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How to Write Good Guitar Riffs From Scratch

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Wouldn’t it be great if you could make up epic riffs off the top of your head?

Be able to write songs like all the pros?

Not get chased out of Guitar Centre by a mob of angry people for playing Smoke on the Water again?

When I was younger all of that was just a dream. And I’m guessing lots of people wish the same.

I mean, no one wants to hear Smoke on the Water played again.

So today I’ll show you write not just good, but great guitar riffs to get you on the road to riffing mastery.

Let’s go!

*How Long Does it Take to Get Good at Writing Riffs?

One of my favourite guitarists called Kiko Loureiro spoke about something he called the flow of creativity.

He said that the more you practice and try to access this creative flow, the more easily it comes to you.

And that’s why the pros can write cool stuff off the top of their head, they’ve got full access to that flow.

Psst… I’m no zodiac, spiritual guy, but that sounds kinda cool.

So don’t worry about learning to write good guitar riffs being a “talent-based” thing, because it isn’t.

As you practice in time, more stuff will just naturally come to you.

So for me, I was able to start writing good riffs pretty easily a month or two after I started learning to riff.

So you’ll get there quicker than you think too.

Writing Variations of Your Favourite Riffs

This is exactly how I started, and it worked great.

Steal a riff without permission from an artist that you love, and make it your own.

Swap some notes around, change the rhythm or speed, use the same chords with a different strumming pattern…

Anything goes.

You can even find two riffs from two different artists and find a way to include parts of both in the same riff.

This’ll give you a nice feel of how riffs are structured, and what kind of good riffs you want to write on guitar.

And once you’ve got good at writing the kind of riffs you like, you’ve found your own style.

I said earlier that no one wants to hear Smoke on the Water again.

But I’ve used that as my base riff to customize, so now you have to listen to it again, he he he…

Was that a bit too evil? Hmmmm, maybe… muhahah.

And because I’m a metalhead, here’s a crazy variation I made of it:

Now I think that sounds pretty cool.

And if you don’t, then that’s great! You now know what you don’t want your riffs to sound like.

And that’s equally important as finding what you do like.

We all hear riffs that we think… Meh, could be better.

So either take those riffs and make them better, or pledge to never ever write riffs like them in your time on planet earth.

Using Scales To Craft Your Own Riffs

If you want to write your own riffs, you’ve got to first learn what notes to use.

Otherwise, you’re just gonna feel as lost as Ariana Grande at a Nickelback concert.

Just learning a scale on the low E and A strings will be enough for you metal lovers out there.

But those wanting to learn funk and rock might benefit from knowing scales on the D and G strings too.

So, your traditional E minor pentatonic scale would look like this:

E minor pentatonic scale diagram

Turn any of those notes on the lowest three strings into power chords, and your riffs will sound much beefier.

If you don’t know how to play power chords on guitar, which are essential for playing riffs, then you can view my post on power chords by clicking here.

And if you want to step it up a bit and have more to work with, then learning the E minor scale whilst you’re at it wouldn’t hurt.

E minor scale diagram

Bear in mind that this is all in the key of Em, and for writing riffs in other keys, you’ll have to shift up or down these shapes accordingly.

And as I said, you only need to know the notes on the lowest two or three strings to begin to write good guitar riffs.

Sam, that’s great and all… But I want to write METALLL YEAHHHH!

Wow, you’re enthusiastic.

SLAYERRRRRR!!!

Ha, ha, Ok…

RIFFS!!! Do you reckon you could help me with that?

I’m afraid of what would happen if I didn’t help you, so yeah sure.

If you do want to write rock/metal/frickin-badass sounding riffs, then using the Metallica scale is the way to go.

It’s basically a normal minor scale on the bottom two strings with a couple of darker notes added in to make it sound more evilll:

Metallica riff scale diagram

I’m not saying using all these notes at once in a riff is a good idea, unless you want everything to sound chromatic.

But adding the b2 interval (F) and/or the b5 interval (Bb) to any kind of riff will make it sound much more sinister.

You’ll find this in work from every metal band under the sun: Metallica, Megadeth, Slipknot, System of a Down, Sla-…

SLAYERRRR!!! SCREAMING!!! DEATH!!!

Yup…

Writing Your Own Riffs From Scratch

By this point, I’m expecting you to have dipped your feet in the shark-infested riffing waters.

You’ve made some cool variations of your favourite riffs and know the notes you can use to write stuff.

So let’s look at taking an initial riffing idea and developing it into something epic…

The first step is just to have a play around see if you can come up with something, anything.

The trick is to just take something and stick with it.

Don’t question your ideas or dump the motif because you think it’s not good enough – you can decide on that in the future when songwriting.

The most important thing is just to get riffing.

Whether that’s means percussively tapping your guitar to find a rhythm first and adding notes to it later…

Or just coming up with a simple note sequence and turning each note into power chords…

As soon as you get that initial idea, whip out your voice recorder app and record it.

The amount of times I’ve found a cool idea, started trying to develop it and forgotten what the original idea was, is more than you’ve had the sudden impulse to throw your guitar in the fireplace.

And if a great riff idea comes into your head during a daily activity like drinking a glass of mayonnaise, sing the riff into your phone and figure it out later.

Here’s an example of a short motif I came up with that we’ll be working with today:

Basic Em riff motif

If you don’t know how to read guitar tab and its symbols, which is a must for reading riffs, then click here to view my post on that.

Nice, but it’s nothing special at the moment so let’s get into developing it…

Developing an Initial Idea Into Something Epic

There are numerous ways that you can develop an initial motif:

  • Repeat the same rhythm again with different notes
Em riff motif, repeated with different notes
  • Add a second part to the motif
Em riff motif, repeated with a second part
  • Remove a note or two from the riff on the second time
Em riff motif, repeated with fewer notes
  • Repeat the same motif a few times and add a turnaround at the end
Em riff motif, repeated three times with a turnaround at the end.

And you can even combine some of these different techniques together – just have a play around.

Voil√†! Just like that, you’ve got your first great riff on your hands.

And that’s all there is to it really.

But before you go back to your glass of mayo, I’ve got a couple of extra tips to help y’all write some good guitar riffs out there…

Extra Guitar Riff Writing Tips

My first tip, is if you’re struggling to create anything on your guitar, try to come up with a riff in your head.

Coming up with riffs in your head is great because you ideas aren’t limited to what you can play.

I’ll often do this when I’m in a fit of rage at my guitar because it won’t give me any ideas, so I’ll get my own back by not playing it.

It’s a vicious circle…

Anyway, creating in your head offers a different perspective and can sometimes be the breakthrough – such as finding the perfect ending to a riff or a better way to develop it.

When I was younger, I would even come up with different riffs during particularly boring school lessons.

I would then ask to go to the toilet just so I could record the idea on my phone.

And then when I got home I’d persevere through the cringe of hearing my own voice and figure out how I could play it.

Obviously I’m not recommending that you bunk off school lessons or miss work meetings to go sing to yourself in a toilet cubicle…

But hey, it’s still a cool way to write some good guitar riffs.

Using a drum track is also a great way to write a riff.

If you’re still struggling to write anything on your own, then find a random drum track on YouTube for the genre you like, and write something to fit it.

Ola Englund has a great video on writing metal riffs which explains this well here.

If it helps, turn your guitar momentarily into a bongo drum and try to find the rhythm of the riff you want first, and record that.

Then you can start filling in the notes afterwards.

And my third tip is a bit of a songwriting tip for riffs.

Even if you write the two best riffs in the world, they’re gonna sound slightly off if they aren’t connected properly.

That’s why during the songwriting process, make sure you come up with some very small and simple transition riffs.

These will help connect these riffs together in a song.

You’ll find everything fits lots better, and you’ll stop second guessing whether that riff should be included or not.

Wrapping it Up + My Challenge to You

Becoming a riffing god is not something that happens overnight.

But it is something that can (not really) happen in a month!

So my challenge to you – should you accept it – is to try and write a new riff every day for a month…

Simple, complex, so easy a toddler could play it, I don’t give a damn!

If it feels too simple, add some chords underneath it or a second guitar part and it’ll end up sounding sick.

Just spend 15 minutes or so a day writing a new riff.

If you get stuck, take a step back and think about your influences and how you want your riffs to sound.

Open up a notepad on your phone and write down the artists you love the riffs of, and then try writing riffs in some of these different styles.

And if need be, make your own version of their riffs.

But that’s only if you get 100% stuck or are just starting out riffing.

It’ll be really fun and by the end of the month, you’ll have 30 or so riffs recorded on your voice recorder app ready to go.

And you’ll have the ability to make better riffs, faster.

So do it. Or else… *Evil laugh*

I’ve been Sam Olverson…

Have fun riffing!

P.S. If you want to learn how to play power chords on guitar, so you can play better riffs, then click here to view my post on that.

Sam

Sam is a guitar teacher and educator, with his main goal being to give people advice that they can truly rely on. He strives to teach through modern and effective techniques that actually provide results. Getting good at guitar was always his dream, and this blog outlines the steps he took to achieve total guitar freedom from scratch.

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