Most people have no idea how to write a good riff. Sure, they get the basic concept of “write something that sounds good”, but there’s more to it. That’s the entry level, Songwriting 101 way. It’s time to graduate to the next level.
Here are 3 mistakes you’re making in your riffs.
1) You aren’t using creative chords
Are you using only power chords in your melodies, with maybe a few inflections or added notes?
Guess what: there are a whole lot more chords you can play on the guitar, and you’re short-changing yourself if you aren’t making the rest available. Try using the below ideas to make substitutions:
- Add notes on top of your power chords. Try adding the 9th or 10th scale degree to the top (these can be easily played with your 4th finger).
- Instead of playing a fifth, play a sixth, third, or fourth instead.
- Add open strings to your playing.
- Use Sus2 and Sus4 chords (these sound great with distortion).
- Use octaves. Octaves are great because they both fill extra space in the sonic spectrum, while still freeing you up to play cool melodies easily by just shifting the shape around the neck.
2) You aren’t interacting with the other instruments
You know what’s a sure sign of a beginner guitarist? If they only try to improve a riff by adding to the guitar part.
There are probably at least 3 other people playing at the same time (vocals/melody, bass, drums), and if you just improve the guitar riff, you’re not working off of what they’re doing. Instead, you want to think of how you can improve the whole rather than just the single part you’re in charge of.
- Try listening to the vocal melody, and see how you can use the tools at your disposal to accent the melody.
- Look at what the bassist is doing. Is he freeing you up to play more than just the roots of chords? Is he doing any patterns that you want to mirror or contrast against up top?
- Is the drummer playing any hits? What’s he doing with the bass drum? Is he hitting the snare just on 2 and 4, or is he adding in any syncopation? What choices can you make to play with him?
- What is the keyboardist playing? Is he doing full chords? Maybe that frees you up to play less notes. Is he doing a more busy pattern? Maybe you should play something simpler. Is he doing a single note line? Maybe you should play it too or harmonize against it.
- Finally, how does this riff fit into the whole song? Do you even want to play more complex now, or should you wait until the bridge/chorus/outro?
Finally, you don’t have to cater your playing to your bandmates completely – what can they all do to play with what YOU want to do?
3) You’re limiting yourself to arbitrary boxes
There are certain rules taught to guitarists that many don’t learn how to break. It’s time to break them.
- Just because you’re playing with distortion does not mean that you have to only do power chords.
- Just because one guitar is playing a melody line does not mean you need to harmonize against it.
- Just because you’re playing in E minor does not mean a G# won’t sound cool.
- Just because your chorus is in 4/4 doesn’t mean your verse can’t be in 6/8.
- Just because a minor second sounds abrasive doesn’t mean it won’t be effective.
- Just because the song is fast doesn’t mean you need to play a fast solo.
- Distortion pedals have off switches. Use them.
There you have it – 3 mistakes you’re making. Now go to the woodshed and graduate to the next level.
Like this lesson? Readers of my email list today got a complimentary homework assignment to improve in this area. If you want to not only learn what you’re doing wrong, but want a set path to improve, then sign up to my email list below: