In the guitar world there is a lot of competition to be original. If you are a guitarist in a band, the most frustrating obstacle you will face is finding the songs that will set you apart from all the rest. Putting aside all of the rules for writing music, the one thing that will give you a song that your audience will remember is having a few awesome riffs.
A riff is simply a short, repeatable line of music that sticks out from everything else in the song. You can look at a riff as a signature on a piece of paper… it identifies the piece of music.
You may be thinking, “This sounds great, but I don’t have the ability to think outside of the box like that.” The truth of the matter is that anyone can write an awesome riff.
The music industry wants you to think that you can’t sound as good as all of your favorite bands. Yes, many of them do have awesome material, but the majority of it does not require a music degree to write. You can use the tools you already have to write original and breathtaking lines that will blow your audience away.
In fact, some of you would do better than your favorite bands if you took the time to evaluate the tools you already have.
If you were a carpenter, would you go to work without insuring that you had all of the tools you needed to complete that day’s work? No. You would double check to make sure you had everything you needed. The same applies to writing music and riffs. Take a step back and ask yourself, “What do I do best?”
If you can slide around the neck of your guitar like it’s nobody’s business, than use that to your advantage when writing riffs. Likewise, if you have fast fingers, use that to help you develop your own style.
My one warning that comes with all of the above advice is to keep it short. The longer your riff is, the more likely your audience will forget how it goes. Even I forget the tune to some of the longer riffs I write, so how do you expect anyone else to remember the tune? The most famous songs of the last six decades were all ridiculously simple and easy to remember.
Taking your first steps.
Before you dive into anything involving riffs, there are a few simple but important steps you have to think about. These steps lay the foundation for success and will make playing your guitar far more enjoyable.
Choose a key. We all love to run to our guitars and play them until we get something that sounds good. The problem with this is we will reach a point where we don’t know what to do with it or what notes to play. Knowing what key you are in will solve these problems instantly. This also allows you to figure out all of the various scales you have available to you.
Run through the scales you know in that key. Try the major and minor scales and see what sound you like the best. If you don’t know what scales are avalable to you in a certain key, check out last week’s article.
Experiment using the techniques that you know. Try limiting the number of notes that you play and keep it simple.
Use both the lower and higher notes on your neck.
…Try the above and you’ll be well on your way to creating a solid riff.
The hook is the riff that highlights the chorus. It’s the most important tune you will write throughout the entire song. It also sounds slightly different from your average riff in the sense that it has the characteristics of a melody.
What that means when translated is that it stands out like a vocal would stand out. The key to writing a hook is to make it repeatable. That’s why I like to use a few notes. You can use as many as you want, but it may become more complicated than you would like it to be.
Here is an example of a simple hook in the key of D:
…It’s simple and it’s catchy. All of the things you want to look for in a riff and the hook for your song. The word hook in the above context literally means to hook your audience into the music.
Many times you can spice up a riff dramatically by adding in new rhythms and picking patterns, as seen in our above example.
If we took the above riff and added more to it, we would end up with a melody (something you could sing to). This defeats the purpose of a riff. While writing melodies is quite fun and very necessary in song writing, it’s not what you want when writing riffs.
More Guitar Riff Examples
Here are a few riffs to get you started. Enjoy!