We all know from our first songs we wrote that we are all capable of writing shitty riffs. We also know that the band rehearsing next to our room is capable of writing shitty riffs too. That
means that we are not alone. Writing guitar riffs that are catchy as in “F*ck, play that again!” is the first obligation of a guitar player! The only thing is, it’s not that easy, is it?
In this article we will discuss why our riffs may suck, what it is that makes a guitar riff awesome, and how we can apply that to boost our riff-writing. Let’s unsuck our crappy riffs!
What makes a guitar riff great? Three qualities of great riffs.
To understand why some riffs rock and others don’t I came up with three basic aspects a good riff has. All those aspects
should be taken into account when writing riffs.
Think about your favorite riffs and try to imitate them. What happens? You may start singing it, knock your head and play air drums, right? That’s because rhythm (or groove) is such an important
quality of a good riff. As Malcom Young once said:” If it doesn’t swing, it doesn’t mean a thing.”
Groovy riffs rule! For example:
He-Man Woman Hater by Extreme
17 Girls In A Row by Steel Panther
Redneck by Lamb Of God
Especially in metal music - groove is a huge part of sick riffs. But how can we make sure that our riffs are groovy? One approach is to use contrast when writing guitar riffs. As groove is a
rhythmic pattern of repeating elements that stay in contrast or are different.
Contrast rules to write guitar riffs that groove hard!
The verse riff in Panteras “A New Level” is a good example how changing between fast and slow notes results in a groovy metal smash hit! The groove of the verse riff gets even more impact from
the build-up of the iconic and brutal intro riff. Which in contrast is pretty simple with no real rhythmical surprises. Contrast for contrasting the contrast...what?!
The easiest way is to record our ideas and listen. Just listen to our riffs. It’s pretty brutal because now we have to ask ourselves: Is this rad? Would I start headbanging if
this would play at a party or concert? If the answer is yes, well chances are good we have a groovy and headbanging riff. If the answer is no: Learn from it and write a new riff.
Listen to what gets us moving, copy it, and then make an original version of it. That’s great about music, if it sounds good it’s good. We just need ears and no diploma.
Alright, so we need groove, and a great way to achieve it is by contrast. Check.
Simplicity for me is all about getting something stuck in the other person's head. A riff so simple that it sticks immediately without any active effort.
With riffs there is no exception or can you instantly hum technical death metal riffs?! Not likely and that’s perfectly fine for some genres. If our goal is catchy as f*ck, it needs to be stupid
Everyone knows this and nearly every guitar beginner learns this as one of the first riffs ever. Because it’s stupid simple and instantly gets stuck in your head: Iron Man by Black Sabbath
Other examples are:
Symphony Of Destruction by Megadeth
Rock You Like A Hurricane by Scorpions
Enter Sandman by Metallica
Why do you think those songs are so popular? Because everybody recognizes them instantly! There simple af!
Another aspect of simplicity and being catchy for me is repetition. What do we do when we try to learn and remember something new? We repeat it until we know it by heart. The
same applies to our music and listeners. We repeat something until it gets stuck in their heads!
Kinda like an unconscious and passive learning process. Sounds creepy but that’s what happens every day when people listen to radio/pop music. They don’t focus on the music, it’s just background
noise still it sticks.
Repetition is catchy and at the same time we can instantly rock out to it! Cause it clicks immediately. Monkey Business by Skid Row comes to mind for great use of repetition.
Now comes the catch: Simple ain’t easy!
The art of simplicity and repetition is to avoid sounding boring. We need to make a riff sound interesting and unique while it also needs to be simple. That’s the constant struggle with catchy
Simplicity is key to get your riffs stuck in the heads of your listeners and repetition is a great tool for that.
The hard thing: Don’t be boring while being simple.
Next to groove for the rhythmic aspect and simplicity, I have a third aspect I call melody.
Well, seems weird because the conception of a guitar riff is more grounded in the rhythmic or harmonic field. Still, there are tons of riffs that you can also hum. That fact alone, to hum
something instantly, tells us, there must be something catchy we need to take into account.
One of my favorite riffs of all time is Wayward Son by Kansas. This shows perfectly what I mean with melody and humability in riff writing. Purple Haze by Hendrix is another great example of a
melodic, catchy riff that also has a great groove to it. Other examples are The Trooper by Maiden and heck even Sweet Home Alabama!
How to know if we have a strong melody? If we can hum/play our melody without any backing and it sounds complete - we are on to something. A good melody can stand on its own and
sounds great. It’s that simple. But as we know simple ain’t easy.
The thin line between harmony and melody
The line between riff, lick, harmony, and melody can be thin and often overlaps. What I dig is the deliberate use of harmony to give life to a melodic riff. Kinda make it stand out with some
tension or determine the feel of the riff through a harmonic background. Done right, the melody and harmony kinda melt together and create one catchy riff.
The chorus riff of Children Of Bodom's Done with Everything, Die for Nothing displays a great arc of suspense through melody and harmony. Another example is the pre chorus of Welcome
To The Jungle by Guns ‘N’ Roses.
This concept often requires more than one guitar and some arrangement. Kinda like a piano player would write something. One hand harmony and one hand melody - simply put. Therefore it’s not
guitar riff writing in the vein of one guitar kicking out one bitchin’ riff. But I hope this can give us some inspiration for writing guitar riffs or to give our riff the missing power.
Melody is great when writing catchy riffs. Does the melody sound good on its own? Then we have a winner.
All the stuff is connected. We will almost every time find two or more aspects in catchy riffs. Walk by Pantera is simple and groovy but no melody while Polyphias
G.O.A.T. is groovy and has a strong melodic aspect but is by no means simple. Even the examples above have more than one aspect, only one may be a bit more present. The 3 aspects are by
far everything there is for writing catchy riffs but for me the most important ones.
Ok, and a riff that combines all three aspects must by definition be a monster of a riff, or what!? Damn straight! Why do you think Back in Black by ACDC is often named one of the
greatest riffs of all time by mainstream mags and elitists alike? It’s groovy as hell, simple as f*ck, and uses little melodic lines. What more could you ask for?!
Writing guitar riffs is a skill just as alternate picking or palm-muting. It needs practice and it needs development. That’s why it is important to write shitty riffs because we
can learn from them what doesn’t work and change that. Over time as we define our style and musical ear and direction, our riffs will become better!