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10 Best Metal Riffs of the 1970s

Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi, Glenn Tipton
Steven Lovekin, Getty Images / Paul Kane, Getty Images / Kevin Winter, Getty Images

The 1970s was an interesting time for heavy metal. Black Sabbath helped birth the genre at the very beginning of the decade, and a host of other legendary bands followed suit. Along with Black Sabbath were bands like Judas Priest and several proto-metal acts who are now regarded as classic rock, but were deemed some of the heaviest in their day. It is for this reason that bands like Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult, Deep Purple, Van Halen and others will be found in the list below. While their music might not be pure metal, the riffs included here are metal through and through.

Tony Iommi did not invent the riff, but he helped bring it to the height of popularity and proved that it can be the true focus of the music, not just serving as a catchy intro before the rest of the song kicks in. There’s nothing like sinking your teeth into a meaty riff that never seems to get old no matter how many times you’ve heard it or played it yourself. Come take a look at the 10 Best Metal Riffs of the 1970s:


10

'Dead Men Tell No Tales'

Motorhead
 
 

Motorhead's timeless brand of high-energy rock/metal hybrid has given us countless riffs to jam out to over the years. The opener to 'Bomber' is 'Dead Men Tell No Tales,' which features one of the band's best riffs. The sleazy attitude and outlaw demeanor helped define Motorhead's music and lifestyle early. This riff has the hallmarks of the band's sound being simple, yet effective with just a touch of the blues.

 
9

'Working Man'

Rush
 
 

Canadian progressive masters Rush wrote an anthem for the blue collar worker. 'Working Man' connected with a wide audience and kicked off the band's career. Guitarist Alex Leifson typically textures Rush's music, which is driven by the rhythm section. On the band's debut album, he had a bit more of a traditional role, unleashing one hell of a riff on 'Working Man,' which is still a fan-favorite to this day.

 
8

'Victim of Changes'

Judas Priest
 
 

Judas Priest are often lost in Black Sabbath's shadow when it comes to pure riffing ability in the '70s. However, 'Victim of Changes' is proof positive that Priest could duel with the best. The riffing that begins the songs stands out among the tunes in the band's impressive discography.

 
7

'Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll'

Blue Oyster Cult
 
 

Blue Oyster Cult are a lot heavier than most people give the band credit for. 'Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll' is a fan-favorite off the band's self-titled debut. Things start off with a dirty riff that teases the listener with its start and stop antics. The song aligns itself with a lot of the underground occult rock of the late '60s and early '70s like Black Widow and Bulbous Creation, but the feature riff is what sees Blue Oyster Cult at the top of the heap.

 
6

'Runnin' With the Devil'

Van Halen
 
 

The opening track to Van Halen's debut album is great for so many reasons. After the effects calm down, Michael Anthony's infamous single note bass line starts things off and, before long, Eddie Van Halen's riffing comes into play. Though not wholly indicative of his playing style, this riff shows that not everything with this axeman needs to be over the top. Van Halen have contributed so much music that has weaved its way into the fabric of society because of riffs like this.

 
5

'Cat Scratch Fever'

Ted Nugent
 
 

Sure, Uncle Ted is decidedly more rock than metal, but how metal is the riff to 'Cat Scratch Fever!?' Ted Nugent is one of the guitar greats and got pretty heavy every now and then. It was 1977 and metal was starting to take shape as rock bands gained more edge. This riff has a bluesy flavor to add to the metallic palette and is undoubtedly one of the best moments at a wild Ted Nugent show.

 
4

'Kashmir'

Led Zeppelin
 
 

Led Zeppelin's 'Kashmir' has one of the most easily recognizable riffs on this list. While orchestration dominates the theme, this transformative riff is heavy in its own right. The grueling pace of the drumming slugs its way through the song, anchoring the song in a literal sense by slowing the rest of the ship down. Jimmy Page is noted not for just his guitar playing, but his songwriting ability on the whole, which is demonstrated remarkably here.

 
3

'Smoke on the Water'

Deep Purple
 
 

If you've ever picked up a guitar, this was probably among the first things you learned how to play. While most play this titan riff using power chords, Ritchie Blackmore utilizes fourths. When recording 'Machine Head,' Deep Purple did not feel the 'Smoke on the Water' would be a hit, but couldn't have been more wrong. In a decade knee-deep in progressive music, a little simplicity went a long way.

 
2

'School's Out'

Alice Cooper
 
 

The anthem of kids everywhere, 'School's Out' is a playful ode that fit in with other Alice Cooper classics that chronicled the teenage mind. The swinging rhythm riff helped propel the song to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the album to No. 2 on the Billboard 200. 'School's Out' was the breakthrough the band had been waiting for after turning out now classic albums like 'Love it to Death' and 'Killer.'

 
1

'Iron Man'

Black Sabbath
 
 

Does this surprise anyone? Riff-meister general Tony Iommi churned out enough timeless riffs to fill a Top 25 list, but luckily for everyone else, we have a one band per list rule. The same year they released their self-titled debut album, Black Sabbath released their sophomore disc, 'Paranoid,' which is the first no-holds barred heavy metal album. 'Iron Man' boasts a textbook rhythm that easily sums up Iommi's style and ability and is by far the greatest metal riff of the 1970s.

 

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