How to Write Better Guitar Riffs
By Brad Tolinski
For decades, guitar riffs have served as the mighty backbone for thousands of classic rock, R&B, jazz songs and more. We all know what a “riff“ is, but do we know where the word came from? It started as jazz slang in the 1920’s for a repeated chord progression, pattern or melody, and a hundred years later it pretty much means the same thing.
Examples of stellar guitar riffs include the guitar intro to Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” the opening chords to Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and the repeating lick that occurs in the Beatles’ “Day Tripper.” Simply put, a riff is a catchy musical figure that often holds an entire song together, creating a “circular” rather than a linear feel.
One thing is certain, listeners love memorable guitar riffs and learning how to write one is essential to composing a modern day classic. In the following, we’ve put together a few tricks and tips that might help you write a classic guitar riff of your own, so grab your pick and walk this way.
How to Write Better Guitar Riffs
Start with a Chord Progression
A good guitar riff should also firmly establish the harmony of the song. For example, Van Halen’s classic, “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” uses a catchy guitar riff to outline the tune’s driving Am to G chord progression.
If that sounds complicated or confusing, here’s a tip that might help you on your way. First, compose a cool chord sequence—it could be two chords or as many as you please. Next, record it, and jam along with it until you find a repeating series of notes that sound good over the top of your chord progression. When you come up with something you really like, turn off the recording and play the “riff” by itself. You'll be surprised how much the idea will stand on its own while still outlining the harmonic intent of the progression.
If you play in a band, instead of having your bassist double your riff, try having them play the root notes of the original chord progression and see which sounds better.
Adding Some Color
If your riffs sound too mundane or predictable, try the above technique but over some exotic diminished, augmented or suspended chords. Playing over a couple unusual chords will force you to experiment with more colorful note choices. Besides, it’s never a bad thing to learn a few new shapes like the E7#9 Jimi Hendrix plays on “Purple Haze,” or the moody E5 #11 chord Slayer plays during “Seasons in the Abyss.”
Been Caught Stealing
One great way for beginners to learn how to compose a pro-level guitar riff is by learning a familiar classic like Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” or Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” then alter it by simply changing one or two notes...or three or four...until it becomes your own. Not only is it fun to see how changing just one note can radically alter a familiar guitar riff, but chances are, this process may inspire you to write something completely different from the original.
Use Your Head
Perhaps the most unusual way to write a classic riff, is to avoid touching your guitar altogether. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones said the famous guitar riff to “Satisfaction” came to him in a dream. He woke up in the middle of the night, recorded it on a tape machine he had by his bed and went back to sleep. When he woke up the next morning he had forgotten all about it until he noticed his recording device was still on, and when he listened back he heard himself playing what is considered one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time.
We’re not saying you have to wait for a riff to come to you in a dream, but you may want to try just laying back, and attempt to imagine a kickass riff in your mind and then try to play it on your guitar. Sometimes your imagination can take you to places your fingers never thought to travel.
One sure-fire way to write a great guitar riff is by starting with an inspirational drum or guitar loop. A good riff should always contribute to the groove, and jamming with an exciting drum part or interesting chord progression makes it all that much easier to generate ideas. Whether you lean towards heavy metal blast beats or jazz progressions, there is nothing like a killer kick-snare pattern or chord series to get your fingers moving in the right direction.
Keep it Simple
When writing new riffs, it’s easy to over complicate things by adding too many moving parts. However, it’s important to remember that some of the greatest guitar riffs are also the simplest, like David Bowie’s “Jean Genie,” Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” or the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” which all consist of just a few notes and chords. If you have a riff that sounds like a convoluted mess, try stripping it down to its bare bones and working out a solid skeleton. Remember, one well-placed note is way more valuable than complexity for complexity's sake.
Pick a Scale, Any Scale
Want to know a cool way to kill two birds with one stone? Next time you want to try to write a guitar riff, learn a new scale, then choose five or six notes out of it randomly and see if you can connect them either rhythmically or melodically in a creative way. In addition to generating a new riff, it’ll also help you become more familiar with the tonal qualities of the scale. To add to the fun, try this idea with assistance of an awesome drum loop or even a metronome. And if you have any jamming buddies or guitar playing friends on Instagram or Facebook, create a contest to see who can create the best guitar riff out of the same scale.
Hit Record and Go
Oftentimes, it's our "thinking" brain that impedes our ability to be completely free. Here's one hack to shut off–or at least temporarily bypass–that side of your brain. Grab your guitar, plug in, and hit record on your phone's voice memo app. Then, just play. It doesn't matter what you're playing, but simply let it flow without judgement. At some point, your brain will forget you're even recording in the first place–and that's when the magic happens. Come back later in the day and listen to the recording. You might be surprised to find some brilliant, hidden gems that can be further developed into riffs and songs.
Final Thoughts: How to Write Better Guitar Riffs
No matter what level of guitarist you are, it’s always helpful to develop new riff writing techniques. Technology can also be very helpful in this process. The miraculous Spark amplifier by Positive Grid comes with an app that allows you access new sounds, drum loops and even artificial intelligence features that will create bass and drum parts based on riffs you create. The Spark is great when you run into writer’s block, looking for a creative partner to bounce off of or aspire to create the next great guitar riff on the level of Slash’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Find out more..
Brad Tolinski is perhaps best known for his work as the editor-in-chief of Guitar World Magazine for 25 years. He is also the author of Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page (Crown); and Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound and Revolution of the Electric Guitar (Doubleday), which was the basis for a 2019 guitar-focused exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Most recently he edited the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Issue of CREEM magazine, and his latest book Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen (Hachette) will be coming out in October 2021.