Rock guitar solos? Often they’re overblown, overrated and a waste of precious notes. To those who worship them, I say listen to more jazz – because that’s where the greatest soloists make their living. But the guitar riff? Now we’re talking. That always has been, and in many ways still is, the essence of rock ‘n’ roll – at least of the guitar-bass-drums variety that has thrived since rockers like Chuck Berry showed everyone how it was done.

A riff, when done right, can shape a song and often rule it. It’s a brief statement – sometime only a handful of notes or chords – that recurs throughout the arrangement and can become the song’s central hook. Many of the greatest songs of the rock era begin with a riff – The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water, Aerosmith’s Walk this Way, The Smiths’ How Soon is Now, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, The Isley Brothers’ Who’s That Lady? And when done that spectacularly, the riff becomes the core of the tune, its most memorable feature when listeners play it back in their head. You can hum a riff or sing it like a melody, and best of all you can rock it on air guitar.

Of course, the riff existed long before rock ‘n’ roll. The notion of a brief, recurring melodic figure to anchor a composition and seduce the listener goes back to classical music – where it was more commonly referred to as an ostinato. It was also commonplace in jazz (see pioneering electric guitarist Charlie Christian’s riff-based playing in Benny Goodman’s sextet in 1939-42).

Deep Purple - Smoke on the Water (with introduction by the band's late keyboardist Jon Lord)

In the ‘40s, blues phrases such as the insistent chug that opens John Lee Hooker’s Boogie Chillen’ and the expressively melancholy riff that recurs throughout T Bone Walker’s Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad) would produce countless imitations and variations in subsequent decades. In the ‘50s, when electric guitar began to take over as the primary instrument in what became known as rock ‘n’ roll, the riff ruled.

In this era, the progressions invented by riff masters such as Berry or Bo Diddley derived not just from blues and country, but jazz, gospel and even Latin music. This no-rules approach created a huge platform for innovation. The shave-and-a-haircut lick that anchors Bo Diddley is based in part on an Afro-Cuban rhythm, a cowboy lick from a Gene Autry song (Jingle Jangle Jingle) and a thigh-slapping children’s beat (Hambone). Add Diddley’s distortion, and you’ve got something timeless.

Jazz and blues informed the Johnny Burnette Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio’s rocked up version of Train Kept A-Rollin’. It was originally a Tiny Bradshaw jump blues with a scat vocal, but Paul Burlison’s raunchy riff – which matched Burnette’s fierce vocal – put it in overdrive. Mexican folk music filtered into Ritchie Valens’ 1958 classic La Bamba, in which the singer’s muscular guitar demolishes the melody’s wedding-song origins.

Repurposed gospel riffs were everywhere in the ‘50s and ‘60s, a number of them appropriated from the tremolo-soaked guitar vocabulary of Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples, the patriarch of Chicago’s Staple Singers. In the ‘60s, as they made the transition from gospel to folk, protest and message music, Pops came up with an all-timer, a clarion call that kicked off the Staple Singers’ civil-rights anthem Freedom Highway.

‘Human riff’

Around the same time, The Rolling Stones were charting with The Last Time, a remake of a gospel track they first heard by the Staple Singers, This May be the Last Time. The man who became known as the ‘Human Riff’ – the Stones’ Keith Richards – acknowledges that he nicked the guitar lick from Pops, at a time when it was commonplace for ascendant rockers to channel the blues, country and gospel artists who preceded them.

The Rolling Stones - Start Me Up

Richards soon came up with plenty of ideas of his own by experimenting with distortion and open tunings. Satisfaction is built on a riff so elemental and seemingly simple that Richards thought of it as a throwaway. But that sense of inevitability is among the main reasons the riff and the song are indelible. Richards had dozens of equally terrific moments of inspiration: the acoustic riff played through a cassette-player microphone that opens Jumpin’ Jack Flash, the tremolo-soaked guitar at the centre of Gimme Shelter, the laid back Tumbling Dice riff – in each of these tracks, the guitar sounds as distinctive as the human voice.

The same is true for Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, who had a million of them besides the iconic Whole Lotta Love, from the low-level-of-difficulty-but-still-classic lick that anchors Heartbreaker to the Eastern-flavoured Kashmir. From the classic riff grew the classic song.

Led Zeppelin - Whole Lotta Love

Soul, funk and disco had their own masters of concision on the guitar. Steve Cropper wrote, produced and played on countless hits for Stax Records in Memphis, none more indelible than Soul Man, which earned a mid-song shout-out from the singers: “Play it, Steve!”

Name that tune

Nile Rodgers’ guitar work on Chic’s Good Times is nearly as iconic as the late Bernard Edwards’ bass riff, and 30-plus years later Rodgers also defined Daft Punk’s 2013 single Get Lucky. Rodgers represents the self-effacing nature of what makes a riff great. As essentially a rhythm guitarist, he serves the song rather than the solo.

But that’s not to say a riff can’t have a personality or evoke a time, a place or even a smell. Slayer’s guitar riffs on Raining Blood (1986) personify evil. James Burton’s swampy riff on Dale Hawkins, Suzie Q (1957) felt like it emerged from a Deep South bayou. Roger McGuinn’s 12-string guitar did indeed sound like a rocket ship in the Byrds’ Eight Miles High (1966).

The White Stripes - Seven Nation Army

That ability to evoke something with a handful of notes and chords is what makes a riff resonate. Solos can build a guitarist’s reputation, but it’s the riff that burns into our subconscious. You hear the opening notes of Berry’s Johnny B Goode, AC/DC’s Back in Black or The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army and you are instantly in the song. You remember the time and place when it first blew your mind. And you might even reach for that invisible guitar that is always next to you to begin playing along.

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here 

BBC Radio 2 will announce the result of their poll to find the greatest rock riff on Monday 25 August.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.