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Guitar Riffs - How to Write a Song

guitar riffs - how to write a songBy Dave Celentano

What exactly is a guitar riff? In musical terms a riff is an ‘ostinato’ - a motif or phrase that repeats. Whether comprised of single note ideas, repeating rhythmic chord changes, or a combination of both, a number of songs have a short but infectious guitar riff that’s repeated by the rhythm guitar. In this short tutorial we’ll look at what it takes to write a catchy riff and how to write one of your own.

When the music discussion centers around classic rock riffs, Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’, Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’, AC/DC‘s ‘Back in Black’, Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Crazy Train’, the Beatles ‘Day Tripper’, Rolling Stones ‘(I can’t get no) Satisfaction’, Roy Orbison‘s ‘Pretty Woman’ and even Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ are at the top of the conversation. 

One thing in common with the above songs is the riffs stay within the boundaries of their respective key, whether derived from the major, minor, blues or modal scale. Upbeat rock songs like the Beatles ‘Day Tripper’ and Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’ illustrate this perfectly while employing the Mixolydian mode and occasionally the ‘minor 3rd’ for the main riff. Don’t sweat it if you don’t get all this music lingo. I’ll make it easy for you. Example 1 outlines the essential notes for riff writing in E Mixolydian, where we’ll start with a simple idea and take it through the steps of development.


Ex.1 - E Mixolydian (plus b3)

Play through the notes above in different orders and see what develops. And keep in mind these notes are your choices, you don’t need to use them all. Example 2 is one possible riff using these notes. 


Ex.2 - The Riff 

Syncopation adds a nice rhythmic flavor and breaks things up by putting a few notes on the ‘up’ beats. Check out example 3.


Ex.3 - Adding Syncopation

Now add a few chords for contrast. Example 4 replaces the last part of the riff with D and A chords. Try strumming the chords with up-strokes, except the final A gets a down strum. 


Ex.4 - Adding Chords

Ironically, several hard rock and metal main riffs have success with the ‘blues scale’ - Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’, Cream’s ‘Sunshine of Your Love’, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Heartbreaker’, and Pantera’s ‘Cowboys from Hell’. This notorious scale is much darker than the previous examples mostly due to the diabolical ‘b5’, aka the blues note, situated between the 4th and 5th degrees of the minor pentatonic scale. Example 5 spotlights the blues scale in E on the lower strings and is proceeded by three examples going through the same steps of riff development.


Ex.5 - E Blues scale

Tip: keep it short. All of the songs mentioned above have 1-2 bar repeating riffs. After noodling around with the notes for a few minutes I came up with example 6. A little distortion on this riff puts it in pure metal heaven.


Ex.6 – The Riff

A bit of syncopation in the second bar makes it pop. Be sure to make quick ‘down-up’ strokes on the first four notes of bar 2. 


Ex.7 – Adding Syncopation

And what hard rock would be complete without a few power chords? Example 8 is the same syncopated riff reworked with power chords and a little palm muting.


Ex.8 – Adding Power Chords

There are infinite ways to write music. Sometimes musical ideas pop in my mind like gifts above and other times I need to work and craft the song using the tips above. I hope these ideas help you to create your own masterpiece songs. Now go get riffin’!!

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