Jamie Holroyd Guitar

Jamie Holroyd Guitar

5 Rock Guitar Riffs for Jazz Guitar

5 Rock Guitar Riffs for Jazz Guitar

No matter how much of a jazzer you are, every guitarist I know (including myself) gets the occasional urge to crank up the volume, dig in, and play some rock guitar riffs.

Even if the distortion pedal is gathering dust in the wardrobe, classic rock riffs are the reason many of us first got interested in the guitar.

This article is inspired by artists such as Alex Skolnick, and aims to give you an excuse to play your favorite classic rock riffs in a clean jazz style.

I recorded each of the examples using my fingers, but they should work with any right hand technique.

Many of the chordal techniques demonstrated in this lesson are explained fully in my 30 Days to Better Jazz Guitar Comping eBook.



Rock Guitar Riffs – Smoke on The Water


What better way to start things off than with what is arguably the most iconic guitar riff of all time.

This rock guitar riff starts with a D minor triad and moves into 4th guitar voicings.

I like to tune the guitar to drop D and play a low D to fill out the sound as demonstrated in the audio example.

Drop D is often thought of a rock guitar tuning but jazz guitar legend Mundell Lowe has played with this tuning for years.

Clint Strong quotes the smoke on the water rock guitar riff in a similar way in his version of Wave.

I wonder if you’d still get funny looks in a guitar store for playing Smoke on The Water with quartal harmony?


rock guitar riffs SOTW modal normalSmoke

Check out .20 seconds in


Rock Guitar Riffs – Seven Nation Army


This next riff is one of the most iconic rock guitar riffs from my generation.

The original recording is in E minor but the riff has been transposed to fit in a more central location on the guitar neck.

Harmony wise, I heard this as a I VI II V progression that is best suited to a bossa nova type of feel.

A chord is written for almost every single note in the melody but feel free to play some notes as single lines if it helps you play it more freely.


rock guitar riffs Seven Nation ArmySeven Nation


Rock Guitar Riffs – Sunshine of Your Love


Like him or not, Eric Clapton has played some catchy guitar riffs over the years and Sunshine of Your Love is one of them.

Though he did not compose this one, he is certainly known for playing the iconic guitar part.

The original melody comes from the blues scale which is generally thought of as minor sound.

Here however, I am harmonizing it using dominant 7 chords instead.

Dominant 7#9 chords have a bluesy character which is why I choose to use them extensively on this rock guitar riff.


rock guitar riffs sunshine of your loveSunshine


Rock Guitar Riffs – House of The Rising Sun


The Animal’s arrangement of the classic tune “House of The Rising Sun” is a study piece that I have taught to many private guitar students over the years.

I was scheduled to teach this riff a few months ago, and the student didn’t show up and that’s when my fingers started adding extensions right, left and centre.

This riff is inspired more by Pat Metheny’s jazz guitar style and utilizes open strings.

The string pattern and chords are the same as the original recording; I have just moved a few fingers and added jazz extensions to the original chords.


rock guitar riffs house of the rising sun

House of The Rising Sun


Rock Guitar Riffs – Cocaine


Here is another riff played by Clapton and composed by JJ Cale to finishe off.

Like Smoke on The Water, Cocaine is played using quartal riffs.

Many rock guitar riffs are played using what the rock community call ‘power chords’ aka a perfect fifth interval.

An easy tricky to make most power chord riffs sound jazzy is to harmonize them in fourths instead.

This type of harmony gives the riffs a post bop esc type of sound.


rock guitar riffs cocaineCocaine

I hope that you have enjoyed playing through each of those rock guitar riffs arranged for jazz guitar.

What are your favorite rock and pop tunes to arrange for jazz guitar? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Here is Alex Skolnick shredding out another one of my favorite Black Sabbath rock guitar riffs.



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Great post. These ideas are excellent for busking! :)

Have to nitpick though, House of the Rising Sun is a traditional tune. Bob Dylan even recorded before The Animals.

Jamie Holroyd

Thanks. Very true, and Woody Guthrie before Bob Dylan. Obviously this riff is from the Animals versions but I will make it clealer :)


While I'm at it, check out Maria Moita, it's probably the song Jon Lord was thinking of when Smoke on the Water was being made. I have to appreciate jazzing up Deep Purple when they so often rocked out on jazz tunes. :)

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Very cool lesson. I look forward to learning those and pulling them out when playing with friends.

BTW, the Cocaine riff wasn't written by Eric Clapton. JJ Cale wrote the song including the riff. Just a little tidbit.

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Nice lesson. Always enjoy them. Thanks for the audio, also.

Jamie Holroyd

No worries, glad you enjoyed it. It was fun to put together!

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Jeremy Acton

I really enjoyed the ideas shared here, Jamie, but I think the audio examples should at least have had a bit of overdrive. ;-)

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