Note that I'm not saying The Best Opening Riffs-- too many songs, too little time; I couldn't even limit it to 10 (thanks for all the suggestions), so 25 Favorite Opening Riffs it has to be, in five 5-riff installments.
A few arbitrary rules: 1. One riff per band. 2. Has to be an opener, starting from the record's very first note. 3. Vocals don't count.
Let's face it -- guitar licks are our opening-riff bread and butter. And here are the masters:
Fun, Fun, Fun / The Beach Boys
Probably the perfect surf guitar lick -- stolen from Chuck Berry's "Johnny B Goode," of course, but just enough crisper and tighter. This is a song near and dear to my heart, if only because it mentions Indianapolis in it. The Beach Boys rushed out this single in February 1964, knowing that in a week or two the British Invasion would hit, and their clean-cut monopoly of the airwaves would be over. Well, they went down swinging with this one.
California Dreamin' / The Mamas and the Papas
Fast-forward to January 1966, with Beatlemania subsiding (until Sgt Pepper) and Folk Rock making its bid to take over. And here came John Phillips & Co., ready to score a hit with this beauty. That brooding acoustic opening (played by Wrecking Crew guitarist P. F. Sloan) was the perfect mix of protest-song edginess and sublime melancholy. They may have been dreaming of California (and recording it in L.A.) but the mood here is definitely cold and gray as a New York City winter.
Son of a Preacher Man / Dusty Springfield
Dripping slow and sweet as tupelo honey, this sexy September 1968 hit comes from the iconic album Dusty in Memphis. That's guitarist Reggie Young of the Memphis Cats, bringing a lazy Southern style to Dusty's soul sister sound. This narrowly beat out Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" -- there is no doubt what Dusty and the preacher's kid will be throwing off the Tallahatchee Bridge.
Ohio / Crosby, Still, Nash & Young
Protest song? This is the greatest one of all time. And that opening is just about perfect -- insistent, calm, ruthless. The marching tempo, the blithe skipping treble notes, that stern bottom line, and just enough harshness to the electric guitar to let you know we mean business. In June 1970, this was the record that defined us.
Stairway to Heaven / Led Zeppelin
Oh, this song goes a LOT of different places before its eight minutes are over -- but for a perfect slow acoustic opener, can you beat this? I always forget how slow it is, each note taking its exquisite time before the recorders kick in. Nevertheless, you know exactly what song this is. Wait for it....