How to Write Progressive Metal - Part 3: Creating Technical Riffs

In this lesson, you'll learn how to take a simple chord progression and turn it into the kind of beasts that prog fans respect.

Ultimate Guitar
Hey, guys! Kevin Goetz back again with another free lesson. I've actually opted to skip over part 2 of this series; based on the reactions to part 1, I won't patronize you with too much in the way of basics unless asked. It was just going to be some basic theory on fusing chug-based riffs with symphonic-sounding keyboards; if you'd like that lesson, let me know and I'll backtrack. If not, we're going to skip straight to something more interesting, and that is, how to make your riffs more technical and interesting. If you've got a knack for songwriting, go ahead and apply the principles I'm going to cover here to your own compositions if it suits them. If not, you can apply the reverse engineering technique from my first lesson to songs with riffs that you've found boring in the past, and improve them with this formula. My favorite example of this, though not particularly progressive, is Nightwish: they've got some really catchy, epic compositions, but I always find myself thinking, "If only these guitar riffs were more interesting; THEN I'd want to play along." Anyway, to do this, do as follows:

Step 1: Isolate Your Chord Progression.

Let's use, as an example, the incredibly generic and well-known vi-IV V. This could be played, for instance in the key of C#, as power chords on the sixth fret, then second fret, then fourth fret of the low B string I'm assuming you've tuned to. Any such interval combination - descend four frets and then ascend two - will yield this iconic-of-rock sound.

Step 2: Augment The Progression's Rhythm.

Using our vi-IV-V example, you'll often find this played, in the most generic setting, as a half note followed by two quarter notes. My first priority, then, would be to offset this generic rhythm with rests, palm mutes, and single notes taken from the scale and added in. But of course, we can get even more specific than this. In my favorite riff I've written with this progression, it actually became a half-note for the first chord, a dotted quarter note held into a tied sixteenth note for the second chord, and just a single sixteenth note for the third chord. But that's far from sufficient; this tip is simply to get you thinking about the role that note placement can play in the sound of your riffs.

Step 3: Augment the Progression's Melody.

In my aforementioned favorite rendition of this progression, it became entirely single notes, almost in an arpeggio fashion. Practice pivoting off of the note that would be the root of your progression's current chord. Use the scale to build arpeggios (not the sweep-picked kind). I'll give a couple examples of such note groupings. Assume starting on the sixth fret of the B-string, in line with the progression we've been working with thus far. That's your first note.

Step 4: Examples.

Try, for instance, jumping up to the ninth fret of the E-string, then down a half-step to the eighth fret; so, a sharp-fifth down to a fifth; that sharp fifth is not to be emphasized, but mainly is just there to provide the emotion garnered from a descending half-step into a relevant interval, the fifth. Round it out into four notes by jumping down to the ninth fret of the B-string, landing on a minor third up from your initial root. That's one potential grouping. Where you proceed from here is up to you. One example would be to jump up to an octave above your root, on the eighth fret of the A-string... Actually, I could go on with potential note choices forever. All I can say is to simply practice employing these formulas until you're comfortable with them. I firmly recommend, though, the use of simple progressions at first. If you've learned nothing thus far, I apologize, but this is only part 3 of a series of nearly two-dozen lessons. If you get impatient, the accompanying video series is updated far more frequently, so, head on over to YouTube. You can also get some audio examples to compliment this lesson, if you don't mind some slightly sloppy playing due to a glitchy amp sim distracting me, and me talking with a cold. If you're up for it, check that out here.
YouTube preview picture
Until next time, see ya.

26 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Good lesson, but I really have to say that my ears started bleeding when I heard his tone.
    Yeah, I apologize for the tone. My playing was actually quite sloppy because the amp sim I was using essentially decided to switch settings on its own. It's fixed now, but...yeah, that was pretty awful.
    In your defense, the tone after the actual lesson (when you played clips of the riffs in context of songs) was much better, imho.
    Thanks! Yeah, I'm pretty happy with those tones, comparatively. My computer literally loaded up some kind of treble-booster preset right as I started playing in the lesson; apparently it thought that the signal from my guitar was a midi trigger to change presets.
    I found your Youtube series first and I love it. Glad to see written lessons too! Keep it up, looking forward to more!
    I'm a big fan of prog metal and this was a pretty cool lesson to follow. I liked the concepts of embellishment and emphasis. People try too hard to overcomplicte things and don't want to stick to a simple chord progression. I know of a line that was played (ok, it was modulating key) just around GM and Bm and worked pretty great. One thing I must say is that the lesson was kind of hard to follow because you were talking mostly about duration and didn't talk about intervals much but the video was really good and put it all together nicely
    This really isn't really that progressive metal. It's doing what everybody else does - except being secretive about it, no true creativity going on.
    Secretive? Somehow I don't think that's quite the word you were looking for. All I'm doing is putting the information out there. If you want to then take that information and utilize it the way "everybody else" does, that's on you, but all that's provided here is a technique. You decide how to use it.
    I personally find this method quite effective. Another thing I'll do is add non-diatonic chords and/or embellish the usual progression by adding notes to the chords. For instance, suppose we have a I IV V I progression in C. A generic progression might be C5 F5 G5 C5, right? Spice it up, add in maybe a non-diatonic chord or two between the standard progression chords and embellish the chords themselves. Maybe you'd come up with something like: Csus2, D#5, Fsus4, G7, C5. Then, of course, add in whatever notes or pedal fit. But even with just the "embellished" chord progression itself (no other notes or pedal tones), it sounds non-generic. You've gone from a standard I IV V I progression to: I(sus2), biii, IV(sus4), V7, I. The thing that clinches it (for me anyway) and really surprises the listener is the non-diatonic chord.
    Indeed, that's another great method. I'd intended to cover that in a later lesson though; I'm trying to avoid cluttering too many things into any one lesson.
    Your #5 is actually a minor 6th and your vocals should be a little more legato rather than 'punching' with the chord changes. Just sayin'... it would add a more dynamic flavour! Other than that, nice little lesson (some of my students will appreciate this)!
    I'm pretty sure what you've called vi-VI-V is actually a i-VI-VII. It hardly makes sense to have a chord progression that never actually touches the "I", right? Correct me if I'm wrong though.
    Well, the vi-IV-V that he mentioned is in reference to a major key but the i VI VII is just as correct since it's in a minor key. The context of the song will dictate which one will be more appropriate.
    I found the lesson quite useful, although the tone wasn't good, it wasn't unbearable either. I thought that it was a very good lesson all in all.
    Very sloppy playing... But cool tips nevertheless
    As I said, my amp sim decided to shoot itself in the mouth in the middle of the lesson and I got extraordinarily distracted trying to keep a straight face through the technical difficulties. I was very stupid and didn't think to just edit it later.
    use 1 string. switch between 2 frets and keep changing the beat so nobody can follow it
    Overall good ideas, tone is a little lifeless and honestly that just happens to be one of the most important parts of prog-metal so it should definitely be a priority! Also, a little paragraph on syncopation along with some poly-rhythm or poly-meter stuff would add a world of difference to one's composition skills!
    Polymeters/polyrhythms are covered in a lesson of their own You can check it out as a video lesson already, or just wait for me to get around to writing it up. Assuming it's in the same order as the videos, it'll be part 9.