15 Riffs to Learn as a Beginning Lead Guitar Player (w/tabs)
Learning lead guitar is a very fun but lengthy process that can feel rather daunting in your first few years of playing. Luckily, you don’t have to know sweeping or tapping to play some really great riffs. Here are 15 riffs that with practice, are in reach of any beginning lead player. Keep in mind that many of these songs have other parts or solos that are definitely not quickly attainable for beginners. These picks are all referencing the main hook or riff that makes the song. (Also a few of the riffs have some little intricacies that I have simplified for the beginner)
The Beatles - Day Tripper
Of all the Beatles songs, this one may perhaps contain the most memorable riff. This riff is played in the intro, outro, verses and as the hook after the chorus, so you can pretty much play it along with the whole song. Plus, once you learn this riff, there are a lot of others that can be learned with a similar feel. “Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison and Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” just to name a couple.
Heartbreaker - Led Zeppelin
Zeppelin has a few relatively easy to play and catchy riffs that you can surely learn early on in your guitar journey. Heartbreaker is great specifically for getting some groove into your playing. From the first two notes of this part, any classic rock fan will recognize the riff. Just like Day Tripper the second part of this one repeats the same pattern just up a string.
Come as you are – Nirvana
Kurt Cobain has a knack for writing some of the best simple riffs ever. “Come as you are” is a staple for anyone learning guitar. It only uses the first two strings open and the first and second fret. Even if you don’t have access to the chorus effect used on the track it will still sound great.
Monkey Wrench – Foo Fighters
This one is a little tougher simply because of the speed compared to other riffs on this list. However, it is played as straight as can be and is easy to learn slow then speed up later. Furthermore, this can also act as a great opportunity to learn alternate picking. So, instead of just playing all downstrokes, try alternating down, up, down, up, and so on. This technique is used all the time, so learning it early on will be a great benefit to you.
Beat It – Michael Jackson
Steve Lukather’s very iconic guitar riff on “Beat It” is perfect for someone working on lead guitar. It sounds really simple, as is, but the phrasing is a bit unique and unlike most other guitar riffs. This is due to the fact that it is actually a medley that Jackson sang to Lukather to have him play.
Barracuda – Heart
Heart is by no means a band with many beginner-friendly guitar parts. Though the main riff in “Barracuda” is a must-know for any lead guitar player. And it’s totally learnable at a less experienced level. It also has several guitar techniques including harmonics, whammy, and slides that are great to learn. You can start by learning the notes without these techniques and add them in as you progress.
Aqualung – Jethro Tull
If you're looking for something a little different sounding, the riff in “Aqualung” is a friendly place to start. The note selection here is pretty distinctive and original for the rock genre. It also has chords pretty much tied in with the riff, but I have just tabbed out the main lead line of the riff.
Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple
The idea of a beginner guitar riff has no better definition than that of Deep Purple’s, “Smoke on the Water”. However, this riff is as misplayed as it is well known. While most people learn and play this song using just the low E string, it is actually much more interesting the way Richie Blackmore really played it. Using the two middle strings of the guitar to create a harmony makes for a super cool and better sounding riff.
Sunshine of Your Love – Cream
An absolute classic. Just like some others on this list, this riff repeats the majority of the song and is nice and slow. Also, just like countless other riffs, this one will move up a sting when the chords change.
Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd
“Sweet Home Alabama” has a great riff to learn for combining lead and chords. It is basically just picking through D, Cadd9, and G with some riffing at the end of each progression. It may sound confusing but it’s really not. Just listen to the song in relation to the tab and it should make sense.
Don’t Fear the Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult
Fairly similar to “Sweet Home”, Don’t Fear the Reaper’s main riff is really just picking your way through some chord shapes. In this case, those chords are Am, G, F, and G again. Now, the speed makes keeping up with this song a little tough on beginners. It should take some time for you to really have this down. Remember to always get it perfect at a very slow speed and then gradually speed it up.
Sweet Child O' Mine – Guns N' Roses
Yes, we have all heard this song way too much, but it is still a great melodic riff you should know how to play. When you first look at this tab it may seem intimidating, but keep in mind there is a lot of repetition here. Until the very last couple measures hardly anything but the first note changes.
Back in Black – AC/DC
Another example of a riff that everyone needs to learn at some point. Back in Black’s central guitar hook is composed of three power chords (E, D, A) followed by two different lead lines. The second lead has a little bit of a stretch in there, so take your time to really get it up to speed cleanly.
Paint It, Black - The Rolling Stones
“Satisfaction” is definitely the more common Stone’s riff that guitar players will know. But “Paint It, Black” is a much more interesting and fun song to learn. Additionally, the eastern sounding scale and rhythm will give you something a little different sounding to work on.
You Really Got Me - The Kinks
While this is more of a rhythm guitar part, it is also one of the most important riffs ever written. This very early example of a distorted electric guitar tone is just too iconic and easy to play to leave off this list.