Composing: Tips & Suggestions. Part 1

This article gives you tips on composing your riffs and solos and stuff.

logo
Ultimate Guitar
0

I'm writing this article to sort of help you in composing your guitar riffs and solos in order to make the perfect song for you. I hope it helps you aspiring Hendrixs, or Hetfields. This article will tell you what you need in a good riff or a solo, and obviously what not to do while composing the above.

First of all let me tell why I'm writing this article. I've been a guitarist and a vocalist for about three and a half years now. I know you people are thinkin, 'what's an amateur doing is writing articles on how to make guitar riffs and solos and own compositions. Get a life butt-head.' But anyway, throughout my 'guitar life', I've always wanted to make the perfect song with the catchiest riffs, mind-blowing leads and finally thought provoking lyrics. That's obviously the mission in all your songs I suppose. I kept making all sorts of riffs and solos and stuff, and realized that something was missing the X factor. All about the X factor later.

I asked people what they thought were good things to do in a song to make it, well, popular and at the same time good to my ears. These are the responses I got:

  • You need a riff that's original.
  • You need a solo which no one else can play, that makes a solo catchy and great.
  • Your vocalist must try something different (like growl or screech) or sing songs having a unique style or voice.
  • Your riffs must have variation (like an acoustic side and a very heavy distortion or things like that).

    The above are no doubt true, and they do help in making a good song, but not the best. Almost 99% of the people here told me the stuff above. But I'm not entirely convinced that the responses would make my kinda song. Plus what most people think is sometimes false. So, to correct those mistakes and some tips to write your compositions, here are some tips and suggestions.

    The Guitar Main Riff

    This is no doubt one of the most important things you need in a song. All great songs have been composed thanks to the main riff. The main riff of the song must be written so that people enjoy it and more importantly sounds good. Also the guitar riffs must be made in such a way that vocals (if any) can go along with it, not just some crap you discovered in the garage while playing. The most popular of all guitar riffs were made accidentally. An example? The Nothing Else Matters opening riff and the main riff came out when Hetfield was on the phone. He played the 4 strings in a particular way, and with simple chord structures he made the main riff of the song. Amazing isn't it?

    Guitar riffs are normally created by just fooling around with certain chord patterns and structures, and also playing a couple notes in a scale to sort of fill the empty spaces or finish the guitar riff. The opposite also works. Example is the Painkiller main riff (one with the first verse) - the guitarist plays a couple of notes in a scale ending it with a power chord (this one is not in the scale). Guitar riffs have three basic parts - the head, the body and the tail. The head is as you all have guessed by now is the intro and the root note on whose basis the riff was made. The body is like the hook of the riff. The tail is the ending part where most metal artists like to slip a note, dead out of the scale, to make it sound cooler. Remember one more thing, if a riff you just made sounds like total shit or just sounds way off the basic tune of the song, don't always throw it away, record it it may become one of the best things you've ever heard by altering it a bit or a riff to a whole other own comp.

    The X Factor - the riff is to be made so that the basic tune of the vocals or the whole song is understandable.

    The Little Fill

    Some composers like to add a little fill or another small riff between two verses or to signify a change in the tune of the verses. An example? Dream Theater's Pull Me Under has a very good fill after the first chorus. But the genius of this song is that the guys have made that fill into the most amazing endings I've ever heard. But that's just pure genius.

    If your fill sounds terrible then people won't exactly enjoy the song. Remember that it's not necessary to put a fill. But it's more professional if you do make one.

    The X Factor - Must be made very cleverly, and cautiously.

    The Chorus

    The chorus is no doubted (to the modern musicians) the most important element of the song to grab the interest of the listener. Musicians normally associate choruses with vocals, but that's never exactly necessary. Metallica, in their song Fade To Black, had the chorus in the form of a very memorable guitar riff structure. There are many songs which were made even without a chorus (e.g., Megadeth's Holy Wars).

    To metal musicians, it's not always necessary to have a chorus. But to modern musicians, it's a must. The chorus of the song is made to form a hook to the song. That's why choruses are repeated, so that the listener can identify the song with ease, and plus that he has something to sing to, and not just sit there listening to the song without much of a clue what it's about.

    That brings me to the third and final point of the chorus. The chorus doesn't just signify a part of the song where lyrics are repeated (at least not to me). It's also that part of the song which tells the people what the song is about, lyrically. If the song is about hate, say it in the chorus. Tell people that the song is not about some flower or a tree, but what the song is all about (unless it IS about a tree or a flower). The use of clichs or something that really means something about the song is very much important and more grasping. (The third para is only my interpretation of the chorus).

    The X Factor - Must mean something to the song and not just random lyrics you took off the road. Plus use of clichs work and sell.

    The Solo

    I wrote this article actually solely for this part of the song. A solo is that part of the song where the lead guitarist shows what he can do; at the same time shows the listener that guitar sounds can be something like the vocals. Confused? Read on.

    The solo must have two basic qualities in it - technique and overall understandability. Let me tell you what a solo means to me. The solo is also a verse in the song, only it speaks from a guitarist through his guitar. It portrays emotions and should be treated as an individual singing. Slash, my idol for solos, is the most perfect example of this kind of solo. Let's take the song Estranged (possibly the best songs ever written). After the first verse, Slash has his solo. If you listen to it with emotion and more importantly with your ears (which means deeper), you'll start to feel that's the chorus and as if there was an unwritten verse written over it but it's coming out of the guitar. Even the last solo; man!! It's like the most amazing solo ever. This covers the understandability part.

    Besides this, a solo also should have technique in it. In the sense that it shows that the lead guitarist isn't just sitting there quietly, but has fast fingers or talented ones (to tap and pinch harmonics and stuff). You can use the guitar techniques like tapping or sliding (with a slider), or playing incredibly fast (like another of idols John Petrucci). Slow solos work as well. Don't be under the impression that solos only have to be fast.

    There is a very false belief that the faster the solo, the better it is. Let me tell you, a fast solo without any meaning to it, is equivalent to shit. Slayer guitarists do this very often. I'm not trying to say that Slayer is not good or anything or that the solos are not amazing technically, but I feel that the guitarists have inputted that certain solos for sake of putting there coz it's a 'metal song' and 'a metal song must have solos'. This is again a very false belief. Another false belief is 'if someone else can play your solo, then it's not good'. This is pure crap.

    The easiest way to make a solo is to juggle along the whole scale of the song unless you're feeling adventurous to kick some ass, by cleverly moving a little off the scale.

    The X Factor - must be understandable, and probably something you can relate to.

    The Ending Riffs

    The ending riffs of the song are again a VERY important part of the song. It shows how good you are to the song, and that you're not just making this song of yours just for the solo or for the amazing riff you've just discovered. You must also make an ending in such a way that it doesn't sound abrupt (e.g. Dream Theater's Pull Me Under). Guitarists normally end the songs very cheekily by playing the intro riff or the main riff. Another very clever technique of ending songs and ending riffs is that you play the intro riff or the main riff without its tail. Most modern guitarists end the song with the root note of the main riff sustained. Metallica and other bands sometimes end it with the fading of a solo or a catchy riff.

    The X Factor - Must be done cleverly, and professionally.

    I hope this article helped. There's actually a lot more I wanted to discuss, but lets wait for the responses. Happy composing!

  • 43 comments sorted by best / new / date

      lindex
      Good article, you touched on a few topics that I had/have not seen yet on this site... yet.
      it_wasnt_me
      C'mon, man, solos that no one else can play definetely don't automatically make them good. For example: the solo to kryptonite is the easiest I've ever seen but it's catchy, it flows with the song and it sounds wicked. It's only five notes, but it's still pretty damn cool.
      metal_moshpit
      You can't generalise this topic. there are all different styles of music and many of them aren't like this. this is just the simple way of composing a song. why is there no part for how to arrange the music? this is stuff id say about 95% of us know and the rest would figure this out without a stupid article like this. you mentioned Dream Theater as a reference; when has a grandiose riff been the centre of a Dream Theater song? this article sucks dick.
      metal_moshpit
      This might have been a good article if you didn't have the standard mentality of the metal guitarist: You need a solo which no one else can play, that makes a solo catchy and great. That's nonsense, the best (and catchiest) solo's I know are very easy to play.
      if you knew anything about metal guitarists, they dont think their solos are great because they are fast, they play fast because they enjoy it. if you looked into metal, there are millions of metal bands without flashy solos. solos that are simple ad catch your attention do that because they are short. think about it. pink floyds solos arent catchy and they are slow, but they're long.
      dcerda1918
      this article makes me that think people are thinking way too much when it comes to songwriting. just sit down and play.
      HaloDestroyer
      Yeah, go ahead, 'just sit down and play'. No, keep going. . . . . . Wow. You can play scales, and chords. Well done. Songwriting is at the core of music. Music is an art. So lets look at this literally. Take a painting. Try painting a masterpiece without a canvas, or surface to paint on. You might be able to do all the fancy brushstrokes, but at the end of the day, nobody else, at least anybody who isn't a fellow artist, won't get what you're doing. XxX-Ben-xXx
      mr.freeze
      if you knew anything about metal guitarists, they dont think their solos are great because they are fast, they play fast because they enjoy it. if you looked into metal, there are millions of metal bands without flashy solos. solos that are simple ad catch your attention do that because they are short. think about it. pink floyds solos arent catchy and they are slow, but they're long.
      With easy to play I didn't mean slow solos. I just meant a solo is not automatically good when nobody else can play it. And I think most Pink Floyd solo's are, in a way 'catchy', because they're played with so much emotion.
      DaveGilmour1189
      "your rifts should have variation (like an accousic side and a very heavy distortion or things like that" Every frikin band uses that formula u dink. Its all soft and low in the verses and then picks up for the chorus. It all is unoriginal and completly rips off Pearl Jam and Nirvana. I dispise all bands who use that.
      Fajitaman22
      Linus the lion: I too have asked people what makes a good song, and yes the responses are typically, has to be catchy, original, and al that crap. The fact of the matter is most people don?t know shit about music, they?ve never read a note in their life. Those people who don't know anything about music, those are the people who will be buying your music so maybe you should rethink that philosophy. Alot of the other things you said hold alot of truth, though.
      EXSILIUM
      the article has potential, but i think you went on about the less important stuff and didnt cover enough of the more important
      Rock 101
      I can't stand Slash. His solos add nothing to the song. Instead, it's just him shredding through scales with distortion on. All that says is "Look at me! I'm a no talent attention hog!" *** Slash
      billy2004
      rock101 you idiot, you know nothing, if you were any kind of guitarist you'd be able to recognize slash has an amazing talent but no, somethings crawled up your anus
      cantshreddave
      All great songs have been composed thanks to the main riff.
      bullshit think of half the beatles songs, their just chords, some have riffs, but loads dont, let it be springs to mind bohemian rhapsody doesn't have a main guitar riff, unless u consider the bit near the end a riff, but the song does not revolve around it their are loads of great songs out their which dont centre round a guitar riff
      AC/DC Dude8
      yea, not all great songs have a riff, but it sure makes it better (usually). great article man. 5.
      scarified53
      ...may God and Hendrix both smite u w/ their mighty axes (slash_rocks2005) Thats a pretty cool line actually, and i agree with ya about slash being great but im really amazed at how he keeps it up in velvet revolver, he is a machine , oh and do any of you know if vr will release a new album?, contraband was great!
      slash_rocks2005
      FlickOfTheWrist: Slash is a loser. his guitar solos mean nothing, Turn up the marshall amp and your a god. Listen to BRIAN MAY if you want real talent. ok, im a big queen fan, and yes, Brian May IS amazing live...i always love watchin Live At Wembly But if u EVER say that about slash again, i'll haff ta bitch slap u till ur face looks like i jus took a sh*t on it. Get Appetite for Destruction album...u can't jus judge a band by their radio hits..thats the worst thing to do man. So do me a favor be4 ruining the good name of a lasting guitarist who is still as popular as he was...*by the way-its amazing how he hasn't faded away slowly or jus turned to desperate bands* he has taken the time to find his place...rite w/ the other 2/5 of Guns N Roses. Why am i the FIRST person to stand up for the ONE and ONLY slash? Has he been nothing but loyal to rock n roll? Has he sold out? Has he been an *******? N O. So i think some people should start showin a lil respect for my biggest influence...and the reason why i ever picked up a guitar. Cuz if it weren't for him, i'd be doin drugs aint that a happy story? Rock on dudes!!! No grudge here!!!
      slash_rocks2005
      o yea, i got thrown off course...wow that was like a low blow to rock n roll's name...may God and Hendrix both smite u w/ their mighty axes. so yea, get appetite..raw an gritty rock n roll! And if you wanna hear more variety...cuz ur a picky lil street *****...get the Use Your Illusion albums. They go from their signature raw rock n roll, to old skool-bluesy playing, to great masterpieces like Coma, Estranged, November Rain, to great power ballads like Don't Cry. If there is anyone who is willing to agree w/ me on this topic, plz gimme a 666!!! happy rockin
      lifeguard
      Umm...mediocre article. Had some good info, but was for the most part not placed together very neatly, as if there was little planning to the article and you just wrote what you felt. Now, let me show you the formula for writing columns...
      kurtpage
      u didnt touch on a important point..a good melody. For example..the beatles' songs didnt all have a good riff or a solo at all but it is the songs good melody n hook that makes it so good
      theoddmenout
      nice article, but it seems to lean towards your musical taste (metal like metallica) instead of general music or classic songs from genious artists. For me, the metal compositions are extremely redundant, so they are not good material for examples.
      Flowerpot
      FlickOfTheWrist: Slash is a loser. his guitar solos mean nothing, Turn up the marshall amp and your a god. Listen to BRIAN MAY if you want real talent.
      Yeah!! Brian May live = AMAZING!!
      PsychoWolfD
      Fine article, but don't forget cool not-yet-experimented time signatures, dueling solos, and other cool sounds you can make with guitar not done frequently.
      Partyboy2k05
      Everyone wants to have all that stuff for the perfect song, but the fact is, it usually doesn't happen. More often than not, most lyrics would lower a person's I.Q. before making them truly think. The most popular songs have simple lyrics, simple guitar parts, and less originality. But as musicians we should strive to make our own sound and do music for ourselves. If someone thinks it's good, then great, if not, oh well. It's nice to have an "X FACTOR" but just play on, many greats have put out horrible songs, but played on anyways for the great ones.
      EET_FUK_BASS
      ok, you forgot several points, and I'm not going to forgive you because you've been playing for awhile and should know: -Bass (being a bass player, I am probably more touchy about this, but you totally forgot it): while a mainstream song doesn't need bass (see the white stripes *pukes), bass can be one of your greatest assets: ..you can use it to 'set up' a riff (mini-introy deal) ..you can use it for fills or intros ..or (and I'm experimenting with this) even in metal you can use it to walk and give more than just the root for the geetar support -theory: theory is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL....if you don't know the key your song's in, the solo will sound crap, and the dissonance produced will probably be unresolved (see the consonance and dissonance article) -song structure: and this is other than 'main riff' and 'fill'....melodies, counter melodies, phrasing, etc. etc. etc. There is so much that this article could've been, yet it failed. Plus, you wrote nothing on writing good lyrics. oh and
      nice article, but it seems to lean towards your musical taste (metal like metallica) instead of general music or classic songs from genious artists. For me, the metal compositions are extremely redundant, so they are not good material for examples.
      umm, thrash metal AND Progressive Metal involves some of the greatest uses of theory and song structure (what with counter melodies and what not), also, while sometimes Thrash can get redundant, Progressive Metal (Dream Theater) is one of the least redundant genres of modern, if not all, music.....of course, judging from your statement, you've probably never heard of Dream Theater
      atm_sk8er
      the structure of the article itself is good but it didnt have a bang, it sort of just droned on-i've only been playing for a year, but it didnt really give me any tips, everything you said was just common sence
      Linus the lion
      The Article previously above on composing tips and suggestions that caused me no end of disgust. Let me start I?ve been playing guitar and singer for about 3 years and have been playing violin for about 11 years and can also play some cello, upright bass, and some piano. I too have asked people what makes a good song, and yes the responses are typically, has to be catchy, original, and al that crap. The fact of the matter is most people don?t know shit about music, they?ve never read a note in their life. Music is at its core about emotion. Our goal as musicians is to instill part of what we feel into our listeners through our music. The main riff (intro) Music is like good fiction; it should bring a person from one point to another, and through the process never lose the listeners attention. When you have something to say, say it, don?t plug some crap you made up to some lyrics that don?t match, write with intention. A main riff is like an intro it grabs a listener?s attention. Sounding cool is the most retarded idea I?ve ever heard, things will naturally sound ?cool? if you follow the rules of composition (or intentionally disregard them properly). Music has less to do with technical skill, songs are good because they use the tools they do well and because they fit together well, just because something hard DOES NOT MAKE IT GOOD, alternatively if something?s easy it doesn?t make it bad necessarily. Ex. Elgar Edward ? Enigma ? Nimrod Easy as hell to play, but it?s good because it flows, it fits and it uses its musical tools well Amazing hooks: Prokoviev ? Romeo and Juliet ? (The cat prince) Tybalt ..(amazing usage of dissonance to provide tension)
      Linus the lion
      Fill: Fill is just a section that allows music to transition smoothly from one section to another. Ideally a song should flow The solo: The solo is an extension of the melody usually taking it in a separate direction from the rest of the song. The solo is not meant to show how great the guitarist is, I know guitarist who can do screaming metal solos for 20 minutes, guess what, sure they?re ?technical? but they sound like crap. I?ll say it again; music is about utilizing tools properly not about showing how fancy good you are. Finger taping, slides, there?s are all just tools, the more tools you have in your belt the more you can potentially do. Metaphor: building a house requires nails and a hammer, just cuz I have a power drill should I use it just for kicks, doe sit make my house any better, no, it?s there if I need to drill. Closing songs As stated before, the most typical way to end a song is to end it on the chord of the key you?re in, this will always resolve in consonance ( a lot of people do this without realizing it). Ending abruptly is NOT bad, building tension then not resolving is has it?s own unique effect, hell I do it all the time. The most important thing to remember about music(aside from that it?s about emotion) is that regardless of how you use your abilities is that to get anywhere things have to be tight and fit together how they?re meant too, without intention were all just doomed to be a bunch of idiots grinding away hoping to stumble upon the answer.
      zaccy
      Flowerpot: FlickOfTheWrist: Slash is a loser. his guitar solos mean nothing, Turn up the marshall amp and your a god. Listen to BRIAN MAY if you want real talent. Yeah!! Brian May live = AMAZING!! ---.. shut up. the both of you. go crawl into a cave and die.
      zaccy
      and you are calling stuff i make up in the garage rubbish?? and theres no difference with the garage and how hetfield made the opening 'nothing else matters' riff on the phone..?
      zaccy
      who the hell is brian may anyway you stupid bag of wank flowerpot? ive heard of that name.
      mr.freeze
      This might have been a good article if you didn't have the standard mentality of the metal guitarist:
      You need a solo which no one else can play, that makes a solo catchy and great.
      That's nonsense, the best (and catchiest) solo's I know are very easy to play. And Brian may is the guitarist of Queen.
      ultradogfromhel
      does anyone else find it very ammusing how the person who wrote this article on how to write like the best song ever, proably doesnt even have an amazing song...im sure all the great songs that have been out werent done with a formula, it just happens
      IzzySnakes
      Yah this article was pretty crappy. I dont know what kind of "metal song" your talking about but when I listen to metal I expect an incredibly fast solo. If you have ever listened to any rock bands lyrics, usually they are pretty stupid. All you need to sound good is: bad drug metaphors, something about dieng, something about breaking up, something about hating someone, or something about sex.
      miskatsu
      Flowerpot wrote: FlickOfTheWrist: Slash is a loser. his guitar solos mean nothing, Turn up the marshall amp and your a god. Listen to BRIAN MAY if you want real talent.
      Ok... I don't wanna diss Brian May, he is an awesome guitarist, but dissing Slash for that his solos mean nothing, is the same like you say that black ppl weren't supposed to play guitar, as someone had told Slash. Slash 'vocalises' his thoughts through the solo. True emotion and feeling... IF SOME OF YOU STUCKUPS STILL DISS SLASH... YOURE FU***** DEAD!