How To Write Complex Progressive Metal And Rock Riffs With Only 2 Chords

Follow along as we analyze some of the intricacies of writing progressive metal and rock riffs. Begin to apply what you learn throughout the lesson.

Ultimate Guitar
There are many approaches to songwriting. You probably have your favorites and I am very interested in hearing from you about your writing process. It always fascinates me the way people create music differently. There isn't a right way to be creative, but there are ways that will get you the results you really want quicker than others. In this lesson we will look at one of many ways to spice things up a bit. I hope you can benefit from it and add it to your songwriting tool belt. If you're not into progressive stuff this can still be very useful. You can take it as far as you like. Much like turning up the gain. Keep it at 2 or go to 11! We are only dealing with 2 chords. If you do not have all the theory and technique we will be discussing down, it's OK. I'm going to simplify things as much as I can whether you're an advanced guitar player or not. If you're just beginning then bookmark this article for a later date or have your teacher help you out and see if you are ready for it. The riff we will be using as an example is originally played tuned down a minor 3rd or 3 steps (C#-F#-B-E-G#-C#). Since most people don't tune this way we will discuss it in standard tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E). When I wrote this part of the song I wanted something more melodic, but still moving. The riff is in the key of Bm. The chords Bm and G were what I chose. The basic chord progression is Bm for 2 bars then G for 2 bars played in 4/4 timing. That's it. Now lets get into making this more interesting.

Techniques Involved

There will be some palm muting, hammer-on's, and pull-off's. If you are unfamiliar with these techniques you can still play the riff by picking every note normal. In fact it is easier to learn the riff if you do this and then add in the techniques after you have it memorized and got the coordination down. To hear the song you can download it at Fortis Amor website (link is below). It's called "Diadem". The riff first shows up at 2 min 19 sec and later at 3 min 42 sec. The first time the riff shows up the measures 1 - 4 are played twice. The second time you hear the riff it will be repeated a few times. If you would like to play along with it and you are in standard tuning. Then play this transcription and it will sound pretty close to what you are hearing. Fig. 1 (Alternate)

The Timing

To give this a more prog rock feel I cut the 4th measure by 1 beat, or in this case, 4 16th notes. This adds an slight uneasy feeling which can give a good contrast on very melodic parts. If you want to really screw with someone, remove the first beat when returning to a riff. If I did that here it would start on the open D string or the 3rd note (not shown). Fig. 1
Then in measures 5 - 8 the progression repeats the same as measures 1 - 4, but this time staying in 4/4 to finish out the riff as one might expect to hear it. Basically we play the same thing twice minus 1 beat the first time through (in the 3rd measure). Fig. 2
Did you get all that? If not go back and take your time to make sure you are following the basic idea.

Melodic Movement

Think of the Bm as being played in the bar chord position at the 7th fret and G in the bar chord position at the 3rd fret. This is the basis of the riff. You can also think of it in power chords if that helps. Fig. 3
The first measure (See Fig. 1) starts with an arpeggio and dances around the scale moving beyond the standard Bm (root, 3rd, 5th) playing all the notes in a Bm pentatonic scale. Another way to look at it is it contains the notes of the power chords B5 D5 and E5. Staying in the pentatonic zone gives it a subtle rock vibe without getting bluesy. If I kept only the notes in the Bm chord (B-D-F#) it would get stale to my taste. The second measure is the same except it ends on a D5 power chord arpeggio. The second line (measures 5 - 8) is based on the G chord (See Fig. 2). It starts out in the same way with an arpeggio, but the hammer-on is down 1/2 step to stay in key. I changed the pattern that follows to break up the monotony and give a more playful feel. Writing choices like that are of course personal preference. We move around the key (Bm) and hit every note, but avoid the B to pull it towards a D Major sound. This section covers a lot of ground melodically, so I don't look at it like an arpeggio. It's more like a melody played within the scale.


If you have a more basic riff and want to make it more interesting this is what I suggest to get started. 1. Figure out the key. 2. Decide if you want to stay in that key. For this song I changed keys at this section of the song to make it stand out. Maybe you only have 1 note and are riding the open E string. This opens up more room to experiment with different modes. That is another discussion for another time. If you have 2, 3, or 4 full chords then you narrow your options as far as anything being played along with it. 3. Decide what feel you want this riff to have. I like to figure this out first. If I just start randomly picking notes from the key to move to then it might sound more interesting, but it doesn't mean anything to me emotionally. What are you trying to convey to the listener? Knowing this will help guide the writing process. 4. Try not to think, "this has to be technical". Think of it as 2 chords that you are building on. That's all. If you want to take it further, make it four chords, then 6 or 7. Start simple and build on that as much as you'd like. Lay a strong foundation to the riff and limits of where you can go from there are up to you. You can change keys and time signatures 10 times if you really want to be obscure, but you have to start somewhere. Now we have gone from 2 chords (Bm and G) into a full on prog rock or prog metal riff. Adding that extra spice is important in the final outcome. The palm muting or absence of it needs to emphasize something. Try different combinations and see what you like. That will keep you busy for a while. If you got this riff down solid then try palm muting every other note or reverse the palm muted notes with the ones not palm muted. Some sound better than others depending on what you're going for. The hammer-on's and pull-off's can add even more subtlety to notes. Palm muting every note can sound more aggressive and playing all legato can sound more whimsical. Try mixing it up and experimenting with what you're working on. About The Author: Ryan Duke is a musician, songwriter, and guitar teacher in Seattle, WA. He plays avant-progressive metal in Fortis Amor. Delivering a positive message to encourage fellow musicians and students. Visit to download exclusive free music which also includes the example in this lesson and get notified of the upcoming releases. For more help to improve your guitar playing download a free e-book "5 Steps To Take Your Guitar Playing To The Next Level".

42 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Ryan Duke
    I agree with you and that's why I feel this article will help help people who aren't advanced to start moving in that direction or help simplify a complex concept to feel more confident in growing in their songwriting. We always have had "bad music" and always will. I personally have always found lots of music I like, it just requires ignoring the mainstream. I would also encourage anyone who knows 2 chords to write a song. It will only help them get better. If they are too proud, then yes that's a problem. Humility and being openminded to others is always helpful.
    Love that you have a picture of Tosin Abasi in the article.
    I seen Tosin and I was like, shit, im not gunna be advanced enough to even comprehend this lol. but it made perfect sense. great article.
    Isn't tuning 3 steps down Bb - standard and would C# be 1 1/2 step down?
    Ryan Duke
    Yup, my bad. Glad you're paying attention though. I'll work on my proof reading.
    Sometimes I think UG slowly develops Theory Nazis (like Grammar Nazis) doing nothing but correcting every music theory mistake.
    This is a very well done article. Very good for people looking to begin composition I would say. By the way, if you wanted to make these kinds of ideas "heavier", add in some tasteful fast palm-muting (you know, the fast "chug-chug" we're all familiar with). Make sure to stay in key though. Anyway, all in all, very good article.
    or you can do the opposite, by gradually leaving the key, one little note at a time and substituting the chords, say, up a fifth, while gradually lessening the muting until you've got people listening to a horribly dissonant riff played shamelessly unmuted, while the pretty chord changes underneath make it strangely bearable... you know, like boiling a frog
    Lately I've been having my drummer write a drum track. Like an entire song with only drums. Then I come in and write guitar over it. Some really interesting stuff happens.
    i dont like this approach ALL the time for me, but i really love whats come out of that in the past too, you almost have entirely free reign but in a controlled way
    Ryan Duke
    That can be a lot of fun. It is a good way to spice up the rhythms if you're finding yourself getting stale in that area. Thanks for sharing Erickson11
    Great article. It isn't even necessarily limited to progressive music either. These ideas also can be used in hard rock, metal, and other genres too. Would like to see more.
    Good article. The way I generally compose is by picking up the guitar, doing a bit of practice, then chugging around. If I hit on something that sounds cool, I repeat and refine. After that is usually when things slow down though, as I being to ask stuff such as: "where do I want this song to go?". For melodies, I generally like to take a look at the chords being used, and then find a comfortable area(s) to play licks around. find something that conveys the mood. repeat/refine. If I am with the band, then we generally have a basic idea for a song, then jam it out, see how it flows, and then refine from there.
    This is definitely going to help my songwriting. I've always had trouble coming up with original riffs, and I really enjoy that this is so simple and easy to understand and utilize.
    Just signed in to UG to say great lesson! I was having trouble creating some riffs because I was using similar patterns and ideas I had already used which sounded stale but this has given me some new ideas.
    new original
    Isn't a "how to" on writing "progressive" music kind of like training to be a rebel? Doesn't quite check out logically...
    "The riff is in the key of Bm. The chords Bm and G were what I chose. The basic chord progression is Bm for 2 bars then G for 2 bars played in 4/4 timing. That's it. Now lets get into making this more interesting." The song's accually (as it sounds) in G#m and the chords are G#m (1st two bars) and E (last two bars). Well, three half steps down.
    First off, the dude looks like Tosin Abasi (which is a good thing lol) Second, Do I learn the first tab riff then build on it or does it change. Clarification please!
    Ryan Duke
    This is Tosin Abasi. I am not sure if I understand your question, but will try to explain. First read back through the article piece by piece. Also, listen to the riff again. The riff is for example, reference, and experimentation. If you want to change it or build on it that would be fine to do learn from. Fig 1 and Fig 2 are almost identical and together make the whole riff. Use Fig 3 to build your own riff out of if you want to. Or just pick 2 of chords of your choosing.