It’s no secret that the guitar is the backbone of pretty much every song. Whether it’s a railing, electric solo that makes listeners want to break out their best air guitar, a stripped-down acoustic rhythm that’s vital to a song’s foundation or a twang-fueled riff that fills up the honky-tonk dance floor, the guitar is the star of countless iconic country songs.
But in a world full of amazing riffs, which ones rise to the very top? Of course, guitar masters including Glen Campbell and Bonnie Raitt deserve recognition, but there are a few modern rockers, too -- such as Brothers Osborne and Lindsay Ell, who can send all the boys packing with exquisite guitar work on almost every song she releases.
Scroll down to hear The Boot’s picks for country music's 10 best guitar riffs.
Brothers Osborne always kill it when it comes to guitar-riffing songs, thanks in large part to John Osborne’s quick fingers and blues-soaked style. The 2015 single “Stay a Little Longer” is a perfect example, featuring both a mid-song guitar shred and an explosion of rhythmic energy in the outro. In fact, if you really love first-rate guitar playing, take a listen to the extended cut, which features close to three minutes of the Brothers Osborne completely rocking out and taking the song even higher.
Since her first album in 2008, Ell has brought her multi-faceted talent to bear in a number of decidedly unpolished and raw tracks that highlight her skills as an axewoman. With the 2017 track, “Criminal,” which appears on her third studio album, The Project, the 29-year-old country rocker delivers a strong vocal performance as well, but it’s the song’s powerful guitar progression (like at the 2:30 mark in the video below) that really makes listeners take note, proving once and for all that women rock just as hard as men … if not harder.
Paisley may be best known for singles such as “Whiskey Lullaby” and “Remind Me,” but it’s sprawling instrumental tracks like “The Nervous Breakdown” that truly reveal his virtuoso as a guitarist. Released as part of his 1999 album Who Needs Pictures, “The Nervous Breakdown” is over three minutes of pure guitar mastery, with Paisley’s fingers flying over the strings and shredding every single second. Songs like this one have made Paisley just as well-known for his guitar skills as his singing.
With elements of of jazz, traditional pop and blues, “Walkin’ After Midnight” is a country classic that is known as much for its trademark pedal steel as it is for Cline’s sultry vocals. Often touted as one the all-time greatest songs in country music, “Walkin’ After Midnight” is everything we love about a guitar riff: instantly recognizable, but still perfectly in sync with the rest of the song. Released in 1957, “Walkin’ After Midnight” became Cline’s first major hit single, even though the singer didn’t want it at first. Cline only agreed to record the song after her record label agreed to also let her record “A Poor Man’s Roses (or a Rich Man’s Gold),” which was released on the flip side of “Walkin’ After Midnight.”
Leave it to Urban to turn a heartache-fueled country ballad into a full-fledged arena rocker. The guitar maestro’s 2006 single “Stupid Boy” features Urban at his best, with electric guitar ripping throughout the song and a healthy dose of proper shredding in the outro -- so much so, in fact, that in order to truly see Urban shine on this song, you have to catch a live performance, like the one below, which features over two minutes of pure, riffing genius at the end. “Stupid Boy” landed at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and earned Urban a Grammys trophy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 2008.
Another point in the case that women rock the hardest is Raitt’s iconic 1991 hit, “Something to Talk About.” Released as single from her 11th studio album, Luck of the Draw, “Something to Talk About” is quintessential Raitt, highlighting the singer’s unapologetic brand of country-blues just as much as her superb guitar skills. Raitt’s guitar solo midway through the song shows off the bracing electric-slide style she has become known for and has said is “like a human voice … [that can] sustain a note as long as your emotions will hold.” “Something to Talk About” peaked at No. 3 on the charts, but earned Raitt a Grammy Awards for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1992, and has become one of her most enduring songs.
When Owens and the Buckaroos recorded “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail” in 1964, he'd already notched two No. 1 albums and had cultivated a strong fanbase as one of the pioneers of the “Bakersfield sound.” Trading slick guitar licks and polished production for twangy honky-tonk and pedal steel, “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail” not only helped to define an entire sub-genre of music, it introduced one of the most recognizable guitar progressions in country music.
When Campbell released “Gentle on My Mind” in 1968, it quickly became one of his biggest hits thanks to the way it combines Campbell’s trademark croon with his formidable guitar skills. The Rhinstone Cowboy first heard "Gentle on My Mind," written and originally recorded by John Hartford, on the radio. He instantly wanted to record it, and gathered session players (including then-rising star Leon Russell) to record his own version, with the hope of convincing his producer and record label to let him record it officially. Campbell’s team fell in love with the demo itself, releasing it as the single -- and the rest, as they say, his history.
Released in 1973, “Jolene” became one of Parton’s first hit singles, reaching the top spot on the country charts and earning the young singer two Grammy Awards nominations. (Surprisingly, she wouldn’t actually win a Grammys trophy for “Jolene” until 43 years later, when she teamed up with the a cappella group Pentatonix for a cover of the song.) As for the guitar riff that so many have come to know and love? Parton says it’s beloved for the same reason that the song is: It’s simple. "It's a great chord progression -- people love that "Jolene" lick," Parton says. "It's as much a part of the song almost as the song. And because it's just the same word over and over, even a first-grader or a baby can sing, 'Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene.' It's like, how hard can that be?"
Perhaps one of the most instantly recognizable opening guitar riffs in all of country music, Cash’s 1956 hit song “I Walk the Line” is legendary. Although the country classic was recorded after Cash had already found success (and amazing guitar licks) with songs including “Folsom Prison Blues,” Cash wrote “I Walk the Line” years before he became a recording artist. When he returned to the song years later, he found that he actually liked the warped, eroding original, and in order to achieve the unique sound of the song’s horse-clacking rhythm, he wound a piece of wax paper through his guitar strings. Pretty clever, right?