Sky Arts discovers the nation's greatest guitar riff of all time

Friday 24 November 2023

Sky polls UK music aficionados to reveal the nation’s favourite 6-string riff of all time to celebrate launch of Greatest Guitar Riff’s on Sky Arts

Sweet Child o’ Mine by Guns n’ Roses is the best guitar riff of all time – more than 35 years after it was released.

A poll of 2,000 music fans saw Prince’s Purple Rain voted in second place, with Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits taking third.

Sky Arts today reveals which iconic guitar solo takes the top spot according to the UK public. The survey results celebrate Greatest Guitar Riffs, a new three part documentary series, which premieres on Sky Arts and NOW on Friday 24th November.

Among the more modern tunes to feature in the top 40 were Sam Fender’s Seventeen Going Under, Pharell Williams’ Happy and Arctic Monkeys Do I Wanna Know.

The poll was commissioned by Sky Arts ahead of the launch of Greatest Guitar Riffs, featuring axe legends Andy Summers, Tony Iommi and Nancy Wilson. 

Phil Edgar-Jones, Director of Sky Arts, said: "Do not fret (sorry) for here is the definitive run down of the great guitar riffs of all time, showcasing top masters of the electric six string. It’s the ultimate air guitar play list.

“Whether it’s the late, great Jimi Hendrix, the stalwarts such as Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin, or the new artists coming through, rock n’ roll will never die.

“There’s new talent coming through constantly. The appetite for new tunes and sweet riffs is as great as it ever has been.”

The research, found an overwhelming 83% said they prefer music with guitars in it, with 81% saying a memorable guitar riff was vital to a good rock song.

The electric guitar is considered the most important instrument to make a song truly great (58%), ahead of the drums (58%) and bass (41%).

Queen’s Brian May, who features in the series, was voted the greatest guitarist of all time, ahead of the iconic Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. Other notable mentions include Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits and the Guns n’ Roses legend Slash.

Being unique (41%) and helping you identify the song within seconds of it starting (37%) were the other key factors in making a guitar riff great.

The ‘golden age’ of the riff was the 1970s, according to 30% of music fans, while 21% felt the 80s had the most to offer.

Worryingly, more than half (53%) said the guitar riff is dying out – with 74% of those believing it’s a bad thing. But there’s still hope yet, as a whopping 65% felt the guitar is one of the coolest instruments you can play.

The three-part documentary series unpicks the workings of some of the most famous riffs in musical history, taking audiences on an exhilarating journey which tracks the personal impact of the guitar riff on three legendary guitarists - Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, The Police’s Andy Summers and Heart’s Nancy Wilson.

The iconic music trio will be joined by an array of guitar stars, including jazz guitarist George Benson, Dave Keuning (The Killers), Richie Sambora (Bon Jovi), Hank Marvin (The Shadows) and Orianthi (Michael Jackson/Alice Cooper). Together, they will cover riffs from the likes of Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Rage Against The Machine and more.

Greatest Guitar Riffs (3x60) was commissioned by Phil Edgar-Jones, Director of Sky Arts and Entertainment for Zai Bennett, Managing Director of Content for Sky UK and Ireland. The Commissioning Editor for Sky is Barbara Lee.

The series is produced by Somethin’ Else TV, a division of Sony Music Entertainment. Ian Sharpe serves as Executive Producer.

Greatest Guitar Riffs will air on Sky Arts, Freeview and NOW from 24th November 2023

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Greatest Guitar Riffs synopsis:

Episode One 

Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi pulls back the curtain on the creation of Sabbath’s classic riffs and the creation of heavy metal, delving into tracks including Paranoid, War Pigs and Iron Man. He’s also joined by Queen’s Brian May for an exclusive jam session.

Episode Two 

Legendary guitarist Andy Summers reflects on his favourite riffs of all time and tells the stories of the riffs that brought fame and fortune to The Police, including the opening bars of Grammy Award-winning hit Every Breath You Take. Andy also pays a visit to one of the best jazz guitar players of all time, George Benson.

Episode Three 

Heart’s Nancy Wilson takes us on a very personal journey through the music and the riffs that influenced her, tracing a through-line from the music of Heart into the grunge scene of the 1990s. She’s joined by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil.


  1. "Sweet Child o' Mine" - Guns N' Roses
  2. “Purple Rain” - Prince
  3. "Sultans of Swing" - Dire Straits
  4. "Smoke on the Water" - Deep Purple
  5. "Money for Nothing" - Dire Straits
  6. "You Really Got Me" - The Kinks
  7. "Beat It" - Michael Jackson (Eddie Van Halen)
  8. "Every Breath You Take" - The Police
  9. "Walk This Way" - Aerosmith
  10. "Sweet Home Alabama" - Lynyrd Skynyrd
  11. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – Rolling Stones
  12. "Born to Be Wild" - Steppenwolf
  13. "Whole Lotta Love" - Led Zeppelin
  14. "Purple Haze" - Jimi Hendrix
  15. "Johnny B. Goode" - Chuck Berry
  16. "Rebel Rebel" - David Bowie
  17. "Seven Nation Army" - The White Stripes
  18. "Day Tripper" - The Beatles
  19. "Back in Black" - AC/DC
  20. "Thunderstruck" – AC/DC
  21. "Paranoid" - Black Sabbath
  22. "Enter Sandman" – Metallica


  1. Brian May (Queen)
  2. Jimi Hendrix
  3. Eric Clapton
  4. Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits)
  5. Slash (Guns N' Roses)
  6. Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin)
  7. Carlos Santana
  8. David Gilmour (Pink Floyd)
  9. Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones)
  10. Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters)
  11. Chuck Berry
  12. Angus Young (AC/DC)
  13. Johnny Marr (The Smiths)
  14. Eddie Van Halen
  15. Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath)
  16. Jeff Beck
  17. Kurt Cobain (Nirvana)
  18. B.B. King
  19. Pete Townshend (The Who)
  20. Joe Satriani