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View Full Version : How to write great RIFFS?


mrdavek
09-18-2009, 08:53 PM
I have a ton of great chord progressions, but writing original guitar riffs eludes me!

What do you guys do to write great sounding guitar RIFFS?

Mark C
09-18-2009, 09:33 PM
The only answer I can think of is to develop your ear to the point where you can play the great riffs you hear in your head. If you don't hear them, don't know what to tell you - except then you're in the same boat I'm in!

Baminated
09-18-2009, 09:54 PM
Steal, Steal , Steal from THE BEST, then scramble the rhythms and notes !

That's how it's done consciously or unconsciously

Do it with music you don't even listen to normally, then translate into your rig

Scott Auld
09-18-2009, 10:06 PM
Noodle ... a lot

Zero G
09-18-2009, 10:43 PM
I usually try to establish the tonality and feel of the song first before writing any riffs. I find that playing riffs by themselves without any context (background chords, bass line, beat, key etc..) can be quite limiting.

gainiac
09-19-2009, 01:04 AM
Practice with LOTS of different drum beats.

Great riffs occur in contrast to what's played with them.

dewey decibel
09-19-2009, 02:14 AM
Riffs aren't about chords and harmony, they're about rhythm. They should be slightly ambiguous, that why often you'll see them noted in TAB as N.C. (for no chord), as the tonality isn't defined. So think with your hips, not your head (or whatever other appendage you can shake to the beat).

Zero G
09-19-2009, 02:54 AM
Riffs aren't about chords and harmony, they're about rhythm.

So the main riff to Cat Scratch Fever doesn't feature any chords or harmony?...riiiiiiiiight.

They should be slightly ambiguous...

According to who? What's the reasoning behind this? There are many great riffs that are far from being defined as ambiguous.

...you'll see them noted in TAB as N.C. (for no chord), as the tonality isn't defined.

Sometimes, sure, but this is certainly not always the case.

dewey decibel
09-19-2009, 12:56 PM
So the main riff to Cat Scratch Fever doesn't feature any chords or harmony?...riiiiiiiiight.



According to who? What's the reasoning behind this? There are many great riffs that are far from being defined as ambiguous.



Sometimes, sure, but this is certainly not always the case.


There are no rules. My point is with the majority of good riffs the rhythmic component is much stronger than the melodic or harmonic one. Think of all the riffs you can hum with just one monotone sound, yet people will know what it is just by the phrasing.

Zero G
09-19-2009, 01:16 PM
There are no rules. My point is with the majority of good riffs the rhythmic component is much stronger than the melodic or harmonic one. Think of all the riffs you can hum with just one monotone sound, yet people will know what it is just by the phrasing.

I certainly don't disagree that rhythm is a strong component, but let me put it to you this way...You would have a hard time writing a cool riff off the top of your head with the Lydian Dominant (Hindu) scale without at least 'hearing' related background chords with your mind's ear. Pentatonic riffs are easy to come up with because all the notes are chord tones, but if you want to come up with something different, sometimes it helps to think outside the box rather than just hitting the autopilot switch and hoping for the best....IMHO.

buddastrat
09-20-2009, 08:35 AM
I think riffs define chords and harmony as much as anything. Even if there's no chord, it's still implied much of the time. Sure not in a Slayer riff, but look at Day Tripper or Pretty Woman. That's E7 harmony. The Cm7 riff in Little Dreamer by VH is awesome, just a penatonic riff, he walks that pentatonic riff down implying a nice little simple chord progression.

Journey's Separate Way's just came on VH1 and I can hear the keyboard riff playing a nice Em riff.

But you know you can't write any good riffs anymore, because Jimmy Page wrote all the great ones!

Clutch21286
09-20-2009, 09:38 AM
Record yourself. You will be suprised at the amount of cool riffs you play without realizing it. Drum machine will help as well!

jaydub69
09-20-2009, 09:47 AM
Record yourself. You will be suprised at the amount of cool riffs you play without realizing it. Drum machine will help as well!

Great! I swear some if my best ideas are gone for good. Or I'll just be caught up "playing" and not listen to what's going on.

In addition, many times that I think I am just noodling, someone may say, "Oooh, that's cool. Play it again." And I'll say, "Play what?"

I guess I should listen with an outsiders ear.

rob2001
09-20-2009, 10:24 AM
When my band is writing, i'll just record an hour of me jamming out and we sit down and pick out tidbits to be developed. Figure, all you are really looking for is a small combination of notes, chords and rhythm. When coming up with a main riff, you aren't looking for a completed song with intro's outros, bridges and chorus's. Just a few notes,chords and a tempo/vibe are all you need to start.

For me, it's been key to record. If i'm not recording and just jamming out, potential ideas fly right by never to be remembered. When I hear the recording, I sort of remember where I may have been going with something....even if it's just a vibe.


EDIT TO ADD......sometimes an idea hits you square in the forehead even without a guitar on. I took to recording memo's to myself on my cell phone. I hummed a tune and did air drums with it, showed this to the band, and within a week we had the raw structure of a pretty cool song down.

Tomo
09-20-2009, 10:35 AM
I have a ton of great chord progressions, but writing original guitar riffs eludes me!

What do you guys do to write great sounding guitar RIFFS?

What can you imagine? What do you hear in your heart? What do you want to eat?

Tomo

Zero G
09-20-2009, 11:34 AM
What can you imagine? What do you hear in your heart? What do you want to eat?

Tomo

1. Jessica Alba making me breakfast in nothing but her high heels.

2. Palpitations.

3. Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

buddastrat
09-20-2009, 03:09 PM
Sounds good to me Zero, but substitute #1 answer to #3.

xray
09-20-2009, 03:47 PM
I don't know. This guy might have a few suggestions.


http://www.allstarmusiclessons.com/playercentral/images/jimmy%20page.jpg

Tomo
09-20-2009, 04:01 PM
Sounds good to me Zero, but substitute #1 answer to #3.

You have a great improv skill!

Tomo

Dickie Fredericks
09-20-2009, 08:37 PM
The only answer I can think of is to develop your ear to the point where you can play the great riffs you hear in your head. If you don't hear them, don't know what to tell you - except then you're in the same boat I'm in!

If you can sing it I think that would be best....

Record yourself. You will be suprised at the amount of cool riffs you play without realizing it. Drum machine will help as well!

I carry a small recorder with me always to capture those types of things while Im in the car etc...

dewey decibel
09-20-2009, 11:34 PM
I certainly don't disagree that rhythm is a strong component, but let me put it to you this way...You would have a hard time writing a cool riff off the top of your head with the Lydian Dominant (Hindu) scale without at least 'hearing' related background chords with your mind's ear. Pentatonic riffs are easy to come up with because all the notes are chord tones, but if you want to come up with something different, sometimes it helps to think outside the box rather than just hitting the autopilot switch and hoping for the best....IMHO.


I couldn't disagree more. A great riff is a great riff because it can stand on it's own. A lot of great riffs don't really fit the harmony of the rest of the tune. No matter if that riff is built from a basic minor pentatonic or some fancy exotic scale, chances are it wasn't created while thinking about harmony or chord changes. I'm not into this stuff, but when I think of riffs from bands like older Metallica I don't see that stuff coming from chord changes at all. You get b2nds because the rhythm and phrasing leads to those kinds of tensions, not because they're writing based in any particular mode or harmony. Think of something like "Enter Sandman", that's all rhythm. You can take that same riff and clean it up, change all the b5ths and b2nds to 4ths and b3rds -keep it completely in a minor pent- and it will still sound strong because of the phrasing. When writing these riffs you'll be better served thinking about the rhythm, as the notes will work themselves out. The rhythm will tell you where to add the tension notes. IMO, YMMV, etc....

Zero G
09-21-2009, 12:50 AM
No matter if that riff is built from a basic minor pentatonic or some fancy exotic scale, chances are it wasn't created while thinking about harmony or chord changes.

How can you be sure? While I don't disagree that many great riffs have and can be written without knowledge of music theory, there are many great riffs that wouldn't have existed without it. You seem to have the viewpoint that thinking about harmony, chord changes, theory etc is some kind of roadblock to creating a great riff, when in fact, it has quite the opposite effect. Have a read through old guitar magazine interviews and you'll be surprised at how much thought went into writing some of the greatest riffs. As I said before, you would have a really hard time writing a riff in a "fancy exotic scale" like melodic minor or lydian dominant without being able to hear what they sound like in context. To prove my point, learn a fingering pattern in one position for lydian dominant. Next, try and write a cool riff with it without any thought to intervals or theory. Just play freely. After you've got your cool sounding riff, record the appropriate chord or chord vamp relative to that lydian dominant key and see if your riff still sounds as badass played in context as when you first wrote it. Odds are, it won't.

I'm not into this stuff, but when I think of riffs from bands like older Metallica I don't see that stuff coming from chord changes at all.

95% of their songs were in E minor, so of course they didn't have to worry too much about chord changes when writing riffs. :JAM

dave_lp_strat
09-21-2009, 06:26 AM
Do you often find yourself playing the same riffs and lead patterns over and over? If that's the case, you are probably limited by the scales and solo patterns that you know. Learn new scales and new soloing ideas will pop into your head.

Covering other guitar players' solos will lead you into that area, but you will be playing their scales without understanding the scale itself. Once you can mentally see the scale laid out as a pattern on the fingerboard, you will intuitively know where to go next without the fear of hitting a note that is dissonant. This in itself will empower you to branch out and work into new licks.

As someone said, NOODLE! Sit around and play against a backing track. Do this every chance you get and you will ocassionally discover something new you can use. At the same time you will build little memory patterns in your head that will allow you to read someone else's solo in terms of where their fingers are going in the solo. Head games are important in developing new solos. I walk around at work with a tune in my head most of the day. Sometimes it's a curse and sometimes it's a blessing.

cram
09-21-2009, 10:39 AM
drum machine noodling does it for me.

xzzy
09-21-2009, 11:07 AM
+1 to the drum loops. Get a nice beat going and see what happens. I wouldn't say it'll guarantee you a slot on Billboard's charts, but I will guarantee you'll stumble into something catchy.

Play with your effects too. I have a pocket pod and I randomly flip through the presets until something catches my ears, then I play around with it for an hour or so.

Shiny McShine
09-21-2009, 11:26 AM
Well, great riffs are really a combination of things. As a general rule you'll want it to be a hybrid of several secondary 1 bar or 1/2 phrases that add up to one large secondary phrase. Funk riffs need ghost notes almost always so include those. There should be a rhythmic shift within the riff that essentially generates a plot twist at the end each time. This fooling the ear is almost like those strange optical illusion pictures we've all seen and loved over the years. This is present in every great riff and is the most difficult thing to master because it takes a lot of experience to understand and hear them. Sometimes, the plot twist can be a tonal center change and most have the sense of traveling through a couple of chord changes. You'll want the riff to overall be some sort of unresolved chord too.

Poppa Stoppa
09-21-2009, 11:39 AM
Well you could take a great riff and play it backwards. That's how 'Midnight Hour' inspired 'Knock On Wood' (or maybe it was the other way round).

What does 'Sunshine of your Love' sound like with the notes reversed?

dewey decibel
09-22-2009, 01:21 PM
After you've got your cool sounding riff, record the appropriate chord or chord vamp relative to that lydian dominant key and see if your riff still sounds as badass played in context as when you first wrote it. Odds are, it won't.


That's exactly my point. For most great riffs there isn't an "appropriate chord or chord vamp". Often you'll just have the bass doubling the riff, and any other harmony instruments doubling or countering it, but nobody's straight laying down the harmony. In this sense the riff doesn't have to fit the harmony, and the fact that it might not fit the rest of the song actually helps to make it stick out. How many songs are there with riffs based on minor pentatonics, but the rest of the song is clearly in a major key? Lots...

Zero G
09-22-2009, 01:27 PM
How many songs are there with riffs based on minor pentatonics, but the rest of the song is clearly in a major key? Lots...

And your point is.....? The minor pentatonic is part of every major key.

dewey decibel
09-22-2009, 01:35 PM
And your point is.....? The minor pentatonic is part of every major key.


No man, I mean;

riff = A minor pent

rest of song = A major

Zero G
09-22-2009, 01:48 PM
No man, I mean;

riff = A minor pent

rest of song = A major

Right....Of course it's fine to bend the rules and some licks that aren't supposed to work theoretically, somehow work. I don't disagree with that.

dewey decibel
09-22-2009, 02:02 PM
Right....Of course it's fine to bend the rules and some licks that aren't supposed to work theoretically, somehow work. I don't disagree with that.


There are no rules. Again, what makes a cool riff is often the fact that it exists in a context where it doesn't need to fit any other harmony. The OP said;

I have a ton of great chord progressions, but writing original guitar riffs eludes me!


My initial thought was, "Oh, he's trying to write riffs that fit his chord progressions, no wonder he's having trouble." You brought up the riff to "Cat Scratch Fever", what are the chord changes to that? Sure there's a tonality, but there's no chord changes. You think the Nuge was thinking about chord changes when he wrote that?

Zero G
09-22-2009, 02:27 PM
There are no rules.

No, but music theory isn't a barrier to writing riffs, and has been used to write lots of great riffs. Also, having no rules doesn't prevent one from creating crappy riffs, or riffs that don't fit the song.

Again, what makes a cool riff is often the fact that it exists in a context where it doesn't need to fit any other harmony.

Sometimes, not always. Many great riffs are composed entirely of chord tones.

You brought up the riff to "Cat Scratch Fever", what are the chord changes to that? Sure there's a tonality, but there's no chord changes. You think the Nuge was thinking about chord changes when he wrote that?

I never said that riff was composed of chord changes. You said riffs aren't about chords, or harmony. The riff to Cat Scratch Fever features both.

Bryan T
09-22-2009, 02:36 PM
I think learning/exploiting the characteristic sound of a mode or scale is a great basis for writing a riff.

Blues scale: "Sunshine of Your Love," "Enter Sandman"
Natural minor scale: "Crazy Train"
Byzantine scale: "Misirlou"

Find a sound that you think is interesting and find a melody within it.

Rhythmically, syncopation is often useful for adding spice to a riff.

Just a few ideas . . .

from atlantis
09-24-2009, 09:35 PM
Steal, Steal , Steal from THE BEST, then scramble the rhythms and notes !

That's how it's done consciously or unconsciously

Do it with music you don't even listen to normally, then translate into your rig

While, yes, this is done all of the time... Do not do this. This is why an overwhelming majority of new music sucks, because it is stolen and reformatted and thus loses the greatness of the original and this is what is leading to the death or creativity in music and braindedness of people who appreciate music.

Your music will most likely pay homage to the people who inspired you, but do not deliberately try to imitate or steal that music.

DAB
09-29-2009, 08:25 AM
Listen to these bands (among others):

Trapeze
ZZ Top