Rock and Roll songs are based on very simple ingredients:
- Three or four chords
- A catchy “hook”
- Relentless repetition
- A short, inviting, but usually mundane lead in or “Intro.”
The Intro is used to introduce the main phrasing, sound, theme, and foundational melody — the catchy riff — that lures us in and keeps us listening to the song itself. The song is what matters, not the Intro, though the Intro is important. In other words, nearly every intro is a byproduct of the song itself.
But a few Rock songs go way beyond the call of duty with the song Intro. These few Iconic Intros are works of art in and of themselves. We could listen only to these Intros to get something wonderful and unforgettable — something important way beyond the song itself.
I certainly have never forgotten the following Iconic Intros. Each one is linked to a video of the song. Enjoy and please feel free to give me your ideas on your most Iconic Rock Song Intros of All Time in the comments section.
Hells Bells. What can I say about Hells Bells? The intro is so perfect; I remember the first time I heard the bell in the first second. I was listening on my Walkman, headphones on, being driven in a car. I was 14 years old. I got goosebumps and actual shivers before the singing even started. It simply and slowly wrapped it’s enticing darkness around me like a blanket until the time when the singing starts; by then I was fully ensconced in the vibe of this epic, menacing tune. And the building doesn’t really end with the end of the intro. If you listen for it, the guitar part continues to build all the way into the second verse whereupon we are fully rocking along.
Metallica creates a song of punctuation and repetition in For Whom the Bell Tolls, offering the listener an all inclusive retreat into the existential reality of our doom. The intro to For Whom the Bell Tolls is striking enough with the layered sounds building together and the staccato belting of the tom toms; but what makes it stand out is that the main guitar riff is first played by the bass player. One must experience this live version from 1982 to fully appreciate how amazing this is.
It is at 2:10 into this 25 minute Pink Floyd masterpiece of old school Deep Track style rock — before the era of Album Oriented Rock ruined it for everyone — that my life changed. The sly, not piercing but beckoning, single note from David Gilmour’s Stratocaster enveloped my musician’s heart and what burst forth was a bona-fide and unquenchable desire for true to life rock and roll. That single note and the buildup to it — all by itself — would make this a masterpiece of an Intro. But this Intro is so much more — lasting another 6:33 from that first guitar note until the first words — that it stands as a perfect work of art all by itself.
For a song about stalking and the obsession of unrequited love, a relentless slowly building introduction that is longer than the song proper is the perfect way to begin. And so it is with this recent pop masterpiece from Death Cab for Cutie.
Some intros contain such a unique sound or riff that upon the first note you know what song it is and what is coming; so it is with The Spirit of the Radio by Rush. This introduction to an upbeat paean to the sound and joy and heartache of music gives us every single thing that rock is all about in 42 seconds. We hear rapid fire distorted guitar arpeggiation followed immediately by powerchord/bass/drum punctuation, drum lead, then fade out of the original riff and the start of a brand new guitar line using a different guitar and a different sound — all surrounded by a crescendo of drums and bass until Geddy Lee invites us to “Begin the day with a friendly voice…”
Snare Drum — power chord power chord — single note Stratocaster scream. Now, starting with a serious guitar solo is not that interesting or unique necessarily. But the Scorpions in this intro do two things — first they introduce the piercing signature single note heard throughout the song that adds punctuation better than any other song’s single note since Candy-O (about 20 seconds in). Second, the beginning moves from rock to something quiet and mellow flawlessly setting up the dynamic of the whole song from mellow to hard rock back to mellow — but always bringing us back to that intro that tells us that there really is no one like you.
First of all, there’s Ozzy screaming “Ahhhhlllllllll Abooooooord, hahahahahaha!!!!” and then the guitar…that rippin’ guitar journey up and down the fretboard into absolute Crazy Train lunacy. In listening to Randy Rhoads seduce the electric strings towards the time for Ozzy to sing (scream), I can see how another Iconic Intro may have come to life (see Sweet Child O Mine, below).
The interesting thing about the Crazy Train intro is it’s pretty much the only good part of the song. In fact, the mood of the song changes nearly completely between the intro, which is minor key into a strangely upbeat major key action in the main part of the song. Still, it is iconic and unforgettable — makes you play air guitar no matter where you are.
Even though I really don’t like this song, it can hardly stay out of this list if for no other reason than the countless millions who have air drummed the 8 beat tom tom drum down to the beginning of the song. another reason this intro is so interesting is that the intro actually includes lyrics. Most rock song intros are instrumental only. But Phil Collins’ numinous voice pleads on throughout the buildup, into the drum exclamation, and onto the main part of the song where the emotion becomes more angry and sinister in keeping with his message and his story.
First of all, this song absolutely rocks. And it pretty much singlehandedly saved the 1980s from a swirling cauldron of hellish so called music parading around as something artful. It was almost all hideous — poppish drivel from candy apple teenagers– sloppy sad pseudo British sounding crap from dark dressing folk — to hair band excess and non-sense. Oh, and Ska. God, why Ska? Guns n Roses saved us all and just in time for the 90s to wreck it all again.
But who can forget the hook of this Intro — of this entire song? Even non-air guitar players cannot help but air riff on Slash’s pseudo-syncopated chromatic lead in to a superbly rocking experience. Though it is super short for an Iconic Intro, Sweet Child O Mine is the Sweet Riff that marked the beginning of an incredible song and of the end of the Hell of the 80s.
So there you have it. The Most Iconic Rock Song Intros of All Time. Rock on!