What is the Most Difficult Guitar Riff to Play?

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One of the most addictive aspects of guitar-based music is the riffs. When played repeatedly, they generate that sense of power and energy and can launch people into headbanging. Riffs can provide a steady background sound for soloists to strut their stuff on jazz.

Riffs can be incredibly easy to play and incredibly difficult, depending on the skill level of the guitarist. What is the more difficult guitar riff to play?

It may be hard to decide on the most difficult riff ever, but here are some of the most difficult guitar riffs to play:

  • “Blackened” – Metallica
  • “Poison Was The Cure” – Megadeth
  • “Cliffs Of Dover” – Eric Johnson
  • “Snow (Hey oh)” – Red Hot Chilli Peppers
  • “Black Dog” – Led Zeppelin
  • “Little Wing” – Stevie Ray Vaughn
  • “Stream Of Consciousness” – Dream Theatre
  • “CAFO” – Animals As Leaders

This post will examine the most difficult guitar riffs and why they are so hard to play. We will also look at what makes a guitar riff difficult and give some tips on how to learn difficult riffs.

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What is the Most Difficult Guitar Riff to Play?


What Makes A Difficult Guitar Riff?

Difficult guitar riffs usually contain complex rhythms and alternate guitar tunings. There may also be advanced fretting and playing techniques, such as tapping, hammer-on, or pull-offs. Finally, difficult riffs may need to be played fast and sustained over a long period.

Guitar riffs are usually short musical phrases played with a guitar, electric or acoustic. Riffs are also usually played repetitively to serve as a background or building block of a song. 

Riffs differ from a chord progression or strumming pattern in that they are more melodic and set in pattern. They are also usually shorter. Riffs can also serve as hooks to catch the listener’s attention or create memorable song parts. 

Guitar riffs can be easy to play or incredibly hard to master, depending on the musicians. There are several ways you can use to tell if a riff is hard to play:

Complex Rhythms

Rhythms are the flow of how a riff is played. Certain riffs are quite straightforward and can be easily picked up by ear. You only need to hear it played a few times, and you can play the rhythm right away on your guitar.

Some riffs, however, are a lot harder to pick up. These usually have intricate rhythms or syncopations that require you to repeatedly listen to them to master them. 


Slow riffs are usually easier to pick up, as they usually have simpler rhythms. Slower riffs also give you more time to adjust your fingering, making it easier to learn, pick up, and play later. 

Faster riffs, however, may require you to play with more agility. Playing riffs fast for a long time may tire your hands quickly. Playing fast also gives you less time to adjust finger positioning, making it harder to maintain accuracy in rhythm and fingering. 

Alternate Tunings

Some riffs may be composed using alternate tunings. This means the strings are tuned differently from standard tuning. This makes the learning process a little bit more confusing and technically demanding. 

This is because when you alter the tuning, you also need to relearn chord shapes and scale patterns. These additional changes make your learning process harder.

Advanced Fretting Technique

Simpler riffs often do not require difficult fretting work, your fingers usually do not stretch beyond three frets, and you may not need to play things such as barre chords. 

With more advanced riffs, however, you may have to stretch your fingers into four frets. There may also be intricate fingerings, such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, or slides. You may also need to jump far between different frets when playing. 

Unconventional Playing Techniques

Finally, some riffs may require you to add unconventional guitar-playing techniques, which are not usually played. These include tapping, using the wah pedal or benders, percussive slaps, or tapping.

These are not easy to master, so if your targeted riffs have these features, it will be hard to learn and play.

What Is The Most Difficult Guitar Riff To Play?

It may be hard to decide on the most difficult riff to play because different riffs may emphasize different skills. As a result, some complex riffs may be easy for some players and, at the same time, difficult for others.

Instead of trying to decide on one, we thought we would show you 8 of the hardest riffs that will challenge your guitar-playing skills. They are:

“Blackened” – Metallica

The guitar riffs in some parts of the song combine several skills, making them very hard to master. For example, the riff in the introductions section alternates between 9/8 and 4/4 time signatures, making rhythmic counting very difficult. 

On top of that, some riffs require you to play fast and for a long period. This can easily cause fatigue in your strumming hand, making you lose accuracy over time. Aside from the speed, there are also frequent tempo changes.

“Poison Was The Cure” – Megadeth

Talk to any guitarists on the riffs of the song “Poison Was The Cure” by Megadeth, and you will see them grimacing. It is a fast song with complex riffs. The complexity comes from speed, picking, wide fretboard range, and unconventional scale patterns. 

The song has riffs that require fast alternate picking, often done using unconventional scale patterns and arpeggios. You also need to play the riffs over a wide fretboard range, meaning your hands need to travel around much more than usual. 

“Cliffs Of Dover” – Eric Johnson

“Cliffs of Dover” by Eric Johnson is well known for its difficulty – it has intricate and challenging guitar riffs that few players can truly master. Eric Johnson employs very unconventional playing methods in the song, too. 

As a start, the riffs require you to play with a fast tempo, meaning your hands may tire quickly. On top of that, you also need to execute techniques such as tapping, bending, vibratos, and rapid scale runs. There is also hybrid picking, where you combine your fingers and picks to pluck the strings. 

“Snow (Hey oh)” – Red Hot Chilli Peppers

When you put John Frusciante on a guitar, you know he will come out with some incredible stuff. The riffs played in the song “Snow (Hey Oh)” have an incredible mix of skills, making it hard to master. 

Frusciante plays the riffs syncopated, which means they are played off-beat. There are also fingerpicking, sliding, and string-skipping playing involved. To top this all, Frusciante also plates these riffs blazing fast over a long period. Good luck keeping up!

“Black Dog” – Led Zeppelin

There are many reasons to add the song “Black Dog” to this list. Jimmy Page may not have unleashed his god-like playing skill on this song, but the things he played for the guitar riffs in the song will be hard to replicate.

Watch him play the riffs, and you will notice complex, syncopated rhythms that take time to grasp. There are also many picking styles, such as hybrid, fast, and staccato picking. 

As if the whole thing was not difficult enough, Page slipped in more bends, vibratos, hammer-ons, and pull-offs. The whole riffs are also played fast, over a sustained period.

“Little Wing” – Stevie Ray Vaughn

There is a reason why Stevie Ray Vaugh is such a legend. His guitar skills are legendary, and some of his songs, such as “Little Wing, ” contain difficult riffs that few can play with good flair. 

The riffs in the song contain many slides, with bends and vibrato, executed with good expression and groove. There is also phrasing, intricate fingerpicking, and open string play to produce the kind of riffs only Stevie could produce.

“Stream Of Consciousness” – Dream Theatre

Mention Dream Theater, and the name John Petrucci comes into the picture. These legendary guitarists composed some sick guitar riffs for the band; the ones in “Stream of Consciousness” may be some of his best.

You will notice the technical complexity if you listen actively to the riffs inside. Arpeggios, rapid alternate-picking plays, and difficult legato runs require you to use your best technical skills. 

Petrucci also extended the fretboards, playing the song using 7 and 8-string guitars. This further complicates the playing, making the song very challenging to pick up.

“CAFO” – Animals As Leaders

If you are a metalhead, you would know the song “CAFO” (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) by Animals as Leaders. The guitarist for the band, Tosin Abasi, added his flair to the riffs in the song, stuffing as many challenging and technically complex plays into it.

Abasi plays the song using an 8-string guitar, meaning the riffs he could produce are much more wide-ranging. You may need to pick up a similar guitar to play what he plays. 8-string guitars may also be a bit alien to your fretting and strumming hands.

On top of the guitar, there are polyrhythms, where multiple rhythms are played at the same time. You may also hear techniques such as tapping, sweeping, and fingerpicking performed. These are all executed under odd time signatures that change throughout the song, too.

What Are The Best Ways To Pick Up Difficult Riffs?

If you decide to embark on the challenging task of picking up difficult riffs, you will need all the tips you can get. In general, aside from having some good guitar skills, you can also use the tips below to help you learn difficult riffs:

Watch How It Is Played, Repeatedly

One of the fastest ways to pick up a riff is to watch and listen to it being played. As you watch, you also hear and may be able to piece out how some of the riffs need to be played. 

For example, you could see the finger placement and how the guitarist moved his hands around the fretboard and the strings. You can then mimic the same thing when playing. 

By listening, you will also pick up the expressive side of the riffs, and you can incorporate these into your playing later.

Learn To Read Tabs

Aside from watching the masters at their own craft, many fellow guitarists have spent time writing the tabs to the riffs you want to learn. You can use these tabs to help you figure out how to play certain riffs quite quickly.

The key here is to learn how to read tabs. Fortunately, reading tabs are not as difficult as reading sheet music and can be picked up quickly. Tons of YouTube videos can teach you how to read tabs, so this is not an issue.

Play Very Slowly

Finally, after watching and reading the tabs, now is the time to put your bare hands into the crucible – time to practice and play the riffs. 

In this stage, the best tip is to play very slowly and ensure you get the basics and movements executed perfectly before trying to play fast. Use a metronome to count the beats, and try to play it as a slow beat. 

If you try to play fast too soon, you may not have the right playing technique yet, meaning your riffs will not sound the same as the original. 

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