitar riff that bass guitarist Jack Bruce had created after feeling inspired by attending a Jimi Hendrix concert. What better way to celebrate not only Cream, but Hendrix too than by learning the guitar riff that honors them both?
It’s also a straightforward song to learn on the guitar that can drastically improve and hone your skills. The song is sort of all over the place in terms of placement on the neck. It bounces around from the 5th fret to the 3rd fret to the 12th fret to the 10th fret and makes use of all six strings.
Because of this, Sunshine of Your Love has one of the more difficult riffs on this list to master. You may want to save this riff until you’ve nailed the other riffs listed out. However, if you’re feeling adventurous, jump in now to gain major skills.
Here are the tab instructions.
9. In My Place (By Coldplay)
Something on this list is not like the others: and that is the alternative rock band Coldplay, which burst into the music scene in the early 2000s. Even though the band was technically formed in 1996, these English rockers didn’t gain popularity until 2000 with their hit song “Yellow.”
As with all Coldplay songs, In My Place is a more mellow song and has a little more melancholy attached to its riff. In My Place is an excellent piece that can stretch your skillset as this basic riff is played on some higher strings, which can help you adjust to a totally new area on the fretboard.
The finger placement with this song is also a great way to strengthen your muscles. When you play on the 12th fret, try to press your fingers down to let the notes ring out as you pluck the different strings.
When you listen to In My Place, you’ll notice it’s much more mellow. That means you may want to do away with any distortion or gain on your amp. Use a clean tone with your neck or middle pickups to produce a more mellow sound.
This riff may be tough for beginners because it really makes you stretch your fingers. It also requires you to move repetitively between two positions. However, it’s great to diversify your skills. For a complete guide, check out this tab.
10. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (By The Rolling Stones)
Like all great rock songs, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction has an amazing origin story, and that is that Keith Richards dreamed it in his sleep! Thank God he did: the song propelled the Stones into the spotlight and earned them their first number-one single in America in June of 1965. You know what that means? Next time you find yourself stumped on a song: take a nap.
This is a great riff to learn as it’s insanely simple. In fact, the whole riff only uses three notes on the same string. But the riff is also great because it makes you use your first and third finger, along with your fourth, which typically start out weaker than your other fingers. This is significant as this helps build your strength, something newer guitar players struggle with as they don’t use that finger as much.
To make the song sound more authentic, you will need a fuzz distortion pedal. An overdrive or distortion pedal can serve as a substitute if you don’t have one and are just in a pinch, but it would probably be best to take the extra step and invest in a fuzz pedal.
For complete instructions, check out this tab.
11. Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix
Because he’s named the guitar god, it’s no surprise that many of the songs and guitar riffs that Jimi Hendrix created take quite a bit of advanced skill set to master. This can be frustrating for newer guitar players, because while the riffs are really fun to play, most of them are very hard to master.
However, one exception is the famous song Purple Haze. Once you learn basic techniques like playing slide guitar, even the greenest guitar players can rule this guitar riff. It’s also nice because this song is in standard tuning, which is not the case with most Jimi Hendrix songs (many of his other songs are tuned a half-step down).
As you can see from the tab instructions, this is still a bit more complicated than some of the other riffs on this list. It makes use of most of the strings on the guitar and bounces around anywhere from the 3rd fret to the 12th fret. Believe it or not, this is one of the more straightforward Hendrix riffs around.
The guitar solo is especially fun to play as it moves up to the 18th fret. While higher-up frets are harder to play (since there’s less room in each fret the higher up you move), once you nail the sound on these higher-up frets, it sounds amazing, and it’s really fun to play. Even if this riff is a bit challenging for some, it’s well worth it in the end once you master it!
12. Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love (Van Halen)
Van Halen released this hard rock song in the late 1970s and it has been a killer guitar riff ever since. It’s a dynamic riff that expertly exemplifies Van Halen’s hard rock and roll style. But it’s also a great riff to learn for new guitar players because it teaches you how to master guitar techniques such as accents and palm muting.
While most of the song takes place on the second and third fret, Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love makes use of each string so that you get a full experience with all of the strings on the guitar.
But the riff and guitar solo go up all the way to the 17th fret along with hanging out around the 12th, 13th, and 15th. Not only do you get an opportunity to understand accents in palm mutings, but playing around with these many strings and threads helps you improve your guitar playing skills even more.
For these reasons, Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love is an excellent riff for any beginner guitar player to learn.
Check out the tab here.
Next: Top Van Halen songs ever
13. Breaking the Law (Judas Priest)
Interested in mastering hardcore metal riffs that epitomizes what it means to be a rock player? Then you need to check out Breaking the Law by Judas Priest.
Released in 1980, this song is a progenitor of 80s heavy metal along with Iron Maiden, before Metallica would later dominate the scene in modern music. And it’s just a killer rock song. Not only is it a fun riff to play, but it’s actually one of Judas Priests’ most well-known songs, thanks mostly due to the opening guitar riff itself. All the more reason to learn this guitar riff and impress all of your metalhead friends!
To play this opening guitar riff, you’re mainly using the two lowest strings (A and E) and hanging out on the 1st and 3rd frets. This is a simple, easy riff to master, and once you get it nailed down, is so much fun to play.
Check it out here!
14. Chasing Cars (By Snow Patrol)
Chasing Cars is one of those instantly recognizable, beautiful melodies that can transport you to the spot you were when you first discovered this lovely song. The song has been featured in countless TV episodes since its release in 2006 and drummed up an incredible fan base for Snow Patrol.
This sweet love song is as straightforward as it is beautiful. There is no hidden meaning or darker symbolism floating around within the subtext of the lyrics, as is common with many of their other songs. Chasing Cars is a love song about being in love, and that’s about it. It was also written after a band member recently became sober after a Bender on white wine.
If you need help mastering rhythm guitar and picking, this is the one of the best guitar riffs for beginners. It’s extremely simple: alternate between 7th fret D string and 9th fret G string. But it’s the alternate picking and rhythm that trips most guitar players up. If you struggle with rhythm, picking, and timing, practice this riff a few times a day to help strengthen your skills immensely.
15. (Sittn’ On) The Dock of the Bay (By Otis Redding)
(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay is a fun, poppy soul song that was released in 1968 and stuck! As popular as it was the day it was released, this soulful song is instantly recognizable and has a great riff to play for new guitar players.
Somewhat tragically, this song was recorded mere days prior to Redding’s untimely death from a plane crash. Yet the tragedy doesn’t stop there: despite its poppy, upbeat melody, the song actually chronicles a sad, depressed man trudging through the monotony of life.
You would never know it by listening to the happy, laid-back melody and happy whistling. As for the whistling, some people theorize that this is actually due to Otis forgetting the words!
Either way, the King of Soul created one of the most recognizable, soulful, bluesy songs still loved to this day.
(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay has one of the greatest riffs to practice your walk-ups and walk-downs, which is an essential piece to understanding how to play blues and soul music on the guitar. As a result, every beginner guitar player should learn how to play this riff.
Bonus – Day Tripper (By The Beatles)
Much has been said about this iconic band since they took the world by storm in the 1960s. The Beatles is one of those rare bands that seemed only to generate massive hits. Their prolific ability to turn out hit after hit will never cease to surprise music lovers.
One of their top songs, Day Tripper, is a great song to learn how to play on the guitar as it has an incredible guitar riff. It has a strong blues influence and, as a result, is an excellent introduction to the influence of the blues in popular music. Plus, it’s really fun to play.
Most people don’t know that Day Tripper references the budding drug counterculture of the 1960s. ‘Day tripper’ is a bit of a wink and nudge term for people who didn’t embrace the drug lifestyle or people who only did day trips or weekend trips into the drug culture.
Initially conceived by John Lennon, both he and McCartney worked together to complete the song. Day Tripper pulls in blues inspiration since it is based on a 12-bar blues in E and switches up a tone (F#) for the chorus.
In addition to introducing guitar players to blues influence, it is also a fairly straightforward riff to master. Why is it so easy, you ask? It stays mainly on the first four frets, which are the easiest to play and allows you to get a good handle on the guitar as a beginner player.
Check out the tab instructions for Day Tripper here!
Why Are Guitar Riffs Great to Learn?
Learning guitar riffs from the ultimate classic rock songs is a great way to practice and develop proper technique, because many of them involve using techniques other than chords, such as pull-offs and hammer-ons, string bending, and arpeggios. If you are interested in learning the guitar, chances are you’ve probably been inspired by the same riffs you want to know.
In general, guitar riffs are great starting points for beginners because usually the best, most memorable riffs are the ones that are the most simple. Once a rift becomes too convoluted, it becomes less catchy and not as impressive.
So, when you learn a great guitar riff, you get the best of both worlds because you get to know a piece of the song that is easy to understand while also sounding great. Plus, because riffs are so easy to play when trying easier guitar songs, when you master them, you gain tremendous confidence in your playing abilities and can impress your friends and family. Plus, guitar playing is simply fun in and of itself.
Tricks for Learning to Play Riffs
Like when you learn any new skill, the key to excelling boils down to how often and how regularly you practice. The more you practice, the more muscle memory you will form; before you know it, you’ll be able to play the riff without having to think twice about it.
Another great way to learn a guitar riff is to practice closing your eyes so that you develop a sense of touch and feel without having to rely on looking at what fret or what string you’re on. The more natural you can make playing the riff, the better you’ll be able to play.
Rocking out on the guitar is an incredibly meditative, creative, and rewarding new skill to pick up. The best way to get good at the guitar fast is to replicate some of your favorite guitar riffs from popular songs.
When you start, make sure to play often to increase muscle memory and strengthen your fingers. But beware: once you start playing these famous best guitar riffs for beginners, it will be hard to stop!