How to Write Progressive Metal - Part 3: Creating Technical Riffs

author: KevinGoetz date: 07/01/2013 category: songwriting & lyrics
rating: 5.2 / votes: 20 
How to Write Progressive Metal - Part 3: Creating Technical Riffs
Hey, guys! Kevin Goetz back again with another free lesson. I've actually opted to skip over part 2 of this series; based on the reactions to part 1, I won't patronize you with too much in the way of basics unless asked. It was just going to be some basic theory on fusing chug-based riffs with symphonic-sounding keyboards; if you'd like that lesson, let me know and I'll backtrack. If not, we're going to skip straight to something more interesting, and that is, how to make your riffs more technical and interesting. If you've got a knack for songwriting, go ahead and apply the principles I'm going to cover here to your own compositions if it suits them. If not, you can apply the reverse engineering technique from my first lesson to songs with riffs that you've found boring in the past, and improve them with this formula. My favorite example of this, though not particularly progressive, is Nightwish: they've got some really catchy, epic compositions, but I always find myself thinking, "If only these guitar riffs were more interesting; THEN I'd want to play along." Anyway, to do this, do as follows:

Step 1: Isolate Your Chord Progression.

Let's use, as an example, the incredibly generic and well-known vi-IV V. This could be played, for instance in the key of C#, as power chords on the sixth fret, then second fret, then fourth fret of the low B string I'm assuming you've tuned to. Any such interval combination - descend four frets and then ascend two - will yield this iconic-of-rock sound.

Step 2: Augment The Progression's Rhythm.

Using our vi-IV-V example, you'll often find this played, in the most generic setting, as a half note followed by two quarter notes. My first priority, then, would be to offset this generic rhythm with rests, palm mutes, and single notes taken from the scale and added in. But of course, we can get even more specific than this. In my favorite riff I've written with this progression, it actually became a half-note for the first chord, a dotted quarter note held into a tied sixteenth note for the second chord, and just a single sixteenth note for the third chord. But that's far from sufficient; this tip is simply to get you thinking about the role that note placement can play in the sound of your riffs.

Step 3: Augment the Progression's Melody.

In my aforementioned favorite rendition of this progression, it became entirely single notes, almost in an arpeggio fashion. Practice pivoting off of the note that would be the root of your progression's current chord. Use the scale to build arpeggios (not the sweep-picked kind). I'll give a couple examples of such note groupings. Assume starting on the sixth fret of the B-string, in line with the progression we've been working with thus far. That's your first note.

Step 4: Examples.

Try, for instance, jumping up to the ninth fret of the E-string, then down a half-step to the eighth fret; so, a sharp-fifth down to a fifth; that sharp fifth is not to be emphasized, but mainly is just there to provide the emotion garnered from a descending half-step into a relevant interval, the fifth. Round it out into four notes by jumping down to the ninth fret of the B-string, landing on a minor third up from your initial root. That's one potential grouping. Where you proceed from here is up to you. One example would be to jump up to an octave above your root, on the eighth fret of the A-string... Actually, I could go on with potential note choices forever. All I can say is to simply practice employing these formulas until you're comfortable with them. I firmly recommend, though, the use of simple progressions at first. If you've learned nothing thus far, I apologize, but this is only part 3 of a series of nearly two-dozen lessons. If you get impatient, the accompanying video series is updated far more frequently, so, head on over to YouTube. You can also get some audio examples to compliment this lesson, if you don't mind some slightly sloppy playing due to a glitchy amp sim distracting me, and me talking with a cold. If you're up for it, check that out here.
Until next time, see ya.
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