Knowing how to come up with a good guitar riff can be daunting. For beginners, learning the basics can be frustrating. For virtuosos, simplicity proves near impossible. For any level play, here are some pointers.
Direction and Consistency: The first step in coming up with a good guitar riff is direction. A riff can be anything from the thundering stampede of Mastodon to the echoing otherworldliness of Radiohead. The Who created towering riffs out of choppy bar chords, while The White Stripes make an epic boogie from mostly individual notes. Pearl Jam is a great example of a group that traffics the middle ground. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with sitting down, axe in hand, and doodling; just be sure that you keep the riff coherent as it comes together. Even if the dissonance of Sonic Youth is what you’re looking for, a riff is like a novel: it needs a consistent voice. Tip: If you want to write a riff that sounds like your favorite band, learning some of their songs is a good place to start. Although learning your favorite group’s riffs is a good place to start, remember to bring imagination to the table. If your favorite song is “Smoke on the Water”, don’t write “Smog on the Sound”. Oasis’ Noel Gallagher is exemplary at interpolating elements of his favorite bands into his own, unique sound.
Learn Music Theory: There’s a reason certain chords and notes work together and others don’t. Understand majors, minors, flats, sharps, harmonics, discordance, etc. This will help you find the sound you’re looking for and help you better understand the way notes and chords fit together. Learning scales is an important part of this process. This is a key step in coming up with a good guitar riff. Tip: Switching keys in a riff works really well…if you’re Van Halen. Make sure you have the chops to pull it off before you try it.
Service the Song: There’s nothing worse than a promising riff that doesn’t go anywhere. Make sure your riff has purpose. Writing a good riff is a great start, but it needs to evolve into part of a larger entity. An iconic riff, like Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”, is enhanced by the structural dynamics of the song. Sabbath didn’t depend on the riff to make the song; it’s part of a larger picture. Understanding this is essential to coming up with a good guitar riff. Tip: Use shifts in tone and volume to increase a riff’s dynamics.
Focus on the Little Things: Flourishes give a riff flavor and personality. Jimi Hendrix is proof of this. Hendrix essentially played Blues with his amp turned up so loudly it was on the verge of exploding. What made him such a unique guitarist was his personality: he added countless expert touches to his riffs, from hitting notes on different octaves, to bending them within an inch of their lives. Once you’ve worked out the basic pattern of your riff, truly make it yours by working your personal style into the bigger picture. Tip: Try to stick to tasteful flourishes. Yngwie Malmsteen is a guitarist with a very distinct personality that no discerning music fan really wants to listen to. On the other hand, Muse’s Matt Bellamy, while technically virtuosic, makes his flourishes work in the context of his songs.
- Effects Pedals: If you’re looking to do something else, the basic rig of a six-string instrument and amplifier can feel restrictive, effects pedals can help you think (and sound) outside of the box. They can echo, delay, overdrive, distort, repeat and even split your guitar into octaves. U2’s The Edge is the best example of this. The uniqueness of the band’s sound is due largely to his instantly recognizable guitar tone, which is created entirely with effects. Thinking outside the box will help you come up with a good guitar riff. Tip: A little effect goes a long way. Unless you’re in a noise band—in which case, why are reading this?—you don’t want the effects to overwhelm the playing.
Follow these steps with perseverance and you’ll be on your way to coming up with a good guitar riff.
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