The 10 Most Overplayed Guitar Store Riffs

Whether you're trying out some new pedals, putting an amp through its paces, or finally getting to play that dream guitar, we all have those “go to” riffs we use to demo gear at the local music shop. At times though, those favorites can be more like nails on a chalkboard to store employees and other patrons than the captivating performance we imagine. We recently spoke to a group of guitar store owners and employees to put together this list of some of the most overplayed riffs you’re bound to hear when perusing your average guitar store.

Want to weigh in on the great riff debate? Check out the poll at the bottom of this post!

10. Iron Man

This ‘70s metal classic is a riff many of us learned early on, and we most likely played it to death practicing in our parents’ basement. For some, this go-to riff is worthy of the metal gods, but at your local guitar shop, it may be another dose of sonic torture. By the time you hit the second phrase, the guys at the shop might be asking "has he lost his mind?" in your direction.

Most Often Heard: On a BC Rich Warlock that's not even plugged in.

Black Sabbath - "Iron Man"

9. Smoke On The Water

Another classic rock staple, most guitarists cut their teeth on this ‘70s anthem, but that doesn’t mean cranking it to 11 on that sweet Marshall stack and going to town in the shop is a great idea. While groovy, this riff can get super repetitive, super quick, and let’s face it, the other parts of the song aren’t exactly memorable. If you’re someone over the age of 15 still riffin’ on this jam, it might be time to reconsider.

Most Often Heard: Being played by someone who knows exactly one riff.

Deep Purple - "Smoke On The Water"

8. Blackbird

We all love the Beatles, we get it, okay? Everyone whips out a little “Blackbird” on the acoustic when trying to show off round the campfire, but please, save this one for your own home. While the song itself is beautiful, the riff has simply been played dry by everyone who’s ever picked up an acoustic guitar. You’ll get extra no-nos if you can’t play past the first few notes and find yourself falling into a “...wait, is that it? Hold on, I think I got it..” situation.

Most Often Heard: Whenever your friend who “used to play” sees and picks up an acoustic guitar.

The Beatles - "Blackbird"

7. Message In A Bottle

Here's another one people never seem to get right. Just because you’re testing out a chorus pedal, that doesn’t give you the right to play “Message In A Bottle” endlessly, and probably poorly. Before playing this riff, or any Police riff, ask yourself, “What would Sting think?” That should take care of that.

Most Often Heard: Wherever a guitarist asks to see that chorus pedal behind the counter.

The Police - "Message In A Bottle"

6. Back In Black

AC/DC has written some of the best riffs of all time, but none of them will get you the death glare faster than this one. We all want to rock out on that sweet dreamboat of an SG and wear the short shorts/hat combo, but cranking this one through the Line 6 modeling amp isn’t the way to do it. If you must play some AC/DC (and I still do) stick to some deep cuts, like “Beating Around The Bush” or “Touch Too Much.” “Back in black, I hit the sack, been gone too long I’m glad to be back!” No one asked you to play this song, let along sing it, especially in the acoustic room. This goes double for “Highway To Hell.”

Most Often Heard: At full speed, until the descending line with the pull-off.

AC/DC - "Back In Black"

5. Smells Like Teen Spirit

Probably the first riff any angsty teen learns to play, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was just about every guitar player’s personal anthem, but let’s leave that one back in 1991. Just because you rocked out to it in your cover band doesn’t mean everyone else wants to hear you blast it through that Boss DS-1.

Most Often Heard: With the lights off, since you know, it's less dangerous.

Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

4. Sweet Home Alabama

Just don’t. Don’t even think about it. Don’t even think about thinking about it. KFC already ruined that one, and you and a pair of cowboy boots ain’t gonna undo it. The Colonel won this one, so let’s not prolong the pain.

Most Often Heard: In Alabama.

Lynyrd Skynyrd - "Sweet Home Alabama"

3. Enter Sandman

Fess up, we’re all guilty of this one. It’s a guilty pleasure, plain and simple. While no one wants to admit they like the Black Album, we all know we do. Having said that, this one’s better left at the bottom of the riff list. The temptation of that ESP and Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier is strong, but the shame of head banging along in front of that oversized 4x12” is stronger, or at least it should be. Just put the guitar down, walk away, and tell all your friends you thought the bass on And Justice For All should have been louder. Don’t worry, we won’t be watching you singing along in the car later.

Most Often Heard: Across the room from another guy playing "Enter Sandman."

Metallica - "Enter Sandman"

2. Stairway To Heaven

They warned you in Wayne’s World, they put up signs and spread the word. They’ve even made special cables to make sure no one could amplify this one through the store, but no, that didn’t stop you. You were sneaky about it, and you thought you could get away with it. I bet you even know people can’t stand hearing this one, but you did it anyway. Shame on you. Shame.

Seriously though, this riff is just too much. We all spent the long hours learning it from the back of a guitar magazine when we were 13 (and shame on those guys for continuing to recycle that lesson too), but just give it up. If you’re listening to Led Zeppelin IV, fine, sure, let it play, but the moment you start picking that 7-5-5-5 fret A minor chord, you better check yourself. It’s high treason to play this lick in the sacred grounds of the guitar store.

Most Often Heard: As the butt of jokes about guitars and guitar stores.

Led Zeppelin - "Stairway To Heaven"

1. Sweet Child O’ Mine

While many might expect “Stairway” to hold the top spot, the fact remains that more people complain about this riff than any others. Number one, with a bullet, is “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses. That catchy little earworm of an intro has found its way into all of our respective “bag o’ riffs.” It just lays under the fingers so well, begging to be played. We hear it in our head, and we see the frets light up in front of us like one of those Fretlight learning guitars -- are those still a thing? The riff calls out to us: “play me… play me…” But you must resist. This riff will earn you eye rolls and head shakes before you can say “Chinese Democracy.” Slash may have first used this as a warm up exercise, but you aren’t Slash, and you can’t pull off the hat.

Most Often Heard: In an Axl-eseque falsetto.

Guns N’ Roses - "Sweet Child O’ Mine"

Honorable Mentions:

Here are some other riffs called out by store owners and employees we talked to that didn't quite make the top ten:

  • Literally anything by Green Day
  • Stranglehold by Ted Nugent
  • Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes
  • That annoying metal “chugchug-squeeeee” thing
  • That other annoying dissonant metal thing: a minor second interval played together
  • And anything played over, and over, and over, and over, and over…

We all love these riffs, but just remember: it’s not just us at the store, band practice, or even sound check. Riff on to your heart’s content, but be mindful of those around you. No one likes a musical nuisance.

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