No one writes riffs like Slayer. At the end of the day, the California thrash titans’ guitar parts are what has made them such metal legends. Plenty of bands have lyrics about Lucifer and lightning-fast solos, but only Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King have that distinctive sonic profile which gives all their riffs the panic and torment of a Bosch painting. Hearing a Slayer riff calls the listener to war for metal — and not metal in some diverse, genre-defying way, either, full-on metal with spikes and chains and sacrifices of beer made at an altar of Satan.
Choosing one Slayer riff over another is difficult, as the band’s four-decade-long legacy is littered with amazing guitar licks. But when it comes to those riffs that grab the listener by the throat and don’t let go, a handful of important entries come to mind. Here are the 20 Slayer riffs that reign in Hell over the rest…
20. “Payback” – Main Riff
Christ, it’s just so mean. “Payback” was the song with which Slayer officially announced their return to form on 2001’s God Hates Us All, its speed and unapologetic rage that illustrated why they were such a threat to Christian parents in the ‘80s. The grinding misanthropy of the opening riff was the perfect way to do just that, immediately throwing the listener headfirst into the pit. Today, even young metalheads are familiar with a few Slayer songs here and there, but at the turn of the millennium during nu-metal’s peak, this chugging, snarling guitar part was a necessary evil that reminded fans why they came here in the first place.
19. “Necrophiliac’ – Bridge riff
Though 1985’s Hell Awaits is Slayer’s most stark and grating album production-wise, Hanneman and King manage to include plenty of atmosphere alongside the acid burn. The riffs in “Necrophiliac” possess the kind of ghoulish mischief that one imagines feeling while exhuming a date, from the snickering opener to the punkish, driven verse parts. But it’s the galloping harmonies of the riff during the song’s bridge that best capture Slayer’s love of both ripping guitars and eerie nocturnal activities. Grab a shovel.
18. “Stain of Mind” – Opening riff
Metal purists despised 1998’s Diabolus In Musica when it first came out, but “Stain of Mind” was such an undeniable banger that it remained one of the band’s live staples until the end. Nu-metal bands could only fantasize about writing a bounce riff as strong as that opening part, its momentum and urgency acting as an instant pit-starter. Though the band didn’t quite recover their footing until 2001’s God Hates Us All, this riff remains a gem that justifies the entire release around it. Haters gonna hate, Slayer gonna slay.
17. “Aggressive Perfector” – Main riff
Damn, how fast can one band sound? “Aggressive Perfector” is one of Slayer’s oldest tracks, but feels right at home on the tail-end of the special edition of Reign In Blood. The track’s main riff sprints at the same time that it skips, bringing both heart-exploding speed and drunken misrule to the table. This one’s a track you either murder a human sacrifice or crush a beer can on your head to — though it could be both, if you’re up to the task.
16. “Disciple” – Opening riff
Though 2001’s God Hates Us All saw Slayer embracing a more hardcore-oriented guitar style, the band still managed to make it their own. The opening of “Disciple” has that horned minor chord darkness on its tail end, while its grinding, blunt-force chug immediately endeared new fans to the band when they first heard it. While much of Slayer’s newer material has fallen out of vogue, this track remains a must-hear entry into their discography, and that opening part is so much of why. Time to take your shirt off.
15. “Postmortem” – Opening riff
“Postmortem” has since graduated from simply a lead-in track for “Raining Blood” to one of Slayer’s most beloved songs. A lot of that comes from the track’s massive opening guitar riff, which sounds like a temple to Satan emerging over the horizon. With that part, Slayer display how even their mid-paced moments have the same grandeur and hellfire as their blisteringly-fast thrash attacks. All together, now: DO YOU WANNA DIE?
14. “Ghosts of War” – Ending riff
The sleeper hit of 1988’s South of Heaven, “Ghosts of War” was proof that the band’s active attempt to slow things down didn’t have to be entirely without speed. But while the whole track is a beautiful stampede, it’s the bridge riff that then returns later on during Tom Araya’s final two chants which makes it. Any band can write a fast, bludgeoning guitar part, but only Slayer could add that extra bit of steeple and poison to their riffs which take things to a particularly unholy place.
13. “Hell Awaits” – Opening riff
If 1983’s Show No Mercy is Slayer burning down the world, then the opening riffs of 1985’s Hell Awaits sees them summoning a new dark age out of the ashes The moment where the steady, stomping chug of this intro section movies into on its regal, blood-drenched final form is awesome, and transforms this song from just a crusher to a truly demonic display of power. Most thrash acts couldn’t hold a listener’s attention through a minute-plus of introduction; for Slayer, it’s just a portent of carnage to come.
12. “Psychopathy Red” – Main riff
Rarely does a riff sound as much like the subject of its song as does the backbone of “Psychopathy Red.” The track’s lyrics were inspired by Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo (look him up, but get ready), and Jeff Hanneman’s frantic, rattled opening guitar part seems to perfectly embody Citizen X’s mental pandemonium. More so, when the track was first released it showed fans that Slayer could not only still write really fast songs, but also do so with as much controlled chaos as they had early on in their career. Sweet, merciless madness.
11. “Spirit In Black” – Opening riff
Most bands’ fan songs are about joining forces and being in this together; Slayer’s is about pledging yourself to the powers of darkness. But while “Spirit In Black” isn’t a heavy-rotation track for many casual fans, it has one of those razor-edged opening riffs that make the band uniquely fiendish. The sound of the song’s kick has a distinct flavor — no one else could’ve written this guitar part, and if they had, we’d know who they were ripping off.
10. “Angel of Death” – Bridge riff
We like to think of “Angel of Death” as a fast song because its opening and solo are so utterly frantic. But the bridge riff on this track shows how Slayer could stop on a dime and switch you from moshing to headbanging instantly. Given how utterly delicious and malevolent this riff is, it’s no wonder that both Public Enemy and KMFDM sampled it in their own music. The only song on this list that gets two entries, because of course it does.
9. “Epidemic” – Central riff
People love to say thrash songs charge or attack or race — but what about creep? The central riff of Reign In Blood’s “Epidemic” sounds like the Horseman Pestilence mischievously tiptoeing from one house to another, sewing seeds of disease. At the same time, that guitar part also has enough kinetic chug and nonstop momentum to never lose its persistence. A deep cut that fans don’t always think about until it’s on the stereo and quickly becomes their favorite song.
8. “War Ensemble” – Second intro riff
There are so many goddamn delicious riffs in “War Ensemble,” the opening call to arms of Slayer’s 1990 game-changer Seasons In The Abyss, that it’s difficult to elevate any of them above their neighbors. But the ascending second riff of the song that gets used behind the chorus might take the cake. That part is just so diabolical, and agitated, and Slayer that it feels like am embodiment of every fan’s deep-seated anger and steadily-climbing rage. The soundtrack to a million peel-outs from high school parking lots.
7. “South of Heaven” – Opening melody
Haunting isn’t a word that one often associates with Slayer (well, except the name of their first EP, but whatever). And yet “South of Heaven” perfectly shifted the band from fire to darkness when it kicked off their defining 1988 album of the same name. That opening riff sounds like the lifting of a curtain behind which hides your own death, the kind of eerie tune that might be found in the Vatican library in a book titled ‘DO NOT PLAY.’ In 35 seconds, Slayer transitioned from a pissed-off thrash act to the new kings of the burgeoning black metal scene. Hell followed with them.
6. “The Antichrist” – Opening riff
If any Slayer riff could be called fun, it would be the opening of “The Antichrist” off of their 1983 debut Show No Mercy. There’s a real classic metal gallop in this track, complete with some kind of horned helmet and spiked armband mid-bicep. That buoyant riff mixed with the band’s cackling satanism was so much of what established Slayer as a metal band you could bro down to, even while going all-in on the leather shinguards. While it’s generally accepted that the guys were ripping off Venom on Show No Mercy, a riff like this illustrates that they were improving on the formula from the get-go.
5. “Mandatory Suicide” – Opening riff
South of Heaven’s experiment in slowness may have pissed off some ‘80s thrash fans, but if you heard the beginning of “Mandatory Suicide” and didn’t realize this was the real deal, you weren’t fit for Satan’s army in the first place. The riff’s mid-pace only serves to make it bigger than Reign In Blood’s blistering speed could ever be, and brought the band out of the tempo arms race and into a class all their own. Slayer’s power lies in the psychology of their evil, and this track’s opening immediately reaches into the darkest part of the listener’s brain. “For Whom The Bell Tolls” just doesn’t sound enough like a guillotine.
4. “Angel of Death” – Opening riff
Someone should do a scientific study about the opening of “Angel of Death.” Results will most likely show that when the song opens, that serrated riff — not to mention the drum accents that come with it — cause an immediate spike in heart rate and body temperature among metal fans. The guitars that kick off this unparalleled rager will always have a deep physiological effect on fans of loud guitars, books about war, and the Devil. Whether that’s caused by decades of association with insane mosh pits, or just because of the sheer force in that riff, one can only guess.
3. “Dead Skin Mask” – Opening riff
Arguably no other metal band has bridged the gap between acid-furious and midnight-creepy quite like Slayer. The opening guitars of “Dead Skin Mask” immediately evoke images of the midnight graveyard trips made by ghoul, necrophiliac and slasher villain basis Ed Gein. Gein’s story would be ruined with a lot of blastbeats, but Jeff Hanneman’s spooky, lilting guitar part does the Milwaukee murderer’s deep psychological discord justice. The perfect soundtrack to dancing with the dead in your dreams.
2. “Die By The Sword” – Main riff
Slayer have become legendary enough that one sometimes forgets that they use to be a band you’d simply smash your friend in the face with a beer to. But the central riff of “Die By The Sword” instantly brings to mind that classic photo of the boys drooling fake blood over that nude model. Charging forward, powered by brilliant drum accents, this riff has as perfect a gallop to it as metal has ever known. The backbone of perhaps the only Slayer song with lyrics about wizards, this riff is a time capsule right to the early ‘80s, and sometimes that’s what every metal fan needs.
1. “Raining Blood” – Opening riff
The storm seethes, the drums thunder, the feedback reaches its peak, and then, history. The beginning of “Raining Blood” is the crossroads of Slayer’s entire career, where totally entrenched speed-metal radness met the potential for genuine menace that lives in metal’s underground. The way Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman’s guitars intertwine is a thing of beauty that feels none the less dangerous, so sharp at its edges that you might cut yourself on them. No other riff sounds as much like an announcement that the scariest band of the Big Four has arrived; it is in many ways the sonic equivalent to someone screaming, “SLAYER!” at the top of their lungs. Let’s all die and go to Hell, because when we get there they’ll probably be playing this song.
Words by Chris Krovatin