#1
So i have a question regarding powerchord riff songs. Do the people who write stuff with powerchords usually just bang on the guitar untill they find something nice sounding, or is there theory behind writing songs with powerchords?

Like lets say, Iron Man by BS. Did Tony Iommi just randomly play the riff after some time of experimenting, or did he go like “oh okay this is gonna be in the key of Em, so that means i can use these powerchords”

TL;DR: How are powerchord riffs created, and are there certain keys to powerchords that you can stick with?
#4
Any riff in a major or minor key will have a set of notes that naturally occur, as well as chord functions associated with groups of notes (a chord is an organized group of notes, not to be confused with a cluster).

Power chords in and of themselves aren't major or minor, but the context dictates if they're heard as one or the other. In the context of B---D---D-E-E... G-F#G-F#-G-F#-D--D--E--E..., there's a rhythmic emphasis on E, but it's surrounded by other notes belonging to E minor and thus is heard to strengthen both the fact that it's the home chord (tonic) and minor in context.

I'm pretty sure riff writing of this sort was based on a general understanding of major and minor, but the main thing wasn't the theory; it was the sound. If there are more questions, feel free to ask
#5
Most people write riffs by ear (even if the riffs use major and minor chords) and they don't think about theory. You don't need to play random sounds on guitar to come up with riffs if you don't know theory. You can just use your ears and listen to the sounds that you are hearing in your head. If you don't do this, you will probably just end up playing stuff that your fingers are already familiar with and it will most likely sound pretty generic.

There are two different ways of using power chords. You can replace any major or minor chord with a power chord and this is the same as treating them as "normal" chords. A good example would be any Green Day song. Then there's the way they are used in "Iron Man" - the riff is basically a melody that just has a fifth added on top of each note to make it sound bigger and heavier. The power chords in that riff are not actual chords. In other words, power chords can have typical chord functions or they can be non-functional.

The riff of "Iron Man" uses the notes in the Em scale and just adds a perfect fifth above each note. So yes, it is possible (and actually quite simple) to explain with theory. But I'm pretty sure Tony Iommi just used his ears. Why did he write it in E minor? Well, probably because that's an easy key to play in on guitar. A lot of Sabbath songs are in the key of Em.

“oh okay this is gonna be in the key of Em, so that means i can use these powerchords”


I doubt this is what Tony Iommi thought. Sure, when he wrote the riff, he already had experience as a musician and a songwriter so he probably subconsciously knew what sounds generally work together and what sounds don't. But when it comes to writing catchy riffs/melodies, I think that's usually mostly about intuition. It's not something you should overthink.
Quote by AlanHB
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#6
There's some info about common chord progressions here - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I%E2%80%93V%E2%80%93vi%E2%80%93IV_progression

These are progressions that sound pleasing to the ear, but personally, if I'm writing something, I just go with what sounds good to me. If it falls into a common trope (like the patterns mentioned above), but it fits the song, then no harm done. 
WHOMP

Think of that next time you are not allowed to laugh.
#7
Quote by MaggaraMarine
Most people write riffs by ear (even if the riffs use major and minor chords) and they don't think about theory. You don't need to play random sounds on guitar to come up with riffs if you don't know theory. You can just use your ears and listen to the sounds that you are hearing in your head. If you don't do this, you will probably just end up playing stuff that your fingers are already familiar with and it will most likely sound pretty generic.

There are two different ways of using power chords. You can replace any major or minor chord with a power chord and this is the same as treating them as "normal" chords. A good example would be any Green Day song. Then there's the way they are used in "Iron Man" - the riff is basically a melody that just has a fifth added on top of each note to make it sound bigger and heavier. The power chords in that riff are not actual chords. In other words, power chords can have typical chord functions or they can be non-functional.

The riff of "Iron Man" uses the notes in the Em scale and just adds a perfect fifth above each note. So yes, it is possible (and actually quite simple) to explain with theory. But I'm pretty sure Tony Iommi just used his ears. Why did he write it in E minor? Well, probably because that's an easy key to play in on guitar. A lot of Sabbath songs are in the key of Em.


I doubt this is what Tony Iommi thought. Sure, when he wrote the riff, he already had experience as a musician and a songwriter so he probably subconsciously knew what sounds generally work together and what sounds don't. But when it comes to writing catchy riffs/melodies, I think that's usually mostly about intuition. It's not something you should overthink.
Quote by NeoMvsEu
Any riff in a major or minor key will have a set of notes that naturally occur, as well as chord functions associated with groups of notes (a chord is an organized group of notes, not to be confused with a cluster).

Power chords in and of themselves aren't major or minor, but the context dictates if they're heard as one or the other. In the context of B---D---D-E-E... G-F#G-F#-G-F#-D--D--E--E..., there's a rhythmic emphasis on E, but it's surrounded by other notes belonging to E minor and thus is heard to strengthen both the fact that it's the home chord (tonic) and minor in context.

I'm pretty sure riff writing of this sort was based on a general understanding of major and minor, but the main thing wasn't the theory; it was the sound. If there are more questions, feel free to ask


Alright, thanks for your detailed answers guys, helped alot
#8
dajdo_1
Here is the answer to the question about Tony Iommi :
https://www.ultimate-guitar.com/news/general_music_news/tony_iommi_black_sabbaths_earliest_gigs_were_crap.html

"I've no idea where those riffs come from. I'm just grateful that they do.

"They come out of the air; I don’t sit down and work them out. They just arrive. It's all very strange. I can sit down and two or three different riffs will come along in 10 minutes.

"Some of them will be crap but most are usable. I'm useless at most other things, but if there's one thing I can do in life then it's write riffs."
#9
Quote by NSpen1
dajdo_1
Here is the answer to the question about Tony Iommi :
https://www.ultimate-guitar.com/news/general_music_news/tony_iommi_black_sabbaths_earliest_gigs_were_crap.html

"I've no idea where those riffs come from. I'm just grateful that they do.

"They come out of the air; I don’t sit down and work them out. They just arrive. It's all very strange. I can sit down and two or three different riffs will come along in 10 minutes.

"Some of them will be crap but most are usable. I'm useless at most other things, but if there's one thing I can do in life then it's write riffs."


I was using Tony as a point, but thanks, it’s an interesting article
#10
Powerchords are not chord per se. Like it was mentioned they can be Major or minor. In chord construction they are the 1st and 5th notes of the scale.
#11
I'll add another TL;DR here:

If you play in a certain key, that means you have certain notes which you can choose from to build melodies, chords, etc. 
Using these notes, you end up with a "predefined" set of chords, i.e. for Em they would be E F# G A B C D. 
Stacking those notes in thirds gives you the following chords: 

Emin F#dim Gmaj Amin Bmin Cmaj Dmaj

So the 1st degree is a minor chord, the 2nd degree is a diminished chord, the third degree is a major chord, etc.
When just playing powerchords, you drop off of that "extra" information, i.e. major, minor, etc. but the chords would still be of a certain degree in the scale (e.g. an C powerchord would be the 6th degree in the key of Em) and would have a certain character or sound within the key of Em.

Now, musically, it can be quite interesting to use chords that are not inside the key. Therefore, you have the "technical" side and you have the "artistic" side to writing riffs based on powerchords.
#12
Those riffs you speak of were probably written by banging on the guitar until something came out, however, what makes those riffs special can be analyzed and understood from a theoretical standpoint.

I think what you are really asking is "Do i need to learn theory to be able to write riffs like the ones i like?", to which the answer is no. Although learning theory isn't completely necessary, it will give you a deeper understanding of the music you write and will therefore give you a tool set which will let you write more interesting music without as much trial and error.


Also knowing theory will help your improvisation and your ability to learn new music more accurately than just relying on your ear.


You should also learn to take the information you get from forums such as this with a grain of salt as not everyone here actually knows what they're talking about.
#14
Quote by dotdi
I'll add another TL;DR here:

If you play in a certain key, that means you have certain notes which you can choose from to build melodies, chords, etc. 
Using these notes, you end up with a "predefined" set of chords, i.e. for Em they would be E F# G A B C D. 
Stacking those notes in thirds gives you the following chords: 

Emin F#dim Gmaj Amin Bmin Cmaj Dmaj

So the 1st degree is a minor chord, the 2nd degree is a diminished chord, the third degree is a major chord, etc.
When just playing powerchords, you drop off of that "extra" information, i.e. major, minor, etc. but the chords would still be of a certain degree in the scale (e.g. an C powerchord would be the 6th degree in the key of Em) and would have a certain character or sound within the key of Em.

Now, musically, it can be quite interesting to use chords that are not inside the key. Therefore, you have the "technical" side and you have the "artistic" side to writing riffs based on powerchords.
Quote by rickyj
Those riffs you speak of were probably written by banging on the guitar until something came out, however, what makes those riffs special can be analyzed and understood from a theoretical standpoint.

I think what you are really asking is "Do i need to learn theory to be able to write riffs like the ones i like?", to which the answer is no. Although learning theory isn't completely necessary, it will give you a deeper understanding of the music you write and will therefore give you a tool set which will let you write more interesting music without as much trial and error.


Also knowing theory will help your improvisation and your ability to learn new music more accurately than just relying on your ear.


You should also learn to take the information you get from forums such as this with a grain of salt as not everyone here actually knows what they're talking about.


This is some quality advice. Thank you for expanding my knowlege
#15
As has been said above, simple riffs will usually not come from theory, but can be easily explained by them (in the same way throwing a ball can be explained by gravity and air resistance etc. but you don't run a whole load of calculations every time you make a pass).

The note I'd like to add is that in *some* styles of music (particularly prog/jazz) people will write songs with theory in mind; sometimes more explictly (Dream Theater - Octavarium doesn't cycle through all the keys by accident), sometimes because the composer knows what certain tricks achieve (think of key changes at the end of a "musical/Disney-style" show song to give that big uplift).

Personally I use some theory in songwriting; if I want to create a particular mood, a sprinkling of music theory (even as simple as major=happy, minor=sad) can help you get that idea out faster rather than spending an hour trying every note on the guitar to get that riff out, and helps working out how to connect a few disparate riffs into a consistent song.

Finally, it really helps when playing with other musicians, they can explain the song to you much more easily as "it's in Em, we have a harmony guitar riff in the verse then we shift to Am for the guitar solo". That gives you the time to focus on the interesting bits of the song at rehearsal rather than fumbling around confused as to why that note sounds wrong over that chord.

In short music theory can help you get to where you want to go faster; knowing the rules means you can more easily work out which ones you can break and why you'd want to break them.
The only 6 words that can make you a better guitarist:

Learn theory
Practice better
Practice more
Last edited by doive at Dec 3, 2017,
#16
One additional thought; people often say "music theory constrains creativity" I personally think the opposite is true as it gives me more of a musical arsenal to work with. 
Quote by donender
These are progressions that sound pleasing to the ear, but personally, if I'm writing something, I just go with what sounds good to me. If it falls into a common trope (like the patterns mentioned above), but it fits the song, then no harm done. 

If it falls into a common trope then knowing some music theory might have got you there faster. It also helps me spot when I'm writing songs which are actually pretty generic/boring which lets me focus on writing the hooks which are going to pull it above the mire of mediocrity. (not particularly aimed at you donender and no offense intended; more a general comment which you helped illustrate) 
The only 6 words that can make you a better guitarist:

Learn theory
Practice better
Practice more
#17
Quote by doive
As has been said above, simple riffs will usually not come from theory, but can be easily explained by them (in the same way throwing a ball can be explained by gravity and air resistance etc. but you don't run a whole load of calculations every time you make a pass).

The note I'd like to add is that in *some* styles of music (particularly prog/jazz) people will write songs with theory in mind; sometimes more explictly (Dream Theater - Octavarium doesn't cycle through all the keys by accident), sometimes because the composer knows what certain tricks achieve (think of key changes at the end of a "musical/Disney-style" show song to give that big uplift).

Personally I use some theory in songwriting; if I want to create a particular mood, a sprinkling of music theory (even as simple as major=happy, minor=sad) can help you get that idea out faster rather than spending an hour trying every note on the guitar to get that riff out, and helps working out how to connect a few disparate riffs into a consistent song.

Finally, it really helps when playing with other musicians, they can explain the song to you much more easily as "it's in Em, we have a harmony guitar riff in the verse then we shift to Am for the guitar solo". That gives you the time to focus on the interesting bits of the song at rehearsal rather than fumbling around confused as to why that note sounds wrong over that chord.

In short music theory can help you get to where you want to go faster; knowing the rules means you can more easily work out which ones you can break and why you'd want to break them.

I would also like to add that "writing songs" and "writing riffs" are different from each other. Writing riffs is basically the same as "coming up with musical ideas" whereas writing songs is about developing those musical ideas (then again, riffs can also be developed - I mean, the first form of the riff is not necessarily the final form of the riff). Coming up with musical ideas has less to do with theory and more to do with experimentation and just using your ears. It's pretty intuitive most of the time. But writing songs is a lot more about theory, because you need to develop your musical ideas and arrange them so that they work well together. You need to understand form and contrasts, and it also makes sense to understand simple concepts like what time signatures, tempo and keys are (I mean, so that you don't accidentally change the tempo, the key and the time signature 10 times in a song and then end up wondering why the song sounds so incoherent - and I have heard beginner songwriters write this kind of songs). My point is, you usually come up with musical ideas pretty intuitively, but writing full songs requires developing your ideas and connecting them with other ideas. And when you are doing this, theory knowledge definitely helps (especially if you are going to write something more complex than a typical "verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus" song - but even if it's a simple song, understanding form is part of theory knowledge and you still need to know how to use contrasts). Writing songs requires more than coming up with cool sounding ideas. A good composer can take a generic idea and turn it into a good song, but a good sounding idea is not a good song on its own.
Quote by AlanHB
Just remember that there are no boring scales, just boring players.

Gear

Bach Stradivarius 37G
Charvel So Cal
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Hartke HyDrive 210c
Ibanez BL70
Laney VC30
Tokai TB48
Yamaha FG720S-12
Yamaha P115
Last edited by MaggaraMarine at Dec 3, 2017,
#18
Quote by doive
One additional thought; people often say "music theory constrains creativity" I personally think the opposite is true as it gives me more of a musical arsenal to work with. 

If it falls into a common trope then knowing some music theory might have got you there faster. It also helps me spot when I'm writing songs which are actually pretty generic/boring which lets me focus on writing the hooks which are going to pull it above the mire of mediocrity. (not particularly aimed at you donender and no offense intended; more a general comment which you helped illustrate) 

No offence taken - I get what you're saying, sometimes the best way to give a lead part some room to breathe is to simplify things a little. Having too much going on can make things sound jumbled.

My theory isn't great, but I can generally tell how chords resolve themselves when I'm writing something. There's always room for improvement though.
WHOMP

Think of that next time you are not allowed to laugh.
#19
Quote by Werner232
Powerchords are not chord per se. Like it was mentioned they can be Major or minor. In chord construction they are the 1st and 5th notes of the scale.


Eh kinda. When viewed alone the chords could be major or minor, but when you add a melody over them (via vocals/lead guitar) or other instruments, they will guide what chords the power chords are functioning as.
And no, Guitar Hero will not help. Even on expert. Really.
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#20
AlanHB
You can also kinda tell whether they're going to be major or minor by what combination of power chords you're playing, Like if you have E5, C5, G5, D5, you can pretty much be sure the first one is minor and the others are major.
#21
NSpen1 Yep, in most cases that would probably be true, but you do need the other instruments to confirm that it's in a major or minor key still.
And no, Guitar Hero will not help. Even on expert. Really.
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#24
Quote by MaggaraMarine
The riff of "Iron Man" uses the notes in the Em scale and just adds a perfect fifth above each note.

This is a pretty interesting idea - if this was correct, what would the "true" chord progression of Iron Man be?
And no, Guitar Hero will not help. Even on expert. Really.
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#25
Quote by AlanHB
This is a pretty interesting idea - if this was correct, what would the "true" chord progression of Iron Man be?
It's not particularly useful to think of the verse as a chord progression than as a melodic line, particularly since it's reduced to just unison doubling at times. The fifths aren't functionally independent.
#26
NeoMvsEuI understand that it may not be useful, but it's still my question.

If the power chords are not the chord progression, what is the chord progression?
And no, Guitar Hero will not help. Even on expert. Really.
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#27
AlanHB, again, is it useful to think about it in chords? It makes more sense to think of it like modern plainchant centered around Em except for interludes and contrasting sections. Would you say that "We Will Rock You" has a chord progression?
#28
NeoMvsEuAgain, it's not useful, and mate, it's not your argument.

I'm genuinely interested in what Maggara has to say. You can chip in too if it's something more than "it's a pointless question".
And no, Guitar Hero will not help. Even on expert. Really.
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#29
Quote by AlanHB
NeoMvsEuAgain, it's not useful, and mate, it's not your argument.

I'm genuinely interested in what Maggara has to say. You can chip in too if it's something more than "it's a pointless question".

I would say it's just Em all the time. It's riff based music, just like most Metallica songs or whatever, and the same thing applies to those songs as well. Most songs like that have a riff in E, a riff in B, a riff in C# or whatever, and that's the "harmony" of the riff. It's not chord-based music (except for the ourto of Iron Man that has a clear chord progression). Another example from Black Sabbath that comes to my mind is NIB. The main riff goes like E5 E5 D5 E5 G5 F#5 E5 E5 D5 E5, and similarly as in Iron Man, Ozzy just sings in unison with the guitar. The riff has no functional harmony other than the note that it's centered around that is E in both cases. But there are also sections with functional harmony in both songs. The B section of NIB has a clear chord progression and as I mentioned, so does the outro of Iron Man.

So basically, there is no chord progression. There is just a "melody" that is centered around E (the melody is just "harmonized" in 5ths, but I wouldn't even call it harmonizing - the 5th is used to make it sound bigger and it's really not an independent voice, and it's basically the same effect as doubling the riff an octave higher), and the only "function" it has is Em.

This doesn't mean that no power chord riff has functional harmony. But many hard rock and metal riffs are like this - the riffs are basically melodies and the power chords are used to make the riff sound bigger. But it's really not much different from playing single notes.
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
#30
AlanHB, when did I say it was pointless? It's not an independent tone, though, and assuming that a chord progression exists isn't always a safe assumption.

Around 2:53 here is what I think of


Attached a MIDI version of it; there isn't that much of a difference in approach. If the basis of such harmony is pre-chordal, is it a good idea to extrapolate chords onto a pre-chordal framework, particularly when chord progressions assume the presence of 3+ notes to establish harmony?

(also, what MM said)
Attachments:
iman.mid
#31
MaggaraMarineGotcha - so it would basically be an Em drone, and the powerchords would function as voicings of different variations of the Em chord.

For example a the G5 powerchord would function as an E6 (I'm sure you can correct me on the naming, an Em with a C)
And no, Guitar Hero will not help. Even on expert. Really.
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#32
Can we remove the misplaced notion that it's actually functioning chordally? It functions more like a pre-tonal melody centered around the pitch E and with (tonal) minor scale. Analyzing one part of the melody as a chord after it's been established that it's not chord-based is (edit) a loaded question. Think in scales, if just this once.

For the record, G5 = G-D, Em(addb6) = E-G-B-C, and I'm not sure what their connection is in this context
#33
NeoMvsEu
Clearly it's Em7!
Iron Man riff is almost slow enough that you could say it's a progression with B5, D5, E5, etc.
#34
NSpen1, not sure how a 7th comes out of a C over an E-rooted chord, though

I don't think you can say that there's a "progression" when all of them (including the singer) are playing/singing strictly unison B---D---D-E-E---GF#GF#GF#D-D-E-E---. When it's instruments only, the riff is elaborated with a parallel fifth, but that's not actually functional harmony; that's more like parallel organum (see the video in post 30 if it's not region-blocked), where the fifth acoustically strengthens and elaborates the root note.

This is in contrast to, say, this:

(if it doesn't start at 0:47, that's roughly when the pre-chorus starts)
The guitar is playing power chords or suspended chords, but the vocals inform the decision to label the overall harmony over each chord as major or minor. The vocals and guitars/bass play different roles in the establishment of tonal harmony. The same cannot be said about "Iron Man", where the same notes sound from all instruments (in their respective octaves).

Similar concept to "Iron Man" here with the doubling of octaves and non-independence of the power chords (intro/interlude riff):
#35
NeoMvsEu
I was being facetious. There isn't a C there, as you noted. I was taking AlanHB's thought of an Em drone with G5 over the top of it, or maybe an E bass pedal with power chords over the top.
E G D (B) = Em7.
And no, not entirely serious about thinking of the Iron Man riff as a progression either, I agree with you it's just a riff / melody thickened up with 5ths. But there is perhaps a point where a slow, doomy riff could also be thought of as a progression, if it's slow enough, and just wondered at what point something would change from being considered a riff to a progression.
for Storytime.
Kinda like this
https://tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/tab/nightwish/shudder_before_the_beautiful_guitar_pro_1782193
#36
NSpen1Yeah early morning post, obviously it's a D, not a C

I'm not really on the train of "it's not a chord progression", because it sounds like one to me, except for maybe the C-B trill chord thing, which could just be B. Also if we were to double the length of each chord and add some upbeat drums, would we consider that a chord progression now? Too many qs

I was more interested in what other people were thinking, if there was more than just non-functional harmony (otherwise known as "it's just the scale mannnnn")
And no, Guitar Hero will not help. Even on expert. Really.
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Last edited by AlanHB at Dec 8, 2017,
#37
Many things have resolution tendencies, but they don't have to be chord-based. Think Dorian for this, really; it's a quick D-G to C#-F# alternation (fifths inverted).

https://www.ultimate-guitar.com/forum/showthread.php?t=1660589
posts 1 (for background) and 3 (the first part) are most important in this context. Upwards motion from D to E in "Iron Man" capture a cadence à la cantus firmus, but it's not chords.

NSpen1, not a fan of the band's direction even with Floor, unfortunately

If something has enough aural information to be 3 or more notes, then in the context of this discussion, we can discuss chords. If it's repeatedly alternating power "chords", I'd treat that as a vamp.