Ah, guitar riffs! One of the greatest gifts rock music has given us. A great guitar riff has power. Anyone who has found themselves unexpectedly air-guitaring while jamming to their favorite music can relate. There’s something about a great riff that just… rocks. And how many guitar players started out by learning one of their favorite riffs?
Writing a great guitar riff can define your career. That riff can be the basis of a hit song, it can take on a life of its own, it can even be the very thing that inspires some young player to learn guitar! Just think of “Seven Nation Army,” by the White Stripes. The riff in that song is one of the most famous of the last few decades. It’s so famous that it has become a chant at European football games!
But how do you write a great guitar riff? The answer is both simple and complicated. Of course it’s not easy, because then everyone would do it. But this article can guide you, so you can get started shaping your own masterpieces. In my opinion, most of the skill comes from immersing yourself in great riff playing, so I’m going to focus on the ways you can live and breathe guitar riffs.
What is a guitar riff?
This question sounds simple, but it’s surprisingly hard to answer. Sure, a few things probably come to mind immediately- like the intro to Smoke on the Water, or Crazy Train. But some things are more debatable. Does the intro to Voodoo Child count as a riff, or a solo? How about the much-copied intro to Johnny B. Goode?
For the purpose of this article, I will use my own definition. I define a guitar riff as a short, repeating guitar part. It acts like both a melody and a rhythm, and is usually 1-4 measures long. It’s catchy, memorable, and exciting.
Examples of guitar riffs
It’s easiest to understand the definition of guitar riffs with examples. There are so many famous guitar riffs that you could never list them all, but here are a few iconic ones: “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks, “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix, “Whole Lotta Love” and “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin, “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple, “Day Tripper” by The Beatles, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath, “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osborne, “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream, “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” by Blue Öyster Cult, “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
You may notice that most songs I listed are considered classic rock. Rock is far from dead, but at the same time, it’s not often these days that a new iconic guitar riff makes its mark. In my opinion, two of the most famous riffs in modern mainstream music are “Seven Nation Army” by White Stripes and “Do I Wanna Know?” by the Arctic Monkeys. Of course, great guitar riffs are still written all the time- but they don’t get the recognition they used to.
Origin of guitar riffs
Many guitar riffs show strong influence from blues playing. In fact, you could say that rock-and-roll was invented by combining blues guitar licks, country rhythm sections, and a mixture of blues/R’n’B/country singing styles. When it comes to the guitar riffs though, the blues influence really shines through.
Types of guitar riffs
A guitar riff can be categorized in many ways. It can be more melodic- “Day Tripper” and “Sunshine of Your Love” are basically repeating melodies that drive the songs. Or it can be more rhythmic- “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” and “Sweet Home Alabama” are essentially just very iconic arpeggio rhythm guitar parts. Then there are power chords. “Smoke on the Water” and “You Really Got Me” are power chord riffs that act like both melodies and rhythm parts.
A riff can also play different roles in a song. A song can be riff-driven. That’s when the riff repeats throughout most of the song, with other elements like vocals and drums happening alongside the riffs. “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Day Tripper,” and “You Really Got Me” are excellent examples of this.
Or, a riff can be just one section of a song, taking the spotlight and then disappearing. Examples: “Crazy Train,” “Smoke on the Water,” or “Up Around the Bend” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
And there’s more. When a guitar riff is accompanying vocals, it can either follow the vocal melody, or it can be complementary. “Do I Wanna Know?” showcases this perfectly. The vocals are a different melody from the riff in the verse, but the chorus vocals follow the guitar riff, which is both powerful and satisfying.
Why did I focus so much on examples of guitar riffs? Because in my opinion, the most important and most overlooked step to any kind of music writing is actively listening. Most music fans probably started out listening passively- listening for fun, basically.
But actively listening means really thinking about what you are hearing as you hear it. Think about the different elements and how they work. So to write great guitar riffs, the first step is to listen to a lot of great guitar riffs, and really think about them as you hear them.
Expand your influences
While actively listening, of course you can start out by listening to things you are already familiar with. But it’s important to push yourself outside your musical comfort zone, too. That’s when things get really interesting. After all, rock music has always been about mixing influences across time and space, and the greatest riffs always bring together old ideas in a new way.
So, learn about influential guitarists who you have not really listened to, and check them out. Check out other genres of music that are also driven by melodic and rhythmic playing. For example: instrumental surf rock, jazz, blues, early R’n’B, soul, motown, country. Even unexpected genres like funk or dance music might give you ideas to bring into your guitar riffs.
Know the musical language
I’m not going to focus too much on music theory or traditional music backgrounds. I am a firm believer that you can be a great player while still being self-taught, or only knowing odds and ends of “proper” music theory. Many of the greatest guitarists can’t even read music, after all.
That said, to write great guitar riffs, there are a few techniques that will really help you expand your abilities.
First, scales. I know, scales are dull, and there are so many different kinds that it can make your head spin. But knowing some of the basic scales will open a lot of doors. I recommend learning how to play major, minor, and blues scales on guitar. Many famous guitar riffs are just a variation on a scale, or part of a scale in a new context.
Second, soloing techniques. Guitar solos are their own whole world, so I won’t get into that too deeply. But the ability to play a cool improvised guitar solo is a huge boon to writing great riffs. In fact, many of the greatest guitar riffs are basically just a few bars of an improvised solo that have been isolated and repeated.
Play (a lot)
This might seem obvious, but it bears saying outright. Writing good guitar riffs involves playing a lot of guitar. I guarantee that every famous riff I listed has hours of playing, practicing, and jamming behind it. You can practice with discipline, you can play aimlessly, you can play in a band or with friends or alone in your room. But no matter what, find a way to play a lot of guitar! Writing guitar riffs doesn’t happen without that.
Record and revise
Tricky thing about music- it’s so fleeting. As soon as you stop playing, it’s gone. Recording yourself playing can really up your game when you’re trying to improve any aspect of your musical abilities, especially writing.
So use whatever tools you have at your disposal- portable recorder, audio interface and DAW on your computer, or even your phone’s voice recorder. Record your ideas, listen back to them, and try improving on them. You’ll be amazed at how much it helps you develop your ideas, to hear them back and try to revise them.
Make it catchy
Great guitar riffs tend to be catchy. That’s part of what keeps you coming back to them. It makes them satisfying. Making music “catchy” is easier said than done- there are so many ways to do it, and musicians are still discovering new ways. But there are a few rules you can follow.
Riffs tend to be catchier if they are fairly easy to sing. So, try to avoid using too many large jumps or strange intervals in the melody.
Repetition makes things catchier, because you start to learn a part and anticipate what’s coming next more quickly. But too much repetition is boring- there’s a sweet spot.
A musician once told me he had a “whistle test” for melodies. After writing one, he would whistle it. If it felt fairly easy yet satisfying to whistle along, that meant it was a strong melody. I think this test works well for catchy guitar riffs too!
Use tones for guidance
When it comes to writing guitar riffs, I think tone is just about as important as the notes you are actually playing. The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” is famously the first known use of power chords. But even more importantly, guitarist Dave Davies slashed the amp’s speaker with a razor blade to achieve the iconic fuzzy distorted tone. Try playing that riff on a clean guitar tone- there’s no way it would have been a famous riff! The tone makes the riff.
So it helps to have a great library of guitar tones to explore when writing riffs. Switching tones can stimulate your creativity, and help you discover riffs that you never would have otherwise! Our guitar plugins include a variety of powerful amp and tone combinations, both classic and cutting-edge. Access to these plugins can really take your riff writing to the next level.
So there you have it, some guidance to start staking your claim to your own killer guitar riffs. As I said, nothing can do the work for you. But on the other hand, the work is very fun and satisfying. So immerse yourself in great guitar riffs, listen to them actively, and play lots of guitar. Before you know it, you’ll be inventing new riffs without even meaning to!