October 19, 2022By Brad Tolinski 0 Comment
What does it mean when we describe a guitar riff as being “heavy”?
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the answer was simple—it meant any repeating power chord lick like those found in Black Sabbath’s or Metallica’s catalog. But over the last couple decades the definition of “heavy” has broadened to include any cool guitar melody that has weight, presence and atmosphere.
Moody arpeggiated chords, funky tapped runs played on 8-string guitars, and cinematic, reverb-drenched melodies concocted on software amplifiers like those found in Positive Grid’s OMNYSS gear collection are all considered heavy these days, and we’re all for it.
In the following, we’d like to celebrate some music that reflects this exciting new way of thinking about “heaviness” and the electric guitar. Are these the heaviest guitar riffs? We think so, but you decide.
Led Zeppelin - “Kashmir” (1975/2007)
Leave it to Led Zeppelin to be 20 or 30 years ahead of their time. Originally recorded in 1975 for Zeppelin’s classic Physical Graffiti album, “Kashmir” was one of the first songs to show how to craft a heavy riff with nary a power chord in sight. By using orchestral strings, an exotic D-A-D-G-A-D guitar tuning and relentless pounding rhythms, the band created a new kind of larger-than-life brutality. Their extraordinary live version of the song, performed during their historic 2007 reunion (see video), doubled down on the original, making it even bigger and bolder, transforming “Kasmir” into perhaps the most epic guitar riff rocker of all time.
Animals As Leaders - “Wave of Babies” (2009)
Perhaps no other guitarist in the universe embodies the new idea of “heavy” more than Animals As Leaders’ Tosin Abasi. It’s hard to even keep track of the number of brilliant heavy guitar riffs in songs like “Wave of Babies.” From the ominous, watery chords that begin the tune, to the bowel loosening single-note themes that follow, to the impossibly fast leads that permeate the rest of the song, “Wave of Babies” is a far cry from traditional metal. But there is no denying this symphony of destruction performed on Abasi’s 8-string guitar is heavier than hell.
Floor - “Oblation” (2014)
Metal aficionados argue whether Floor is sludge metal, doom metal or stoner metal, but however you slice it, their ability to summon god-like power chords is incontrovertible. “Oblation,” featured on the Florida band’s third studio album, is a prime example of their uniquely crushing sound produced on guitars so loosely strung they “flap like a pensioner’s bingo wing.” But what makes the band truly special is the bracing clarity of their heaviest guitar riffs. There’s no mud on this Floor, but there’s plenty of dirty heaviness.
Morbid Angel - “God of Emptiness” (1993)
When the video of Morbid Angel’s “God of Emptiness” appeared on an episode of Beavis and Butthead in the 1990s, the duo famously asked, “Whoah, is that a bear?” You can’t blame their confusion. Back then, nothing sounded like Morbid Angel except perhaps a pack of angry grizzlies. Guitarist Trey Azagthoth, practically re-invented metal in the early 1990s with his subterranean take on detuned power chords, and “God of Emptiness,” is widely credited as one of death metal’s highest peaks. It also inspired thousands of the guitarists in the following years to see just how low they could go without tearing a hole in the fabric of the universe.
Joe Satriani - “Musterion” (2008)
These days, a “heavy guitar sound” does not always refer to the kind of power chords played by the likes of Azagthoth or James Hetfield. In fact, in the 2020s, the best heavy guitar riffs are often just a “vibe.” Enter Joe Satriani’s “Musterion.” One doesn’t usually think of Satch as being a particularly heavy guitarist, but on this slithering instrumental, Satch unleashes a series of uncharacteristically sinister melodies over a hypnotic two-chord progression that are undoubtedly “weighty.” Believe or not, it was reported that upon its release, “Musterion” caused an outbreak of young listeners in Ohio to go into a trance and repeat over and over again, “Yes master…these are indeed some of the heaviest guitar riffs ever created…play them again…play them again…play them again.”
Tool - “Stinkfist” (1996)
Speaking of heavy vibes, few other guitarists compare with Adam Jones of Tool when it comes to summoning cutting edge heaviness. Using his personal vocabulary of eerie pick scratches, harmonic squeals, dissonant wah-wah crud and unsettling, reptilian chord progressions, Jones heavy guitar riffs are the MCU villains of the rock and roll multiverse, and “Stinkfist” is his Thanos.
Polyphia - “Ego Death” (featuring Steve Vai) (2022)
Like Animals As Leaders, the wildmen of Polyphia, Tim Henson and Scott LePage, are at the forefront of carving new definitions of heaviness with their multi-layered brand of progressive metalcore. Their latest masterpiece, “Ego Death,” with guest guitar legend Steve Vai, features some of the most epic guitar riffs we’ve heard this year. The heavy part comes from the sheer audacity of their extraordinary technique. And when Vai joins Henson and LePage for a three-part guitar blow out five minutes into the song, it’s like a volcano erupting in the corn field between your ears.
Sub Rosa - “Ghosts of a Dead Empire” (2013)
“Sub rosa” is a Latin phrase connoting secrecy. It makes sense. Because there is nothing more mysterious than how this band manages to make every pounding chord they play sound bigger than an atom bomb exploding in the middle of the Grand Canyon. The unearthly rumble heard throughout “Ghosts of a Dead Empire” is so brutal, it somehow makes Slayer sound as twee as Buddy Holly and the Crickets in comparison. But the oddest thing is just how beautiful Sub Rosa makes the gritty decay sound. If this is the future of heavy rock guitar riffs, sign us up.
Final Thoughts: The Heaviest Guitar Riffs of All Time
Now that you’ve been exposed to some of the heaviest riffs of all time, if you're a guitarist you may wonder how in the hell you can even begin to compete without the aid of a room full of 4x12 cabinets or an expensive recording studio.
The good news is that guitar technology has radically changed in recent years, which is part of the reason our definition of heavy is changing. Developments in affordable software amplification is allowing modern guitarists to create explosive new sounds in the comfort of their home they never thought would possible just a decade ago—for surprisingly little money.
Perhaps the most impressive new gear to hit the amp sim world is the brand new, sonically disruptive OMNYSS gear collection by Positive Grid. Powered by the company’s award-winning BIAS FX 2 platform, OMNYSS lets you plug into 3 other-worldly amps and 6 brilliant effects. OMNYSS is redefining what a guitar can sound like, whether you are playing doom metal, classic metal or scoring a state-of-the-art science fiction adventure for Netflix. Check it out now.