British music site Musicradar recently published one of those visitor-voted lists of the 50 greatest guitar riffs (not solos, or rock songs) of all time. It's pretty much what you'd expect: heavy on the '70s, with plenty of Zeppelin, AC/DC, Metallica, Black Sabbath, and (being British) Radiohead, Muse, and such thrown in.
But I have to say that the top 10 is an interesting result, climbing from "Satisfaction" (number 10?!) through "Day Tripper," "Enter Sandman," "Back in Black," "Layla," "Smoke on the Water" (number 4?!), and "Whole Lotta Love" to "Sweet Child o' Mine" at number 2. Not a surprising list of candidates, though I wouldn't have predicted that order.
Number one, though, I would never have forecast in the top 10, never mind at the peak, even though I personally agree it's the right choice: Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)," from 1968. Here, watch the full psychedelicness:
Hendrix and his band basically jammed the song out in the studio while creating footage for a visiting film crew. The song as a piece is like a whole weather system, and it's hard to know exactly what Musicradar's users were voting for—is it Jimi's slinky, ominous solo wah-wah raindrops at the beginning, or the full booming open-string thunderstorm once the full band comes in?
It doesn't really matter. I think either one wins. Stevie Ray Vaughan, my favourite guitarist, used to play "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" all the time, but even the best he could do was basically replicate Jimi nearly note-for-note.
Many music fans might know the song, but the riff certainly isn't among those people hum to themselves, like "Killing in the Name," "Sunshine of Your Love" or "Ticket to Ride." Certainly no beginning guitarist would attempt it, as they would "Satisfaction" or "Smoke on the Water" or "You Really Got Me," which is on the Musicradar list, but shamefully not in the top 10. I can't play a lick of it.
Yet "Voodoo Child" stands apart. (Joe Satriani called it "the greatest piece of electric guitar work ever recorded.") That main thundering riff is both separate from and weaved throughout the song—you never know when Jimi will drag it back out from the maelstrom. It's scary and beautiful and bluesy and futuristic—like Jimi himself in a few notes.
I think I'll go listen to it again.
P.S. Of course I have quibbles with the list too. Three riffs mysteriously missing are the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun," Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl," and of course Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." How did people miss that one?