Writing Tips 2

author: Colohue date: 11/27/2008 category: guitar techniques
rating: 8.4 / votes: 13 

Writing Tips II: Riff Writing

When writing songs most song writers first plan out the chord progression and work from there. Using a nice, simple chord progression a song writer can have a song complete quite easily and with just the right feeling. It becomes somewhat more complex when you begin to add riffs, bridges and solos. Where to have what and how many times is important in making a song unique. Riffs can be difficult to write but even harder to make original. A riff tends to act as a focal point in a song, often demanding attention. This means that the riff has to be able to hold its own and attract the listener. Personally I've had many problems with writing riffs that sound quite similar. As a starter guitarist riffs tend to be written in the style of whatever riffs have so far been learned. The aim of this lesson is to outline some of the methods for writing different types of riff. The scale I have chosen to use is F Major. All of these example riffs were made up on the spot. I have never played any of them before. 1 - Note Limitation Riffs made using note limitation are all about selecting particular notes in relation to the root note. With the right selection of notes you can give your riff and feel you desire. 1a - Chord Tones The safest and often easiest method of note limitation is to only play the notes from a particular chord. In my example the notes used are F, A, C and E, which make up an Fmaj7 chord.
Example - Chord Tones (Fmaj7)
e|-----------------|-----------------|
B|-----------------|-----------------|
G|-----------------|---------2-------|
D|-------2---3-2---|-3-2---2---3-2---|
A|---0-3---3-------|-----3-----------|
E|-1---------------|-----------------|
1b - Dominant Tones Considering the popularity of powerchords you can easily make a riff using only the root and the dominant. In my example I use two powerchords that use the note F. These are F5 (F,C) and Bb5 (Bb, F).
Example - Dominant Tones (F5,Bb5)
e|-----------------|-----------------|
B|-----------------|-----------------|
G|---5-------------|---3-------------|
D|-3---3---3-------|-3---3---3-------|
A|-------3---3---3-|-------1---1---1-|
E|-------------1---|-------------1---|
1c - Mediant Tones The mediant tones are those notes that seperate a scale from another. For example, compared to the major scale, the minor scale has a b3, a b6 and a b7. Using these notes and the root note to establish a tonal centre, we can make a riff. My example uses the notes F, A, D and E.
Example - Mediant Tones (F,A,D,E)
e|-----------------|-----------------|
B|-----------------|-----------------|
G|-----------------|-----------------|
D|-3---0-2-0-------|-----0---3-2-0---|
A|---0-------0-----|---0---0-------0-|
E|-------------1-0-|-1---------------|
This can also be used when it comes to the relative minor. My next example will be in F Major's relative minor, which is D. This means the mediant notes are F, Bb and C.
Example - Mediant Tones (D,F,Bb,C)
e|-----------------|-----------------|
B|-----------------|-----------------|
G|-----------------|-----------------|
D|-0-3-------3-0---|-0-3---3-0-----3-|
A|-----1-3-1-----3-|-----1-----3-1---|
E|-----------------|-----------------|
In truth making riffs using note limitation is far from limiting. The more specific your choice of notes the more likely your riff will sound how you want it to. Scales after all are a method of note limitation. Try it yourself and see what you get. 2 - Focal Note Play Focal note play is all about having one central note and making your riff around this central note. Often riffs such as these are used to establish a new resolution. The examples I'm going to give all appoint the focus to open strings but your focus can be wherever you desire it. 2a - Single String The method when writing riffs using focal note play on a single string is to have your focal note on one point of the string and for the riff to take place either higher or lower. In this example I have chosen to make D the focal note.
Example - Single String (D)
D|-0-0-0-8-7-8-0-5-|-0-5-7-8-7-8-0-5-|
The constant repetition of the D keeps it as the focal note, which holds the attention of the listener. The feel of the riff comes from the other notes played. 2b - Multiple String When using multiple strings you are given the option of having one string hold the focal note while the other string can play any other part of the riff.
Example - Multiple String (D)
G|-----7-5-----3---|-----7-5---5-7-5-|
D|-0-0-----0-0---3-|-0-0-----0-------|
The D string holds the open D as the focal note while the G string is free to create a riff around the recurring D. 2c - Switching Focus If you want to change the focal note to another during a riff then simply switching strings is a good way to do it. In my next example I will switch focus from the open D to the open A.
Example - Switching Focus (D/A)
D|-0-0-5-3-0-3-5-3-|-----------------|
A|-----------------|-0-0-5-3-0-3-5-3-|
You could also descend to the A using chromatics or chord tones if you wanted to ease the transition at all. Sometimes it can sound better out of the blue, sometimes not. There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to writing riffs. These are just a few building blocks on which you can put your own ideas and adapt them to your own style. So give them a try. I look forward to hearing the results. Tom Colohue
More Colohue lessons:
+ Outright Writing. Part Two Songwriting & Lyrics 01/15/2010
+ Outright Writing. Part One Songwriting & Lyrics 01/08/2010
+ Writing Tips 3 Guitar Techniques 12/10/2008
+ Writing Tips Songwriting & Lyrics 09/23/2008
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