It might sound strange, but some of the world’s most popular guitar songs are not that difficult to play. Catchy guitar hooks have been showing up in popular music for nearly a hundred years, and most of these memorable songs feature a simple melody played over a driving beat. Today, we’re going to show you how to play six easy guitar riffs and we’re going to tell you the story behind each song.
“Come As You Are”/ Nirvana/ 1992
Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” is a simple, poignant song that highlights singer Kurt Cobain’s sensitive side to his approach to songwriting. Released as the second single from the band’s second studio album, Nevermind, this song further propelled the band into the mainstream after it began receiving sudden and unexpected acclaim in the early 90’s. First showing up on a tape of demos in 1991, the recorded version of this song actually features Cobain singing phrases like “and I don’t have a gun,” and “memoria” on a vocal take out of time. After hearing the recorded track, Cobain decided he liked the way the vocal mistakes sounded, so he kept them in. Cobain wanted his guitar part to sound “watery,” so he used a chorus guitar effect to build a washed out tone. Cobain describes the song as being about the contradictory nature of the human condition.
The song begins with a simple riff played by Cobain on the 6th string. The melody features a simple rhythm, and is ideal for beginning guitar players. Tune the 6th string down to D for this song.
“Smoke On The Water”/ Deep Purple/ 1972
The prominent guitar riff featured in Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water” is easily one of most recognizable melodies in popular music. Ranked number 434 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the greatest 500 songs of all time, the song is known mainly for its central theme which is a four-note blues scale melody in the key of G minor, harmonized in parallel fourths. The guitar part is doubled by an organ treated with a distortion effect. The lyrics of the song tell the true story of when Deep Purple was at a casino in Switzerland to record an album in the winter of 1971. While watching another band, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, the venue in the casino somehow caught fire when a fan fired a flare gun at the ceiling. Thankfully, there were no injuries, but the fire destroyed the entire casino complex as well as the Mothers of Invention’s equipment. Bet you didn’t know one of music’s easy guitar riffs had a background story like that.
This guitar riff is built off of simple power chords and is built off of a simple, driving rhythm. With a little practice, this one should be quite easy to learn.
“Day Tripper”/ The Beatles/ 1965
The lead guitar part in “Day Tripper” is simple, straightforward, and will likely get stuck in your head for weeks after you hear it. Released on the album Rubber Soul in 1965, this song peaked at number five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in January 1966. In a 1970 interview in Rolling Stone, John Lennon is quoted bringing up “Day Tripper” as an example of a song that was a true effort of collaboration between him and his band-mate Paul McCartney (Lennon wrote the riff and choruses and McCartney wrote the verses). The song, which begins with a simple guitar riff played over a blues chord progression in the key of E, is about hippie culture in the 1960’s. McCartney, who is credited for writing the song’s verses, later said in an interview that “Day Tripper” was about drugs, and “a tongue-in-cheek song about someone who was … committed only in part to the idea.” Recorded in the fall of 1965, the released master track of “Day Tripper” contains one of the most noticeable mistakes of any Beatles song, in which the lead guitar and tambourine momentarily disappear at one minute and fifty seconds in.
This simple riff features a catchy melody placed over a syncopated rhythm. We recommend practicing this one to a metronome. The riff here shows the first half of the verse. To play the second part of the riff, repeat everything exactly one string up.
12 Bar Blues/ Unknown/ Early 20th Century
One of music’s most easy guitar riffs comes in the form of a simple chord progression that helped develop popular music as we know it. What began as a simple blues progression has gone on to inform songwriting and lyricism in virtually every genre of popular music. The 12 Bar Blues is built off of three dominant, or 7th, chords that can be played in any key. The 12 Bar Blues has remained popular for over a century, and this is because the natural form of the progression matches the tension and drama you’d normally find in the plot of a movie or novel. Each bar is assigned four beats that can be played in any speed and style. Today, we’re going to show you how to play the 12 Bar Blues in the key of E.
Each chord in this progression represents a bar of four beats:
“Seven Nation Army”/ The White Stripes/ 2003
“Seven Nation Army” features one of the catchiest easy guitar riffs in modern music. The song earned The White Stripes a Grammy for “Best Rock Song” and catapulted the group into international stardom. Although the main riff sounds like it’s being played on a bass guitar, it’s actually Jack White’s semi-acoustic, 1950s-style Kay Hollowbody guitar being processed by a guitar pedal to sound an octave lower. The song, which is the band’s signature track, is frequently played at protests around the world. Jack White, the band’s principal songwriter, said in interviews that he wrote the riff just in case the band was ever asked to write an original song for the James Bond movie franchise. Though White did go on to later write a song for the franchise, “Seven Nation Army” was never used in a James Bond film.
“Pumped Up Kicks”/ Foster The People/ 2011
“Pumped Up Kicks” is a dark, troubled song dressed up as a shiny pop masterpiece. The song was written by Mark Foster, who formerly worked as a commercial jingle writer, in just five hours in 2009 shortly after forming Foster The People. In an interview, Foster said the day of the recording that he nearly opted in to going to the beach rather than recording the song. The song earned the group a major record deal and wide acclaim. The lyrics of the song tell the story of a troubled young person intent on harming the peers at his school. Foster later said that he wrote the song in an effort to understand mental illness in teenagers.
This song is great for students wanting to work on playing syncopated, easy guitar riffs. You’ll need to capo the 1st fret to play this song.
These easy guitar riffs won’t take long to learn, but you will need to put in the effort to practice. We recommend taking the time to play all these riffs along to a metronome at least three times a week in order to master them.