#1
Hey all, I have a question about writing riffs, I am still fairly new to guitar but am trying to learn all the time so I can get better, but riffs have stumped me , I am struggling to understand how musicians write riffs and also sing over a riff.

From what I have gathered so far is if playing a riff and singing at the same time its best to use arpeggios, is this right? and why... is it because arpeggios use the same notes as the chords use so it doesn't mess with the vocal melody?

also is it possible to write a song with just your normal chords and a vocal melody and then once this is done slap a riff on top? or is this not something that is done? Because the way I write music is come up with my melody or chord structure first so writing riffs over the top for me would be easier... I think, or is it not possible doing it this way..

Thanks guys, I really appreciate any help that you can give me!
Last edited by heaven086 at Aug 23, 2015,
#2
Well, a riff is just a repeating pattern. It can be anything.

If you want to write a riff based on a chord progression, I think the first thing to come up with is the rhythm. Just strumming the chords to a certain rhythm will start to sound like a riff. That's actually what many riffs are about. For example the riff of Highway to Hell is just A, D and G chords played to a certain rhythm. It has a lot of rests in it that gives space to the vocals. This is of course not what you always want to do. The chorus of the same song uses the same chords (well, not exactly the same order, but it's just those three chords), but the rhythm is different. Also, the chords take a lot more space than in the verse. There are no rests, the chords are ringing all the time. This way the song has dynamics.


Yeah, you usually don't want the riff behind the singing melody to be too complex, because the melody should be the main focus.

But yeah, just use your ears. That's the best way to write music. If it sounds good, it is good.
Quote by AlanHB
Just remember that there are no boring scales, just boring players.

Gear

Bach Stradivarius 37G
Charvel So Cal
Fender Dimension Bass
Hartke HyDrive 210c
Ibanez BL70
Laney VC30
Tokai TB48
Yamaha FG720S-12
Yamaha P115
Last edited by MaggaraMarine at Aug 23, 2015,
#3
Riffs can be chord-based as MaggaraMarine said, they can also be single-note types, (which are basically the same, just faster and with chugging in between), they could be arpeggios. They can be a lot of things.

It might help you out to learn songs by bands who play the same type of music you want to play and analyze the song structure.
#4
When it comes to singing and playing, the only thing you can do is practice.
There's no trick to it other than getting the song to the point where it's muscle memory, then starting to add the vocals on top of it.
Just takes practice.

As far as writing goes, everyone has their own way.
There's really no *wrong* way of doing it.
I'll sit down and start playing random stuff, and when I hear something I really like, I'll take that and fledge it out to a riff
Nothing wrong with figuring out the chord pattern you want, then going from there.
Your best bet is to look at other artist's songs and dissect them and use that info to build up your toolbox.
#5
I think that many great songs started life as a riff. First song that comes to mind is The Beatles "Daytripper". Now there is a riff that is perfectly happy with vocals over it, as many are.
#6
When it comes to singing over a riff, I would look at which note is played at the same time as a certain syllable/word is sung. Figure that out. What do I need to sing when I play this note? If it's hard to figure out, record the riff first, then record the vocals on top of it, and then listen to it. You'll hear that certain notes are sung and played at the same time. And also, some riffs are easy to sing over, because the riff and the vocals have similar rhythms in them.

But yeah, it's kind of the same as syncing your left and right hands and your feet when you are playing a drum beat.


Slow it down! It helps.
Quote by AlanHB
Just remember that there are no boring scales, just boring players.

Gear

Bach Stradivarius 37G
Charvel So Cal
Fender Dimension Bass
Hartke HyDrive 210c
Ibanez BL70
Laney VC30
Tokai TB48
Yamaha FG720S-12
Yamaha P115
#7
Cool, thanks for all the replies guys you've all been helpful!

When it all comes down to how a song is arranged then, what makes a chord progression different from a riff then? I understand a riff is about rhythm, but don't we play chord progression in a rhythm? I know we don't play chords as individual notes but as someone said above chords can be played as a riff too...

Thanks
#8
A riff is just something that repeats. If you strum the chords the same way every time, you can call it a riff if you want.

It's just a word for a pattern. Usually a rhythmic pattern. So you can say to your bandmates, "play the verse riff" rather than "play the first four bars of the verse over and over."

Often when people say they want to write a riff for their song, they've already got the chord progression and the melody and they want to write something catchy and rhythmic to put underneath the vocals.
#9
Quote by heaven086
Cool, thanks for all the replies guys you've all been helpful!

When it all comes down to how a song is arranged then, what makes a chord progression different from a riff then? I understand a riff is about rhythm, but don't we play chord progression in a rhythm? I know we don't play chords as individual notes but as someone said above chords can be played as a riff too...

Thanks

Chord progression on its own doesn't have a rhythm to it. A riff is a repeating pattern that combines chords, melody and rhythm. And by "melody" I don't necessarily mean anything special (like a singing melody). It can mean the chord voicings you use. You can play the same chords in so many different ways, and it will sound different. That's what I mean with "melody" in a riff.
Quote by AlanHB
Just remember that there are no boring scales, just boring players.

Gear

Bach Stradivarius 37G
Charvel So Cal
Fender Dimension Bass
Hartke HyDrive 210c
Ibanez BL70
Laney VC30
Tokai TB48
Yamaha FG720S-12
Yamaha P115
#10
Quote by MaggaraMarine
Chord progression on its own doesn't have a rhythm to it. A riff is a repeating pattern that combines chords, melody and rhythm.
Strictly speaking, a riff needn't contain (or imply) chords. It can be melody and rhythm alone.
The ruling factors are repetition and (usually) simplicity: not too many notes, and a distinctive rhythmic pattern.
#11
Some classic single-note (or unison) riffs:
Satisfaction, The Last Time, Day Tripper, I Feel Fine, Sunshine of Your Love, Born Under a Bad Sign, Smokestack Lightnin', Spoonful, Sweet Child o' Mine, Whole Lotta Love, Layla, Walk This Way, Enter Sandman, Money (Floyd), Money (Beatles etc), Pretty Vacant, Peter Gunn, Oh Pretty Woman, Mr Tambourine Man (Byrds)

Classic chord riffs:
Brown Sugar, Start Me Up, I Can't Explain, All Right Now, Turn Me On Again, Money For Nothing, Eye of the Tiger

Power chord riffs (or chords and unison lines):
You Really Got Me, All Day and All of the Night, Smoke on the Water, Iron Man, Back in Black
Seven Nation Army, Paranoid, Smells Like Teen Spirit, My Sharona

Almost anything by Bo Diddley consists largely of rhythm-only riffs (usually just one chord, negligible melodic content). Not to be under-rated!

A lot of "greatest riffs" lists include Johnny B Goode, but that's not technically a riff: it's too long (4 bars), it's not repeated, and doesn't have a distinctive rhythmic pattern (all 8th notes). But there is a very simple one-note rhythmic riff following those 4 bars.
#12
I feel like you're over thinking it. Play something on the guitar that loops nicely, and that's a riff.

Some riffs suit singing on top of them and some don't.

I personally don't consider a rhythmic chord playing a "riff" per se, but something like the guitar in John Mayer's neon, is definitely a riff.

How, is just do it. There is a lot you can learn about sounds and their names, and about the key and all that, but that is not how to write music. That is how to play what your mind wants.

If you are a beginner it can be tough at first because you have no references, so you can start simply by just find a few sounds you know that fit well together, and make them interesting.

More knowledge, or more complicated is not necessarily more interesting. Something very simple can be interesting.

Once you've started, you might want something also, and you can hunt for that. As you learn more, hunting becomes easier.
#13
Quote by fingrpikingood
I feel like you're over thinking it. Play something on the guitar that loops nicely, and that's a riff.
Good advice. It's a common experience that a short little phrase that sounds dull on its own can become a cool riff if you keep repeating it, to a groove.
At least repeating it allows you to polish it, to maybe change the odd note that isn't quite working.
#14
Quote by heaven086
Hey all, I have a question about writing riffs, I am still fairly new to guitar but am trying to learn all the time so I can get better, but riffs have stumped me , I am struggling to understand how musicians write riffs and also sing over a riff.

From what I have gathered so far is if playing a riff and singing at the same time its best to use arpeggios, is this right? and why... is it because arpeggios use the same notes as the chords use so it doesn't mess with the vocal melody?

also is it possible to write a song with just your normal chords and a vocal melody and then once this is done slap a riff on top? or is this not something that is done? Because the way I write music is come up with my melody or chord structure first so writing riffs over the top for me would be easier... I think, or is it not possible doing it this way..

Thanks guys, I really appreciate any help that you can give me!


I'd definitely also suggest to study the riffs written by your favorite guitarists. Study them not only in isolation, but also within context of the song as a whole. A song can only be as good as its weakest part. Moreover, once you've come up with the "first draft" of your own riff, compare it to those of your favorite guitarists. Try to see what elements (rhythm, melody, how it relates to the harmony, etc.) of these riffs it might be lacking. All of this doesn't need to come from a single musician, though- draw on many influences (the rhythmic structure of X, the melodic content of Y) in creating your own voice.

Concerning your second point, I'm reminded of a story: Duke Ellington, while taking a ride in a taxicab, was discussing the "rules" of music with a classical composer. The composer gave Ellington a list of the most important ideas to be followed in songwriting. From this, before they reached their destination, Ellington wrote a number of songs- songs that deliberately defied the "rules" of music. Again, what's best is what sounds good to you; study those riffs to see what happens during the vocals.

Songs can be written with the hook (i.e., riff), harmony, vocals/melody, or lyrics first. There really isn't a single best approach. Many of the best musicians at (at least at times) don't even begin with a specific area in mind. They let the songwriting develop naturally. The artistic process can't- and shouldn't- be forced a specific way. And remember: even your favorite guitarists sometimes need to rewrite song parts. They're experts of their craft because the dedicated themselves to practicing it. Barring some prodigies, perhaps, they all started roughly where you are now. Try to be encouraged/motivated by that.

And above all, remember the Golden Rule of songwriting: if it sounds good, it is good.
#16
Potted critique:
1. The rhythm guitar intro is a riff (rhythmic only)
2. The guitar line in the intro is a riff - because its repeated, simple enough, and has some rhythmic content. But the timing is rough, so you need to work on that. (I don't like the tone myself, but that's a matter of taste.)
3. The singing is OK (better than the guitar playing), but you don't need so much FX on it. The melody is simple but strong (hook value) - not sure about the semi-spoken bit though.
4. The guitar line in the chorus distracts from the vocal. If you want it in there - and it could work - I suggest playing it an octave lower. Mixing it back a little might help, but just make sure the vocal dominates. (Reducing the FX on the vocal would help too - it needs some, but at present it's just turning it into mush.)
5. Those pauses at 2:06. Are you planning on something going in there? (You should -they're too long otherwise. Could just be drums - which your demo would benefit from throughout anyway. I suspect that's your plan?

In general, in terms of both riff writing and songwriting, this is crude, but has promise. I think you have a good sense of melody (within the style of this genre), sing well enough, and the rhythm guitar is strong. The song structure is also broadly OK, I think. Other stuff, especially timing, needs to be tightened up. Working to a drum track when recording (even when writing) would help.
And the vocal and lead guitar (in the chorus) are fighting each other at the moment. Ideally they would be in unison or octaves (sing the same notes you play), if that can be arranged - even if it means changing a word or two, or a note or two. (I can't tell if they're supposed to be in unison at the moment. If they are, then the timing really needs to be tightened up!)
Last edited by jongtr at Aug 31, 2015,
#17
Quote by jongtr
Potted critique:
1. The rhythm guitar intro is a riff (rhythmic only)
2. The guitar line in the intro is a riff - because its repeated, simple enough, and has some rhythmic content. But the timing is rough, so you need to work on that. (I don't like the tone myself, but that's a matter of taste.)
3. The singing is OK (better than the guitar playing), but you don't need so much FX on it. The melody is simple but strong (hook value) - not sure about the semi-spoken bit though.
4. The guitar line in the chorus distracts from the vocal. If you want it in there - and it could work - I suggest playing it an octave lower. Mixing it back a little might help, but just make sure the vocal dominates. (Reducing the FX on the vocal would help too - it needs some, but at present it's just turning it into mush.)
5. Those pauses at 2:06. Are you planning on something going in there? (You should -they're too long otherwise. Could just be drums - which your demo would benefit from throughout anyway. I suspect that's your plan?

In general, in terms of both riff writing and songwriting, this is crude, but has promise. I think you have a good sense of melody (within the style of this genre), sing well enough, and the rhythm guitar is strong. The song structure is also broadly OK, I think. Other stuff, especially timing, needs to be tightened up. Working to a drum track when recording (even when writing) would help.
And the vocal and lead guitar (in the chorus) are fighting each other at the moment. Ideally they would be in unison or octaves (sing the same notes you play), if that can be arranged - even if it means changing a word or two, or a note or two. (I can't tell if they're supposed to be in unison at the moment. If they are, then the timing really needs to be tightened up!)


Thanks for the in-depth crit man, Yeah I am more of a rhythm player to be totally honest, I have only really turned to lead the past few weeks to try and understand it a little better, so I understand my timing is off and yeah I think you're defiantly right about the chorus, the riff and the vocals are fighting each other, ill attempt to change that and get something that works well with the vocals instead. And that gap at 2:06 there will be drums in there for sure hehe. Thanks again!
#19
I think the one real defining characteristic of a riff is that it is almost like a mini song. It's something that defines itself within the song, and the other parts of the song use it similar to the way samples are used in hip hop. In fact hip hop and riff rock have a lot in common imo.

So basically a riff is like a jingle or a sample. It's a few notes that give you a certain feel, the same way a rhythm, melody, or harmony would give you, except a riff usually has all these things combined in a quick, repeatable format.

Regarding chords and riffs and singing, there are different approaches. Take Fool in the rain by led zeppelin. Or island in the sun by weezer. These riffs are all chords. Take any power chord riff too, they use chords, but the singer isn't trying to create a melody that goes along with every change. Fool in the rain has like six chords in two seconds.

The thing is they aren't using chords the way you would normally use chords, they're just stacking a melody. You can distinctly follow the top note, and the notes beneath just add depth. So really, there is often another chord progression behind the chords you're really playing, which influence what the singer is doing. Idk exactly what Fool in the rain would be but it's clear that those middle chords aren't really important, and the first part of the riff stops on a major while the second is a minor that slides out downward. Plant I think sings pentatonic notes mostly.

Which is probably the biggest thing about riffs in general. Sometimes a singer follows a riffs notes closely like iron man or aqualung, but a lot of riffs are very much based on the intervals found in the pentatonic scale. Because of this, the singer doesn't really have to follow the riff that closely. The pentatonic scale has an interesting quality with the full scale it is part of In that whatever chord progression you might be playing, there's a good chance that the pentatonic notes can be played over the whole thing. This is because the fourth and the seventh are right next to important notes in chords, so if you take those two out you're left with the "promiscuous" notes that sound good over most stuff.

If a riff is mostly pentatonic, it usually sounds more modal than chordal. It may just sound like it just stays on one chord the whole time. This gives the singer, and the rest of the song to have a chord progression that might not be apparent at all in the riff alone. Another cool thing about pentatonic riffs is that you can take them along for the ride on the chord progression. Being pentatonic, you can, for the most part simply move the whole riff up to the note you want and it'll sound good. This is especially true for anything that is just using the I IV and V chords. Take Moby dick for example. Pretty much the same riff throughout, but shifted to create a twelve bar blues progression.

Another cool thing is that the minor pentatonic sounds alright over a major chord. So you can have an A minor riff playing over an A major, and if you wanted to go to B minor, the riff is already minor so you wouldn't have to change any notes.

A lot of riffs however are more diatonic, and when you shift them around you gotta make changes. Say your riff is a simple e d c c e d c c. Fi ga ro ro fi ga ro ro. If you moved this riff up to play it over D minor, you would have to lower the high note. F e d d f e d d. Not f sharp.

Tldr don't try to worry too much. It's rock n roll. Write a riff and holler over it. If it sounds good it is good. When it comes to actually writing riffs, every note is important. And so are the rests. I think the trick to a good riff is understanding how the brain anticipates a melody and after establishing a certain rhythm or melody, you take it in a certain direction or change it somehow. Set up a groove of some sort, and then either continue to play notes at the expected time, or Don't, to give your music some 'consciousness'
#20
Quote by heaven086
Cool, thanks for all the replies guys you've all been helpful!

When it all comes down to how a song is arranged then, what makes a chord progression different from a riff then? I understand a riff is about rhythm, but don't we play chord progression in a rhythm? I know we don't play chords as individual notes but as someone said above chords can be played as a riff too...

Thanks


A chord progression determines where you'll play the riff, as a riff is just a pattern of intervals.

I hate to plug my own stuff (okay, no I don't) but listen to the beginning of "Sandals n' Shorts" from my Bandcamp page here. It's a 12-bar blues-based surf rock song that follows the standard chord progression for that form. Note how the main riff jumps up a few intervals and sounds "higher" four measures into the verse? That's because it's starting on the D, which is the IV chord of the A major scale. (The song's in A, naturally.) The riff normally starts on the A in all the other places it's played because in those places, the chord over which you'd be playing the riff (if there was a chord) is A.

More clearly;

The 12-bar blues form goes (one chord per measure)

I I I I
IV IV I I
V IV I V

..and then loops back. So in A, the chords are;

A A A A
D D A A
E D A E

The main riff, if I recall correctly, is two measures long. So you play it starting on A, repeat it twice (the first four measures), then shift it up to D for two measure, then play the last half/secondary riff from A, then play the last four measures before looping back around to do it again.

Hope that helps! Actually, you can probably listen to just about any of my surf stuff for some good examples; it's all riff-based 12-bar stuff and pretty easy to follow.