Top 10 Heavy Metal Guitar Riffs

Sometimes, all it takes is a few notes from a rockin' guitar to get a song on the right track. And in no other genre is that more true than in heavy metal. In honor of new albums from Black Sabbath and Megadeth, counts down our picks for the top 10 greatest heavy metal guitar riffs of all time. For this list, we've chosen one song per artist and stuck to what we felt were their most signature guitar riffs. We’ve also excluded instrumentals. If you don't find the one you're looking for, stay tuned for our Top 10 Hard Rock Guitar Riffs and our Top 10 Rock Guitar Riffs!

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Top 10 Heavy Metal Guitar Riffs

Heavy metal wouldn’t be as energetic or exciting without ‘em. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down the top 10 heavy metal guitar riffs.

For this list, we’ve chosen one song per artist and stuck to what we felt were their most signature guitar riffs. We’ve also excluded instrumentals.

#10 – “Holy Diver” by Dio

The slow intro may contrast starkly with the rest of the song, but it perfectly sets the mood and pace for “Holy Diver”’s hard-hitting and heavy riff. The title track and lead single from Dio’s debut also introduced the world to axe man Vivian Campbell, whose guitar skills spawned other popular riffs on Dio’s later albums, like on The Last in Line.

#9 – “Ace of Spades” by Motorhead

If you need proof that Motorhead are the originators of speed metal, look no further than the band’s definitive anthem. After Lemmy starts things off with his distorted bass lines, we’re catapulted into a hard and fast ride that ends almost as abruptly as it begins. Thanks to an unforgettable intro and its sheer power, “Ace of Spades” also planted the seed for the foundation of thrash metal.

#8 – “Breaking the Law” by Judas Priest

By combining the double guitar style of K.K. Downing and Glen Tipton with Rob Halford’s theatrical vocals, these metal gods make us want to “break the law” with them. The British Steel song’s opening riff draws you in and doesn’t let go ‘til the end. Its energy and pulsing chorus make this song classic Judas Priest – though the band also got us hooked with their guitar work on “Painkiller.”

#7 – “Mouth for War” by Pantera

With a parent album called Vulgar Display of Power, it’s no wonder “Mouth of War” is so intense. The groove metal track comes at you at full force and showcases the guitar talents of Dimebag Darrell and the rest of Pantera in the process. These pioneers of the new wave of American heavy metal are also known for riffs in songs like “Walk” and “Cowboys From Hell.”

#6 – “Raining Blood” by Slayer

Featuring a big bad intro and a riff every metalhead knows, “Raining Blood” helped Slayer define thrash metal for decades to come. Thanks to Jeff Hanneman’s and Kerry King’s dual guitar sound, the track is a fiery but appropriate conclusion to Reign in Blood. Its speed and aggression have also made it a live staple, though Seasons in the Abyss also produced several complex Slayer riffs.

#5 – “Master of Puppets” by Metallica

“Enter Sandman” instigated their mainstream popularity, but it was the fast-paced and intricate compositions on Master of Puppets that positioned Metallica as one of thrash metal’s “Big Four.” This was due, in large part, to the album’s only single and title track. Enhanced by James Hetfield’s and Kirk Hammett’s guitar abilities, this song features the quintessential Metallica riff and is often considered one of heavy metal’s finest tunes.

#4 – “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” by Megadeth

Despite multiple line-up changes, Megadeth has ensured it’s still a force in metal today because of Dave Mustaine’s characteristic vocals and the band’s complex instrumentals. Their knack for guitar is particularly evident in “Holy Wars”’ frantic opening riff. Though the tempo slows down, the song ultimately distinguishes itself with its speed and intensity. Other standout Megadeth riffs include “Symphony of Destruction” and “Tornado of Souls.”

#3 – “Trooper” by Iron Maiden

Dave Murray and Adrian Smith join forces for the unparalleled riff that keeps this song marching along. While they harmonize their guitars, Bruce Dickinson, Steve Harris and Nicko McBrain bring the rest of the track to life and produce a heavy metal classic. With the riffs and hard rocking sound of “Run to the Hills” and “Wasted Years,” Iron Maiden also spearheaded the New Wave of British Metal.

#2 – “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath

“Iron Man” may have the cult status and association with a popular Marvel superhero, but it’s “Paranoid” that’s cited time and time again as essential to heavy metal. Tony Iommi’s dynamic riffs meld flawlessly with Ozzy’s trademark vocals and Geezer Butler’s tormented lyrics to create a dark and heavy blues-rock sound unlike anything heard before. With work like that, Black Sabbath set the blueprint for the genre and countless subgenres with their music.

#1 – “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne

You’d be hard-pressed to find a metal fan that doesn’t recognize the Prince of Darkness’ first solo single. What makes it so memorable is Randy Rhoads’ incomparable guitar technique, as shown by his use of the full minor scale in the main riff. But let’s not forget his mean guitar solo. Though he’s contributed several other notable riffs to Ozzy’s repertoire, “Crazy Train” remains the Godfather of Heavy Metal’s signature anthem.

Do you agree with our list? What’s your favorite heavy metal riff? If you didn’t find the one you’re looking for, make sure to subscribe to for our Top 10 Hard Rock Guitar Riffs.

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