10 Best Guitar Riffs of the '90s

Though organic instruments have sort of lost favor with today’s music fans, guitars were the accessories to have in the 1990s. Radiohead insisted “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” and so we did, plugging in our knockoff Fenders and aping Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Slash and all the other gurus. The decade boasted plenty of timeless riffs, but these 10 stood out. So dust off your chops and give these face-melters another go.

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L7 - "Shove"

L-7 in Concert at Marquee - 1992.

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The 1990 album from whence this monster came is called Smell the Magic, and you can practically smell the fire from Suzi Gardner’s and Donita Sparks’ axes. Their mighty bends established L7 as a take-no-shit troupe, “Shove-ing” handsy men to the side. The riff christened the new decade with the crash of a whiskey bottle and a sharp-toothed scowl.

L7 -- “Shove” 1992 Reading Festival

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Veruca Salt - "Seether"

Veruca Salt.

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“Palm mutes on parade” ought to be this song’s subtitle. The 1994 introduction to guitar goddesses Louise Post and Nina Gordon relied on this nervy tactic, preceded by in-your-face power chords. Nirvana’s Bleach inadvertently informed the progression, Gordon told Radio.com in 2014. This crunchy mélange also incorporated sounds from the Pixies, Hole and My Bloody Valentine.

Veruca Salt -- “Seether” live 1994

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Smashing Pumpkins - "Today"

Smashing Pumpkins at Pinkpop 1994.

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What do you get when you’re equally influenced by Pantera’s “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott and U2’s Dave “The Edge” Evans? You get this cresting gem from Siamese Dream. “I knew I had to come up with some sort of opening riff,” Billy Corgan wrote in his Guitar World column, “Then, out of the blue, I heard the opening lick note-for-note in my head. That's the state of mind I've trained myself to be in: I'm always looking for the guitar hook.” The guitar hook always has us looking for an ice cream truck.

Watch Smashing Pumpkins -- “Today” 1993 No Alternative

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Collective Soul - "Shine"

Ed Roland of Collective Soul.

Matt McGee / Flickr.com 

Though the band is called Collective Soul, their debut single, “Shine,” was Ed Roland’s baby. He was technically a solo artist who jammed with Will Turpin and Shane Evans in 1993. The mega-smash that took over alternative radio was a demo mainly performed by Roland and a drum machine, according to a 1997 SPIN interview. Chalk it up to his musical education from Berklee and the prevailing grunge sound of the time. (Dig that Drop D-Flat tuning.)

Collective Soul -- “Shine” 1994 Billboard Music Awards.

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Nirvana - "Come As You Are"

Kurt Cobain Nirvana 1993.

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The guitar is finite. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve plucked out The Great Rock Riff, only to remember it’s already a Green Day song, or a Rolling Stones song, or (you get the picture). Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” is a triumph of the copycat. The band’s manager Danny Goldberg admitted that songwriter Kurt Cobain was leery of how similar the intro notes were to that of Killing Joke’s “Eighties.” The single was released anyway, much to KJ’s chagrin. However, Rolling Stone reported in 2003 that the Jokesters forgave Nirvana and had Dave Grohl provide drums on their album The Death and Resurrection Show.

Nirvana -- “Come As You Are” 1992 Reading Festival.

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Lenny Kravitz - "Are You Gonna Go My Way"

Lenny Kravitz in concert.

Simon Ritter / Redferns / Getty Images

Some shred sessions were sent from above. Lenny Kravitz proclaims that this 1993 ode to Jesus Christ was divinely rendered. “I was jamming with Craig Ross, who I wrote the song with. It was one of those songs that happened in 5 minutes,” Kravitz says in a Songfacts interview. Another spirit in the sky holding court on this wailer? Jimi Hendrix, whose high-pitched trills are all over this piece.

Lenny Kravitz -- “Are You Gonna Go My Way” 1993 Late Show with David Letterman

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Rage Against the Machine - "Sleep Now in the Fire"

Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine.

Frank Micelotta Archive / Getty Images

These fired-up Angelenos had an army of good riffs on them, thanks to Tom Morello’s outside-the-box methods. Most of Rage’s signature tunes were written on his nylon-string acoustic guitar, he explains. If he can envision the muted version of the song becoming a crowd-pleaser that gets 60,000 people jumping, it’s a keeper. “Sleep Now in the Fire’s” pull-off punch was born not in a RATM jam session but at a get-together with some of Morello’s other pals. Friendly vibes make for future licks!

Rage Against the Machine -- “Sleep Now in the Fire” live 2010

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Stone Temple Pilots - "Plush"

Robert DeLeo of Stone Temple Pilots.

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This Core track won a Hard Rock Grammy on the muscle of Scott Weiland’s vocals and Robert DeLeo’s ragtime-biting riff. Yes, ragtime – that Scott Joplin Americana music – is an ancestor to “Plush,” according to DeLeo in this 2001 Guitar World interview. He also cites Elvis and other rockabilly players for its crunchy rhythm. In a live setting, brother Dean takes over on guitar while Robert handles an ascending bass (as seen in this 1993 photo). But this hit has Robert’s six-string DNA all over it.

Stone Temple Pilots -- “Plush” on MTV 1997

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Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Under the Bridge"

John Frusciante -- Red Hot Chili Peppers perform at Voodoo Music Experience 2006, New Orleans.

Chad Carson / Wikimedia Commons

To complement Anthony Kiedis’ downbeat poetry about drug addiction, guitarist John Frusciante let his instrument go for a walk through time. He often cites Jimi Hendrix and Curtis Mayfield as influences for his complex-sounding style. “Under the Bridge” truly bridges funk and R&B to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ version of rock. The up-and-down maneuvering around the neck mirrors the ups and downs of battling narcotics abuse.

Red Hot Chili Peppers -- “Under the Bridge” Japan, 2004

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Metallica - "Enter Sandman"

Metallica Live In The Netherlands.

Michel Linssen / Redferns / Getty Images

The biggest, the baddest, the absolute meanest riff to come out of the ’90s. Any song that warns you to “Sleep with one eye open” is (pardon the pun) some kind of monster. Kirk Hammett wrote the growler “at three in the morning, and I was all fired up. And I said to myself, I’m going to write a really heavy riff that’s heavier than anything,” smiling, he continues, “No, I didn’t really say that.” Drummer Lars Ulrich notes that the formula used to be choppier, and with his suggestion of repeating the low-E arpeggio thrice, it became the hammering goliath we know and love today.