Aaron S. Bayley
In days of yore, when I was a teenager in high school, I attended a house party and got into a friendly debate over which rock band had the better guitar riffs. My friend was convinced it was Black Sabbath; I argued it was Led Zeppelin.
Since then, I feel I've been vindicated by the gatekeeping historians of classic rock. Black Sabbath' Tony Iommi certainly did create monster riffs as chunky and bloody as slabs of raw meat, but nobody crafted riffs with such audacity, complexity, and majesty as Led Zeppelin's maestro. Jimmy Page is often accused of playing sloppily, and with good reason: just listen to his stutter-stopping, sqeaky solo break on Zeppelin II's "Heartbreaker," or the amateur-sounding country riff opening In Through the Out Door's "Hot Dog." Jimmy Page is not the revolutionary that Hendrix was; nor will anyone praise him for possessing the pyrotechnics of a Van Halen or the bluesy virtuosity of a Stevie Ray Vaughan. But in less than a decade, Page compiled a catalogue of iconic, blues-based rock riffs that wouldn't be matched until a top hat-clad dude on the Sunset Strip plugged his Les Paul replica into a 100 watt Marshall in the late 1980s. Jimmy Page's guitar solos may not be jaw-dropping (although many, like his solo for "No Quarter" at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1973, are sublime), but his riffs are the cornerstone upon which classic rock guitar was built. Here, then, are Jimmy Page's top twelve riffs ranked by their level of greatness. Twelve, because choosing ten was impossible.
12. "Custard Pie" (1975)
Many Zeppelin fans think the band's double album, Physical Graffiti, is their greatest achievement, and it certainly doesn't hurt that it starts off with this gem. By 1975, the band was arguably at their creative peak, and "Custard Pie" shows them firing on all cylinders. The opening riff is based off a standard blues pattern in A major, but what makes it a cut above the rest (more interesting than, say, the riff for IV's "Rock And Roll") is the stutter-stop tempo supplied by the rhythm section of John Paul Jones on bass and the inimitable John Bonham on drums. Page's guitar seductively propels the song forward.
11. "Achilles Last Stand" (1976)
Another stellar album opener, "Achilles Last Stand" is the standout track of Presence, Zeppelin's excellent and overlooked seventh studio album. Overlooked, because its sound was far from their first two albums. Nonetheless, Page's riff is interesting because of its use of space; it makes a striking juxtaposition against the galloping bass and drums. Played on its own it seems unimpressive, but couched within the driving rhythm section it becomes epic, driving home a sense of dramatic urgency.
10. "Communication Breakdown" (1968)
When Led Zeppelin unleashed their debut album, record-buying fans had to wait until the third song on the second side for the band to really cut loose. On "Communication Breakdown," they do, with Page's heavy, distorted power riff leading the way. Page pummels his Telecaster, playing an E-D-A lick that would become a staple of the hard rock heavy metal genre. Offset by Robert Plant's trademark banshee wail, the "Communication" riff announced Led Zeppelin to the world through a loudspeaker.
9. "The Ocean" (1973)
Coming on the heels of Led Zeppelin's most popular album, Houses of the Holy delivers a dynamic set of songs and moods ranging from pastoral to heavy, what Page referred to as "light and shade." The riff for "The Ocean" once again benefits from a killer rhythm section and a creative 15/8 time signature. Page was masterful at using space to provide his riffs breathing room. The spaces between his notes are filled with Bonham's powerful marching beat; the riff itself doesn't resolve until the top of the next measure.
8. "Good Times Bad Times" (1968)
The riff that started it all. The first song on the the first side of the first Zeppelin record, "Good Times Bad Times" starts off with six E power chords before Page arpeggiates the D chord, plays a lick that implies an A and resolves back to E. Essentially, it's the Communication Breakdown" chord progression played more creatively. And it's super fun to play.
7. "Out On the Tiles" (1970)
Led Zeppelin III was a musical departure from their first two efforts. While Page and Plant wrote much of the music on acoustic guitars at the singer's Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in Wales, where there was no electricity, "Out On the Tiles" is uptempo and energetic and boasts one of Page's most playful riffs. As Plant launches into the first verse, Page begins his riff on the first two beats, goes silent for the next two beats—not unlike "Good Times"—and reenters with a contagious, descending sixteenth note lick to finish it off.
6. "Immigrant Song" (1970)
When comedian Jack Black was working on 2003's School Of Rock, he was desperate to have Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" for the movie, but knew the band was notorious for not allowing their music to be used commercially. Director Richard Linklater suggested Black beg the band for permission, so he did. Black appealed to the band on camera with an enthusiastic audience behind him. "We need your song, man. We need the 'Immigrant Song.' This is a movie about rock, and without that song...this movie will crumble." When Page, Plant, and Jones saw the video, they were amused, and Black got his song, paving the way for the most hilarious scene in the film. Led Zeppelin III is often described as pastoral, but "The Immigrant Song" kicks of the album with an aggressive galloping rhythm that is anything but pastoral. Page's overdriven staccato guitar riff in F# minor is cocky and foreboding, and with Plant's war cries giving way to the first line—"We come from the land of the ice and snow"—as Page strikes an E chord with a vibrato effect, the listener is entranced. The infectious groove on which the riff rides influenced countless metal bands, from Iron Maiden to Amon Amarth.
5. "How Many More Times" (1969)
For a band with so many iconic riffs, it's astonishing how many are featured on their first two albums. "How Many More Times" kicks off with a repeating, almost droning riff in E that is unapologetically infectious. Page closes the riff with D and A before returning to the start. The song drips with attitude as it bounces along for over eight minutes; at the 6:08 mark, Page introduces another killer riff underneath Bonham's marching beat, punctuated by an E7 and a cymbal crash. It was 1969, and Page's riffs were still heavily infused with his blues influences, but "How Many More Times" was Led Zeppelin taking the blues into a harder, more daring direction.
4. "No Quarter" (1973)
"No Quarter" begins with Jones' haunting, melancholic melody on electric piano, with Page entering with frigid B flat and E flat chords, like ice cracking in the dead of winter, with vibrato adding to the chilling atmosphere. The main riff in D minor, with its fat, bumblebee distortion, resolves with a blues-style lick yet still works within the context of the song. It's one of Page's most understated riffs, not overbearing and designed to complement the song's eerie sonic landscape. It's a musical masterpiece.
3. "Heartbreaker" (1969)
I once attended a house party in 1994 and wandered into the basement to find nobody and nothing there except an El Degas Les Paul copy lying on the floor. I plugged it into a small practice amp and began playing the riff to "Heartbreaker," over and over for my own amusement. When people think of Zeppelin, they think of the riffs on the first two albums. "Heartbreaker" features Page strutting like a peacock, his guitar growling with attitude as he strikes a G on the lower E string before beginning the riff in A. Jones' bass heard underneath Page's guitar gives the riff added bite. Page was fond of writing riffs that were repetitive or didn't resolve, and "Heartbreaker" was one of the most famous to follow this rule.
2. "Kashmir" (1975)
"Kashmir" is unquestionably the showpiece on Physical Graffiti, thanks largely to Page's mesmerizing, hypnotic, double-octave riff in DADGAD tuning. The riff ascends ominously and recurs without climaxing; the turnaround gives it a Sisyphean feel. It is followed by a descending chord sequence before returning to the main riff. In retrospect, the riff seems simple, but there was nothing like it at the time Page created it. it is one of the best examples of his unbridled creativity. Page was as ambitious as he was audacious in his songwriting. The driving, dramatic riff on "Kashmir" is one Page has said he's most proud of.
1. "Whole Lotta Love" (1969)
The Holy Grail of guitar riffs. it's bold. It's seductive. It's spellbinding. And when the bass and drums kick in, it grooves. Page's most iconic riff is simple yet irresistibly contagious as it chugs along like a steam train hurtling down the track. It's a great example of how Page always prioritized rhythm and feel when creating his riffs. When it grinds to a halt at only one minute and twenty seconds into the song, it's almost anticlimactic. Most people I know—myself included—wished the band cut out the psychedelic detour and just got on with it. But when the riff returns after the guitar solo at the 3:21 mark, it feels triumphant.