Composing Original Riffs

Can't make of a song that doesn't sound similar to another song? Would you like to? I've got some tips that just might help you.

Ultimate Guitar
Hello everybody. I didn't know what to write about, so I decided, "What the hell, I'll teach the masses about some tips that may help with their songwriting." However, as stated by the name, this isn't for lyric writing, but rather, for original riff writing. What is a riff? Well, simply put, it is either an arpeggio, chord or some other type of progression that is not a "lick." A lick is usually a two to three second lead piece, connected with other licks. Now that I've filled your brain with some guitar lingo, lets begin. The following are some ways to go about writing riffs.

1. Write through inspiration.
What the heck do I mean by this? I mean listen to a song you really like (or maybe just one that everybody else likes) and then grab your thunder - axe (the term I like to use meaning "guitar") and start playing something. Try not to look at the tab for the song though. Now, I want you to just play something, at either the same tempo and timing, start at the same starting note as the song (or something similar), play with the same feel or whatever you want. Just think of something from the song that you really like, and just sort of fool around until you get somewhere. My favorite approach with this method is starting in the same general area of the fretboard as a riff you really like. And yes, doing it this way means you will probably have to look at a tab, but you don't want to copy the song, so just simply glance at the tab, and then begin. Good riffs are something you have to fool around with to get good at. I'll give you some examples of riffs I have made that complement this approach (songs used for inspiration will be named first, then the artist, and then the description):

- Sweet Child O' Mine (Guns N' Roses) - one of my first and in many people's opinions, my best one, came from me starting at the twelfth fret area, and making an arpeggio riff with some distortion. Sounds sort of space-ish. This song was made when I was learning arpeggios.

- Black Dog (Led Zeppelin) - again, another riff where I started in the same area (technically known as "The Key" of a song), and created sort of a blues-ish, jazz-like riff, but still sounds very different from the original song. Not as fast paced as Black Dog, but a great riff none the less.

- Hotel California (The Eagles) - this riff was made from the "feel" of Hotel California, rather than using the same key, which in this song's case uses a capo at the fifth fret (the key of A). Great rock riff, that sounds as though people could dance to it.

Needless to say, this is quite a good approach to use. However, it works better when you are first starting out, or not so good, because:
1) It gives you something to practice to help "you" get better and;
2) You will learn techniques as you learn how to play, and you will practice them, and practice songs with them in it.
Thus you will make a song similar (maybe). Plus, you may not be able to play the song inspiring you anyway, so there will be no need to worry about copying, now will there? You don't have to be a begginer, but I find it easier to use this approach when you are.

2. The "Holes" Method.
I call this method the "Holes" method because it's like this. You make an original riff, or a riff of some kind, try to add to it, but it doesn't go with it, (thus you fall into a hole) but you still think it has potential (you come out of another hole). I have done this many times, although I don't plan to use any of the riffs I can remember. However, this method is powerful, because you are trying to make riffs for one song, and many of your failed attempts become riffs for other songs. One riff I tried to use to complete the "Black Dog" inspired song mentioned above, kind of went with it, but didn't. So now, if I want, I have another riff in my repretoire of original ones. So remember; you may want to keep those riffs that you thought were garbage, and make something of them. One major advantage to this method, is if you want to make an album with similar, but different sounding songs, that you want to define your "unchanging sound." Anyway, thats an idea.

3. "Open" up.
Use open notes in your songs, even when you are at the 15th fret, you may come up with something that can blow people out of the water, just by adding an open note or two. I have a couple good riffs that use open notes in them, and they sound great. Good for making more "evil" sounding songs. Eddie Van Halen uses lots of open notes in his soloing, so why not use them in your riffs?

4. Find your groove and favorite stuff.
Okay, now I'm sure that many people, like me, have a "favorite chord" that they just love. Whether it be the E minor, or the F diminished, you can find chords that you just love so much, and think, "Damn thats good. Lets make some tunes out of it." And thus, a dynasty will begin. Or at least, a whole new outlook on making your riffs. Take me for instance. I just love the a minor chord (preferabally the open one) because it sounds great, has many other places to go that are easily accessible (Asus, AMaj, A7, Am7 etc) and just overall appeals to my ear. I also like suspended chords in general, as they have that great tone that I find just right. Anyway, you can make great riffs, using just one chord letter. I made a very memorable riff, starting with our friend the A minor, and adding sevenths or what not. Not too many songs use a one chord type of riff, so it may be a good thing to check out.

5. Use unorthodox means.
Great riffs are just waiting to be unlocked. however, you may have to do some sneaky things to find them. You can try stretches that you can barely make, and make some good arpeggios out of them, or you can make some odd chords that you don't think exist (which, they do) or play with techniques or styles that you would never use. Experiment.

6. Let your fingers do the walking.
One of the best methods, is improvisinng. You don't even have to be good at improv, you just have to be playing. I have many great riffs made when I was talking to my friends, or watching tv. Just get relax, don't think about it and play. Just play. I can almost guarantee that one day, when you aren't thinking about what you are doing, you will come up with something that sparks your attention.

7. Unleash your emotion.
The most obvious method is to play what you feel. If you are feeling sad, play the guitar, and you will most likely come up with a sad riff. A great one to use (especially if your girlfriend/boyfriend breaks up with you; or better yet dumps you. Not trying to be a jerk, but it's the truth.

8. Conclusion.
To conclude, I just want to say that, these are just ideas that you may never have thought or overlooked. If you already knew about these, then all the power to you. I hope I have sparked your interest and influenced your composition skills at least a little bit. One thing I didn't mention is to try moving open chords to higher frets. You an make numerous original riffs like this. Anyway, don't give up; you'll find at least one good riff.

229 comments sorted by best / new / date

    nihilus wrote: i've been dumped alot of times and i'm one of the best at guitar in my year. coincidence. i think not. but great ideas so thanx
    How does being dumped alot make you better at playing guitar?
    yeh i definetly agree on the relaxed, non-attention paying method of just playing whatever, ive made a few wicked sounding things just flying over the frets in any old fashion
    never a truer word or rift spoken , the secret to a good face melting rift is keep it simple the , greatest rifts don't often 'fill' the fret board . keep it real , keep it live.
    i liked it... I figured out a lot of these methods on my own, but this would be really good for some one just starting to write their own stuff. It helped me out anyway. good job. 5 stars
    What's the difference between break up and dump
    a dump is a hell of a lot worse, more brutal, etc. and this is an awesome article 5 stars
    nice lesson. Are you gay u sound gay? not that i have anything against gay people.
    I have thought about tabbing some of them as examples, but theres always the problem of plagiarism. I have been wanting to start recording, but I'm pretty low-tech and outta dough at the moment...
    this is awsome!!! i'v been playin for a while and new all about the keys and notes of the scales for playin ur own riffs but this still helped me alot!!! XD nice 1
    this helps alot, i usually try to do weird stuff but i dont think it will work. awsome lesson
    Very nice. Don't listen to the people who said it was crap, they're just...well, I don't know. Kudos to you for having the initiative to try to help, and double kudos for actually being able to.
    10/10 dude, nice lesson.
    demonmouse500 wrote: Very nice. Don't listen to the people who said it was crap, they're just...well, I don't know. Kudos to you for having the initiative to try to help, and double kudos for actually being able to.
    Dimster Ds
    wangtangkiki wrote: 1st What's the difference between break up and dump I'll give you 17 stars.
    The diffrence is a break up is when both people dump each other or something. Geting dumped is when your boyfriend/girlfriend rings you and says, your dumped, without discussing it
    Hey guys, it's me urgey_rock... I'm in the process of writing more lessons for the site, which I haven't done in quite some time, and I was thinking that rather than writing a lesson on any old topic, I have decided that you, the readers, should decide on the kinds of things that you would like to see in future lessons. So if you have anything that you would like to see, either message me or post something on this lesson. Thanks.
    urgey_rock wrote: Hey guys, it's me urgey_rock... I'm in the process of writing more lessons for the site, which I haven't done in quite some time, and I was thinking that rather than writing a lesson on any old topic, I have decided that you, the readers, should decide on the kinds of things that you would like to see in future lessons. So if you have anything that you would like to see, either message me or post something on this lesson. Thanks.
    how about a few tabbed out licks that sound alright, because I'm in a creative rut and I don't really know where to go from here, any inspiration would help
    I am the main song writer for my band and these are very useful tips. I mainly write guitar stuff but I can also use these when i compose for piano, bass and other stuff :
    nice lesson! the part about keeping your old riffs inspired me to do this awesome masterpiece!
    acid eaters
    great lesson especially for me cause i tend to overthink what i wanna play so ur whole not thinking aboutit and just playing random notes and chords helped and sometime for me i sometimes don't play guitar for days and then i pick it up and start playing these awesome riffs
    Deth is iminent
    this lesson is alright but people need to get this in order to make the riffs yo must first have to be able to do some of the techniques that com standard with the type of music you play you cant make a decent song the first time you pick up the axe and this article will never remedy that wanna make good riffs for good songs then stop wasting time reading how and practice so you can
    "We're forgetting the best of all... Hendrix. Didn't know s*** about theory" Wow, Hendrix and others like him knew tons about music theory! He frickin played blues! He wrote so many solos all over 'major pentatonic scales', 'minor pentatonic scales' and other big confusing theory words you might not want to hear, but he used them. Now wether guitar greats like Hendrix actually knew what sclaes he was using, what they were called etc., I personally don't know. The difference in knowing the names of his musical techniques and favorite solo improv. tendencies or not only can make you more efficient, and be able to reference to different parts of your music.
    nice ideas, i love sweet child o mine (favorite riff ever) and I kind of used numbers 6 and 7 a little bit already. I'll use the rest to make some nice stuff.
    Bleed Blue
    i just know, go jam with some friends, get a drummer and a bassist (or maybe even no bassist) and just anything, songs by others, songs you've already made up, and just try to build on them...the main thing is to just play and the riffs will come to you
    i thought this was an awesome article. i've been playing for 4 years and everything you mentioned were things i've done to make my own riffs. it really does work and its really good advice. nicely done
    as far as making riffs in general go this was really good but i thought it was pretty crappy for making metal riffs. overall good tho (8)
    Hey. Master OF Puppets was written completely from inspiration. James did not know what a pentatonic scale was or how to use it, or anything about timing notation. Proves there is a rock god!
    Ive done many of things you told there before I read this and I got plenty of riffs that sound good... at least to me.
    Thekillerbob wrote: stukes 04 wrote: Boroladuk wrote: Let it Happen : the article kinda alluded to it, but never outright said it. the biggest thing in songwriting is theory. if u don't know any theory, your "song" will sound like crap all the time, every song, gauranteed. but if u know the basics (like the dude said, arpeggios, minor chords, scales, etc.) then his advice comes in handy. Bollux, you dont need to know theory to make a great, only someone who has tried all there life to make a great and never quite could relies on theory. A true song man dont need no theory all he needs is his musical taste and his ears, and an audience to wow.... Take Noel Gallagher, do u think when he first started writing songs he relied on theory, Fact is noel couldnt even read music. Dunno if he can now, but in the start he couldnt..... Angus Young was another one who was theory illiterate
    We're forgetting the best of all... Hendrix. Didn't know shit about theory.[/quote] You guys here's the thing with theory: Every great song ever has plenty of music theory, scales, chords, progressions, etc in it, backing it up whether the artist of it was too ignorant to learn a little about music theory or not. The difference is, people who know some basic theory and stuff can write good songs that sound right faster. When writing a song, a person with no knowledge of 'music theory' will just take longer trying to hear every random idea that comes into their mind, waiting until they find something that sounds good. Somebody with a bit of knowledge will be quicker to find ideas that sound good, and then only have to spend their time choosing what they particularly like for a piece. Over all, no technically theory is not needed to write a good song, but to ignore it is just a waste of time.