CLASSIC ROCK AND METAL GUITAR RIFFS
(AND HOW TO WRITE THEM)
2 About this guide
What is a riff? 3 What makes a classic riff?
What makes a riff classic? 4 What was the first classic rock guitar riff? How do composers come up with riffs? 6 Simplicity, subtlety and sophistication 7 The role of the musical ear Pin the tail on the riff 9 How to use this knowledge in your own riffs Fascinating rhythms 12 Syncopation 14 Making songs from riffs 15 Riff ideas from other sources 15 Riff variation and development 17 Two guitars are better than one Dropped tunings Riff embellishments 19 Forgetting about theory Riffs designed to solo over 20 Using different time signatures 21 Appendix
About this guide My main aim is to show how the skill of riff writing can be learned by example. I also want to celebrate riff-based music and acknowledge some of the composers who have helped shape rock and metal. I have included some of my own riffs not because they stand alongside the greats but because I can explain how I made them. Ive yet to come up with a genuine classic riff but Im still trying. To play the examples youll need to be able to read guitar tablature. To follow the explanations youll need to know a little terminology and music theory. The Appendix covers tab reading and just enough theory to get by. The most important practical things you should work on are timing, clean playing, and phrasing. Try to listen to the example riffs in their original form. Most are easy to source online. Studio recordings sound clearer than live performances but watching videos can help you with exact fingerings. Behind almost every brilliant guitar riff is a great bass line and drumbeat. To go into the intricacies of these is beyond the scope of this guide. I mostly focus on guitar riffs as standalone entities. The examples in this guide were prepared using Guitar Pro 6.
What is a riff? You and I already know what a riff is, but the Oxford English Dictionary says it is:
a short repeated phrase in popular music and jazz, frequently played over changing chords or harmonies or used as a background to a solo improvisation.
The word riff originated in jazz circles in the 1930s and may have come from the word refrain, a term meaning a repeated chorus or musical phrase in a song. The equivalent term in classical music is ostinato, from the Italian for stubborn or obstinate. Guitar riffs are a defining feature of heavy rock and metal music. They combine elements of melody, harmony and rhythm to form a recognisable entity which is repeated throughout a song.
What makes a classic riff? Classic riffs have passed the test of time. Any riff that has been remembered for thirty or fifty years must have something special. That something is what were looking for. By focusing on older music we have the luxury of hindsight to decide on a riffs true classic status. In recent years metal has fragmented into a diverse and confusing number of sub-genres, none of which is dominant. Many of these sub-genres are deliberately pushing metal into a less accessible sound. Extreme forms of metal are less likely to yield classic riffs because that word implies a catchiness which its composers are avoiding. It is not our intended task to document the riff styles of contemporary metal sub-genres. However, this is not to say great riffs are no longer being written. Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes is just one example of an excellent recent rock riff. A classic riff may have influenced future music, in which case there will be a trail of influences leading back to it, adding to its status (e.g. the verse riff from Black Sabbaths Into the Void influencing the whole genre of doom metal).
What makes a riff classic? The most successful riffs have a catchiness of rhythm, harmony, melody or phrasing. They become a hook, something that makes a listener want to hear the song again. AC/DCs Back in Black has one of the best-known hook riffs in rock. It creates the groove and sets the mood. When I hear that riff it makes me want to pick up my guitar and play. Some riffs are so memorable they take on the characteristics of a meme. They are immediately recognisable and have a virtually independent life outside the song. The most famous example is Deep Purples Smoke on the Water. It follows that memorability is the measure of a riffs success. Achieving this should be the goal of the riff writer, but how can it be achieved? It is clear that many famous riffs are musically simple: Nirvanas Smells Like Teen Spirit; Led Zeppelins Whole Lotta Love. Could their simplicity be the secret of their catchiness? Partly, yes, but its not the whole story. If simplicity alone was needed then every novice songwriter would be writing classic riffs from the start. A riff needs something more, something that makes it stand out. What exactly that is is a difficult but interesting question.
What was the first classic rock guitar riff? As you can guess, theres no single answer to this question, but if youre thinking about origins of rock you should definitely check out the music of Chuck Berry, The Beatles, and The Kinks for clear examples of the distorted electric guitar riff as we know it today. If you want to explore the beginnings of metal you should surely study the work of Tony Iommi.
How do composers come up with riffs? Composers often struggle to explain where their ideas come from. Theyll say that their great song was written after five minutes jamming. Sometimes theyll tell you a little about their compositional process but you still feel theres something missing, some secret that theyre not willing to give up. In fact its probably not unwillingness; its inability. A composers work comes from subconscious processes: an amalgam of influences, ideas, dreams and mental draughts. A great-sounding riff may appear to spring out of the guitar, fully-formed. To verbalise the process would be impossible. If subconscious processes are the key to great riff-writing it makes sense to nurture them. One enjoyable way of doing this is to listen closely to a lot of riff-based music. Mentally pick out notes and chords, listen for quirks or subtleties. Even if you dont know the names of the notes and chords you will absorb their sound. The greater the variety of music you listen to, the more material your brain has to work on. While youre asleep your mind assimilates what youve learned, so dont skimp on sleep. Next time you pick up a guitar, a riff might just appear as if out of nowhere just like it did with many of the greats. But it may be that the subconscious needs a little help. In this guide we concentrate on the conscious processes you can use to make and enhance riffs. We will need to study and analyse several examples. With a little theory we can reverse-engineer them and see what makes them work. Take Smoke on the Water as our first example:
This riff is so simple that many beginning guitar players stumble into playing it while improvising. Often, though, they get it wrong. First of all they are likely to play it with a plectrum whereas the riffs creator, Ritchie Blackmore, plays it with thumb and first finger of
the picking hand. Try it both ways and you should hear that the fingerstyle technique adds considerable tightness to the sound. Beginners who have not yet developed their ear for music may attempt to play it using the more common root-and-5th power chords instead of the 4th dyads that Blackmore actually wrote (see the Appendix for an explanation of these terms). Heres one way to play it wrong: The difference in sound is the difference between a great riff and a good riff. Perhaps this is not a coincidence; perhaps one of the things that mark out a great riff is this kind of subtlety. The unusual sound of the plucked power chords, all in their first inversion (5 1), makes the riff stand out. When we play it with regular power chords (1 5) it sounds a lot more ordinary. The riff is in the key of G minor. It begins and ends on a G5 chord so it feels resolved and self-contained. It starts off in a somewhat banal way, almost like the chant of Frre Jacques, until chord number six breaks the rhythm and adds a bluesy feel thanks to the Db5 (Db is the blue note in the key of G). When we substitute any other chord or note for the Db5 it sounds weaker. A D note, for example, turns the riff into a sort of middle-of-the-road American soap theme from the 1970s. Its the tritone interval of Db above G that gives the riff its attitude. The same interval is found in many famous metal riffs from Black Sabbath to Enter Sandman. The eighth note rests between each chord helps give the chords definition, adding to the tightness of the fingerstyle technique. The riff has a simple structure which we can break down into four parts. The first three parts have the same ascending (G5 Bb5 C5) phrase, the first and third parts being identical. The second part has a Db5 inserted before the C5. The fourth part breaks the pattern with its final-sounding iii I cadence. It may not be too fanciful to suggest the four parts of the riff are making a statement, something like: this is true, this is really true, this is true, so there!
Simplicity, subtlety and sophistication Smoke on the Water is, on the surface (no pun intended), a simple riff, yet it does not sound as though it was written by a beginner. The subtlety of the chord voicings and the fingerstyle execution give it a unique sound. We have said that simplicity is one factor in making a riff memorable. Lets add subtlety and sophistication to the equation. An excellent example of a fairly sophisticated piece of music that sounds simple is Layla by Derek and the Dominos. W