Guitars are important. Without them, rock bands cannot be formed. Yes, guitars are important. Pop songs lack much of their grit when they don’t have a guitar pummelling through them. Every artist of any prominence can rest on the brilliance of the guitar knowing that with the perfect arrangement they can be launched into the stratosphere. Below, we’re picking out our 20 favourite guitar intros of all time.
This list showcases some of the more interesting guitar hooks that open the listeners up to the song. For the purposes of this list, I haven’t included any instrumentals and, instead, have focused on only the true classics of the genre.
The other stipulation for compiling this piece was to only include one song from each band, otherwise, we’d have a list stacked with Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix numbers. There is a Beatle song and two solo Beatle songs, but crucially The Beatles song was written by John Lennon, and the two solo songs feature on Paul McCartney and George Harrison’s work respectively.
With any luck, this piece will pay tribute to the guitar hooks that drove so many to take up their guitars and play. And with any luck more people will create guitar-oriented introductions that will seep into the mix, creating a new form of hook for listeners in years to come.
Ranking the 20 greatest guitar introductions in order of greatness:
20. ‘Slash N Burn’ – Manic Street Preachers
Manic Street Preachers were never to shy away from their influences-they literally call Slash out by name in the track. The band’s first album demonstrated their fondness for heavy metal, but the pummeling riff heard here is actually one of their more accomplished hooks, delving from throwaway hook to colossal pyrotechnics washing through the speakers. It sounds like two guitarists trading licks, but it’s all James Dean Bradfield, as bandmates Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards were more concerned with the lyrical element of the track than the duelling guitars.
So, hats off to Bradfield, taking on the muscle end of the track, never letting go of the work, as he carries the weight of the herculean riff through his guitar. Better still, his vocals carry great pathos, which sounded strong on record, but were even better in concert when they were given the live treatment.
19. ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ – The Beatles
George Harrison and Paul McCartney trade licks, leaving John Lennon to play the trembling rhythm guitar on The Beatles’ song ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’, making it one of the band’s most overtly infectious numbers. Across the entire musical spectrum, it is easy to witness many of the hallmarks of Revolver era Beatles.
Revolver works on many levels: It’s an album of great attack, authenticity, integrity and intelligence, bolstered by a series of lightning struck hooks. ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ holds the most hummable riff, and straight from the get-go, the three guitar players latch onto their instrument, performing as if every chord depends on it.
18. ‘Deliver Your Children’ – Paul McCartney & Wings
Like George Harrison, Denny Laine was inspired by Django Reinhardt, and like Harrison, Laine embellished Paul McCartney’s work with spontaneity and fire. But London Town‘s most impressive number was actually a Laine number, soaked in Reinhardt’s influence, not least in the opening part, as the chiming guitars plunge into the mix.
“I lived in Spain for a while, took some flamenco guitar from there, so that gave it a bit of a different feel,” Laine admitted in 2018. “Very me that song [‘Deliver Your Children’] and people like it.” And then he added, “I like Django Reinhardt.” Laine also played some of the flamenco guitars on ‘Goodnight Tonight’, one of Wings last singles. It was also one of their best.
17. ‘A House Is Not A Motel’ – Love
Like ‘Deliver Your Children’, this tune is largely played on acoustic guitar, as the pummeling guitar hooks pad out the piece before the wooden instruments stop, and the blaring guitars enter. For a rock number, it’s a fairly understated affair, but the guitars are no less chiming and central, creating a lively, sparkily produced arrangement that’s only more elastic upon re-listens. The song features on Forever Changes, Robert Plant’s favourite album, and the record that convinced The Stone Roses that they had found their man in John Leckie. Many writers, myself included, consider it one of the triumphs of late 1960s psychedelia.
The song, like the majority of numbers heard on Forever Changes, was composed by frontman Arthur Lee, who was inspired by Vietnam veterans to come up with many of the startling images that soak the piece. The central line “call my name” came from horror stories he heard from veterans who returned from the war, determined to pay tribute to those slain on the battlefields. As an added tidbit, guitarist Johnny Echols claims Jimmy Page got the idea of a double-headed guitar from him.
16. ‘A Million Miles Away’ – Rory Gallagher
Bassist Gerry McAvoy felt his boss Rory Gallagher brought his native Ireland into his instrument. “Rory played the blues,” McAvoy admitted, “but he studied his craft. He was in the showbands: stagecraft came from the showbands. But I think there was a certain Irishness in Rory’s playing. Even when he was playing the blues licks, he would throw something Irish in there, which made it so unique. A lot of fellow guitar players at the time went, ‘Oh, that’s strange.’ I think that was part of Rory’s brilliance.”
Indeed, the opening of ‘A Million Miles Away’ sounds like a fiddle player tuning up his instrument, as he leads the ceilidh band into a night of reels and dances. Once the bass kicks in, the song abandons the trappings of traditional Irish music and returns to more rock-oriented territories. As ever with Gallagher, it’s the hybrid of genres that makes it so exciting to listen to, but the intro is what grabs the listener from the get-go.
15. ‘Freakin’ Out’ – Graham Coxon
Graham Coxon was frequently overshadowed by Blur bandmates Damon Albarn and Alex James, which is why his solo career was so refreshingly pure and inventive, curating a body of work that was his and his alone. He was never the flashiest of guitar players, instead favouring the pulsating hooks that attached to Albarn’s voice, giving the songs a certain pathos. Noel Gallagher might have wished AIDS upon Albarn and James, but he was happy to recognise Coxon’s brilliance as a musician, both privately and in public.
‘Freakin’ Out’ is one of the more energetic singles in his canon, which is why the opening riff is fittingly powerful, soaring through the mixes to create an echo chamber that shows his sense of longing and yearning. The song doubles as his tribute to punk and post-punk rock, and the song feels like a hook The Jam might have used if they were lucky enough to come across it. Instead, it was Coxon who devised it.
14. ‘Heart Full of Soul’ – The Yardbirds
Graham Gouldman wrote ‘For Your Love’ for The Yardbirds when he was a budding songwriter, only to hear that guitarist Eric Clapton felt the song strayed too heavily away from blues. He needn’t have worried – Jeff Beck replaced him in the band, bringing his compositions to the forefront of rock. And with ‘Heart Full of Soul’, Beck emulated the textures of a sitar, pre-empting Led Zeppelin, Oasis and The Stereophonics in their efforts.
Producer Giorgio Gomelsky was inspired to hire a sitar player on the strength of Gouldman’s demo, but the finished results simply didn’t cut it for him. Undeterred, Beck chose to re-create their efforts through a fuzzbox, bringing the sounds of India roaring into the mix. Fans eager to hear a sitar would have to wait for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones with ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Paint It, Black’, but this was a promising opener.
13. ‘Helicopter’ – Bloc Party
Kele Okereke was impressed by an interviewer’s association between his work, and that of cinema.”It’s interesting that you say cinematic because I was listening to quite a lot of Ennio Morricone,” he said, “and just the power of small kind of musical movements. With what I do with my band with Bloc Party, we’ve always been kind of pushed into this dramatic, grandiose place with how we write and how our songs make people feel.”
There’s definitely something cinematic, kinetic for sure, about the pulsating central hook that can be heard on ‘Helicopter’, serenading the central melody line with an urgent, urbane intro that’s pulsating and probing in equal measures. One of the first bonafide hooks from the new millennium, this British single rushes, races and ricochets like the helicopter it wishes to emulate.
12. ‘Animal Nitrate – Suede
Bernard Butler later copped that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was the blueprint for this track, but ‘Animal Nitrate’ is the more impressive work from a guitar point of view. From the banging opening riff to the frenzied inflexions that bustle into the central mix, the song thrives on spontaneity in a place of great stability and comfort. Vocalist Brett Anderson was reportedly unconvinced of the riff when he first heard it, but he was bowled away by the result, to write one of his more spirited vocals.
The first Suede album is one of the best of the 1990s, creating a work that is rife with possibility, panache and pleasure, never wavering for one moment. Butler and Anderson would work together on one more album before the guitarist invariably quit the band to pursue a solo career. Anderson would call Butler up in the new millennium when Suede called it a day to form a sequel band, The Tears. Although they were driven by pulse and drive, they failed to recapture the brilliance of ‘Animal Nitrate, or the first two albums.
11. ‘The Song Remains The Same’ – Led Zeppelin
Eric Clapton played for The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck played for The Yardbirds, and Jimmy Page completed the triptych of guitar players that fronted The Yardbirds. And from the ashes of the band rose Led Zeppelin, who captured the essence of the blues band, by updating the delta-oriented blues with a series of pastoral hooks, and textures. And although ‘The Song Remains The Same’ is an electric piece, it sounds like it was built on top of a collection of acoustic hooks.
Indeed, the song was initially supposed to be an instrumental, but Robert Plant wound up singing in a comical falsetto, masking the billowing drum patterns with a series of hard-hitting vocal performances. By the time Led Zeppelin performed the song in 2007, Plant had to lower the key, but the opening riff proved as powerful as ever.
10. ‘Voodoo Chile’- Jimi Hendrix
What can be said about Jimi Hendrix that hasn’t already been said? Everyone knows he’s pretty bloody good, and put Eric Clapton to shame, before dying at the heartbreaking youthful age of 27. There’s nothing more I can add to that list, except to say that ‘Voodoo Chile’ is as good as you remember, bristling from the side corners of the stage to envelop into something grander sounding and more tremendous. Cemented by the powerful drums, Hendrix is free to flit from choppy rhythm to more piercing lead styles. Sure, his vocals get lost in the mix, but nobody ever threw on a Hendrix song to hear the singer, but the way the guitars chopped through the song.
All through the song, the guitar sizzles, burning from throwaway rock, into something more diverse and interesting, as if pre-empting the rise of progressive rock in the 1970s. The song served as an excuse to noodle away onstage, bolstered by the ambience and the excited crowds throwing themselves onto the stage in front of him.
9. ‘Layla’ – Derek & The Dominos
Guitarist Eric Clapton was bound to appear at some point on this list, but he didn’t perform the galloping hook this tune is best known for. Instead, Duane Allman from The Allman Brothers Band played the hook, invoking the Western guitars that are frequently heard on Sergio Leone projects. The song is then typified by Clapton’s wild, yearning vocal, bellowing for the love of his life to leave her husband so they could spend a life together. Driven by insatiable urgency, the song features one of Clapton’s most committed vocal deliveries, although the end result is credited to Derek & The Dominos.
The song is also notable for boasting a piano section that forms the rest of the tune, as the two guitarists pad out the sound painting, driven by a sudden desire to play second fiddle (or third guitar) to the piano in question. The instrumental could have formed a song by itself, such is the power of the track, and it was used to strong effect on Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s startling dissertation on crime in a country built on opportunity. But that’s for another list.
8. ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ – The Clash
From the beginning, this turbocharged rocker doesn’t hold up, never ceasing from its intended target, but ultimately creates a jaunty, infectious rocker that served as The Clash’s biggest hit single. Mick Jones sings the number, but it wasn’t the vocal, the harmonies or the pidgin Spanish that drew audiences to the track. It was the frenzied opening hook, that serves as a choppy rhythm guitar.
Once the guitar stops, the drums take over, and the song carries on, cemented by the weight of the barrelling percussion. The song shows how important Topper Headon was to the band, which is why the band suffered so greatly when he was asked to leave. By the time The Clash recorded the aptly titled Cut The Crap, Jones had also quit, which is why the album was, respectfully, crap.
7. ‘What Is Life?’ – George Harrison
Aromas of Motown can be heard on the crashing riff that opens ‘What Is Life?’, George Harrison’s great expression of love at a time of great loss. The single is almost entirely based on the central hook, but the strings and brass that follow the guitar are also impressive in their density, depth and direction. Backed by Eric Clapton, Harrison felt strong enough to create a guitar hook that proved indelible in its outlook and persuasion. Keenly aware of the limitations of his voice, Harrison lets the emotion float through the guitar, as opposed to his voice.
According to keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, the song’s central hero was producer Phil Spector: “The real show in that whole place was Phil Spector – what a funny guy. He’s not too funny now, but then, what he was doing in there and the way he was carrying on, I thought, they’ve got all these mics out here catching us jamming, where they need a mic is on the inside. He was a pretty colourful character, to say the least. That was one of the highlights of it – listening to him and watching him and watching how he operated. I learned a lot just from being around him. He’s just eccentric, he’s real creative.”
6. ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ – Thin Lizzy
Before turning into a guitar duelling behemoth in the 1970s, Thin Lizzy started off as a power trio in the mould of Jimi Hendrix and Cream. Truthfully, this iteration wasn’t brilliant, and they were better served by Scott Gorham’s presence, but they did strike gold with ‘Whiskey In The Jar’, an Irish drinking song that glorifies the dangers of highway robbery and rebellion. Phil Lynott played acoustic guitar on the track, but it’s Eric Bell’s pummelling guitar hook that drew audiences in, peeling through wafts of reverb to create a scintillating intro.
He starts tuning his guitar as if readying his gun for the battle that is about to go off on his land, certain in his position and performance as an experts gunman. He raises his weapon in the air for a test shot, another, before BANG, the acoustics come in, and it’s off to war they go. The band were definitely firing on this track, ably updating the pub ballad for the type of rock backbeat audiences at the time demanded of them.
5. ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ – Arctic Monkeys
You can’t take a call like the ‘greatest debut single of all time’ lightly, and the sweat pouring from my brow attests to that. But in truth, when a single fetches record-breaking sales figures, revives guitar music and retains cultural relevance indefinitely, it is a relatively easy sell despite all the inevitable naysayers who refused to climb aboard the bandwagon as it sailed by last laugh lane in the first place.
Arctic Monkeys burst onto the scene like mainstream bank robbers. They were pockmarked bandits of benevolent intent, and all everybody wanted to know was whether they could believe the hype. In an atom-splitting moment, the band suddenly not only made sense of the working-class adolescence that lay ahead of many fans but coloured it with the fluorescent palette of piled-up passions in a poetic punch-up of visceral rock ‘n’ roll and snarling lyrical introspection.
In fact, they achieved all that to such an exacting extent that an entire generation can recite every single lyric; but, as well as that, they can and did sing every single note of Alex turner’s rollicking guitar intro.
4. ‘Johnny B. Goode’ – Chuck Berry
There can simply be no doubt that without Chuck Berry’s iconic guitar lead line from his anthemic ‘Johnny B. Goode’ that music would be very different today. Absolutely blistering with dangerous intent, Berry defined a generation with one song, and more importantly, with one guitar. When John Lennon said another name for rock and roll could simply be Chuck Berry, it was this song that was running through his head.
The song has transcended generations to become a ubiquitous let-loose anthem. The kind of song that gathers up the entire family at a function and plonks them all on the dancefloor, doing the twist or duckwalking or just throwing their booty around. It’s the kind of exaltation that has somewhat faded away from music in the 21st century but one that Berry held very dear to his craft.
If he couldn’t make people dance to his music, then was there really any point in writing it?
3. ‘You Really Got Me’ – The Kinks
For a long time, this was believed to be Jimmy Page. It isn’t, because Dave Davies played the opening hook. Dan dan dan..dan dan dan…dan dan dan dan.
From the get-go, it grabs you, and it’s easy to see why everyone from Pete Townshend to Ozzy Osbourne was hooked by the primal urges of the track in question. Eddie Van Halen emulated the opening hook when his band performed the track, but as admirable as he is, it’s lacking the grit of the original track. The song practically invents heavy metal- oh yeah.
Weirdly, The Kinks were loathe to continue down this route during the 1960s, and as time went by, the band opted to go for a more lyrical path, invoking their pastoral surroundings with a convoy of hooks and observations that channelled the band’s idiosyncratic view of the island that made them into the musicians and men they were. But there’s no denying that ‘You Really Got Me’ rocks.
2. ‘Purple Rain’ – Prince
A formidable artist of the first kind, Prince was also an accomplished guitar player, as was evident from his performance at George Harrison’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he emulated Eric Clapton’s piercing hook on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps‘. But his finest guitar playing was heard on the title track to Purple Rain, cascading in an eruption of guitar splashes, breathing new radiance into the listener’s ear, firing them onto the vigour and variation the song exuded.
But we’re not here to talk about the coda, but the introduction, which is sparse, understated and arguably sombre. The notes are played with simple precision, framing the tune, as opposed to cementing it. It sounds simple, but there’s a lot of melody going on, and the opening arpeggio is driven by a desire to let loose and soar.
Yet it takes its time, slowly opening the backdrop for the drums to kick in, and pounce. Glorious.
1. ‘Gimme Shelter’- The Rolling Stones
Yes, we heard you screaming “Where are The Rolling Stones?” Well, they hit the number one spot, so quit your yapping, and start celebrating the greatest introduction to a song committed to tape. I’m not saying it’s the greatest riff recorded, nor am I saying that Keith Richards is the greatest guitarist ever – he’s not even the best guitar player in The Rolling Stones – but as an introduction to a tune, it’s hard to think of an intro that matches ‘Gimme Shelter’ for drama, demeanour, romance or contrast.
Bolstered by Mick Jagger’s scintillating falsetto, the song is deeply evocative, and the tune is tremendous in creating a sense of opera, without resorting to bawdy outfits that are traditionally seen at the Royal Opera House.
Even more incredibly, Richards performed all the guitars himself, and he may have played bass on the track, so it’s virtually a one-man show for the mercurial guitar player. Given the density of the track, Ronnie Wood has played the second guitar onstage, freeing Richards to play the jangly hook that audiences gravitate to.