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Top 5 Grunge Riffs of the 90s

Ayla Tesler-Mabe  /  Lessons / Feb 18

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Let’s be real… it’s impossible to come up with a truly objective top 5 guitar riffs list. Everyone out there likes and appreciates something a little different, and there’s nothing wrong with that. So when Ayla set out to create a top 5 list of the best grunge guitar riffs of the 90s, she made sure to spend some time asking other guitarists which five riffs they thought should make the cut. In this lesson, Ayla will be teaching you how to play those five iconic grunge guitar riffs from the 90s.

Every single riff that made the list uses some sort of dropped tuning. For the sake of keeping things easy, Ayla will be teaching the riffs in standard tuning. 

Zero – Smashing Pumpkins
The first riff we’ll look at is so great because of the way it combines heaviness with creativeness. There are even multiple layers of rhythm guitar to make the riff even heavier. To play along to the recording of this song you’ll need to tune your guitar down to Eb standard. This riff makes really interesting use of octaves and natural harmonics. 

Milk It – Nirvana
Narrowing it down to just one Nirvana riff is tough, but this deeper cut off of the In Utero album might just be their best. It’s another song where you’ll need to tune down to Eb standard just like the rest of the In Utero album. It makes use of fast-moving power chords so it’s important to keep your hand in one static shape while moving it around.

If you want more Nirvana riffs, check out our lesson on The 5 Best Kurt Cobain Riffs.

Even Flow – Pearl Jam
This riff might just be the most memorable grunge riff ever. The song was written by Stone Gossard and is tuned around 50 cents sharp which makes playing along to the recording a bit challenging. For the sake of learning the riff, we’ll be tuning to D. Here, you’ll need to combine slides with alternate picking and ghost notes.

Rusty Cage – Soundgarden
Soundgarden is another band with a whole catalogue worth of great riffs to choose from. The primary guitar technique you’ll be using to play this riff is hammer-ons. The low E string is tuned down to B and if you can use a Wah pedal you’ll sound more like the original recording.

Man In The Box – Alice In Chains
The final riff in our list is one of the most important riffs of the 90s. Man In The Box was the 2nd most played song of the decade on mainstream rock radio. As expected, the guitar was tuned down to Eb for this riff. For the rhythm part, you’ll need to use a lot of palm muting and also some muted strums. To play muted strums all you have to do is lightly place your fretting hand fingers over the strings and strike the strings with your strumming hand.

For the lead part, a Wah or Talk-Box is going to help get you closer to the tone of the original.

This part of the riff is all in E minor pentatonic so it should be fairly easy for you to follow along. Make sure you add lots of vibrato and micro-bends to make the riff sound polished!


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