How to Write Progressive Metal - Part 4: Turning Riffs Into Songs

In this lesson, you'll learn how to take all those awesome riffs you've been writing sine last time and piece them together into full-fledged songs.

Ultimate Guitar
Hey, guys! Kevin Goetz back again with another free lesson. This one's dedicated to the next step in our series, in which we begin contemplating how to take those bada-s riffs we learned how to build last time and string them together into something that will retain the listener's attention. This is that key point I've been saying we have to cross before we can begin working toward those prog tropes you guys have so adamantly been requesting, such as odd time signatures and polymeters. We're almost there! I just want to cover a couple more concepts first to help you resist the temptation to abuse those tropes. If you absolutely NEED a polymeter lesson this very minute, though, I suppose you could have a look at this series' companion video playlist on YouTube, which is updated three times more frequently. Some of what I'm about to detail may come across as basic to some of you, but that basic overview is going to bridge into the advanced concepts later down the list, so read on and bear with me =)

Step #1: Understanding the "Typical" Structure

This is the part a lot of you will already know. The typical song structure everyone thinks of is typically some form of intro, followed by the ever-popular verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure, then perhaps an interlude and a final chorus. Sterile, stale, and boring beyond belief, right? Yeah, totally. No denial about it, this structure sucks. So, let's look at how we can exploit it to keep its good points while removing the bad.

Step #2-A: Breaking the "Typical" Structure With Additions

This is perhaps the most intuitively utilized method used by budding metal songwriters, as it's quite prone to discovery by Reverse Engineering. It's as simple as adding a series of sections, referred to for the sake of simplicity as "bridges" in this article, in between the sections found in the "typical" structure. They designate these bridges, again for the sake of simplicity, by the mental terminology "bridge 1," "bridge 2," etc. Bridge 1 is, at the very least, a noticeably different guitar riff from bridge 2, if not a different section entirely, which in my opinion is preferable. Vocals could also be included in this addition process, resulting in something commonly referred to as a "pre-chorus." So, this could end up going, "intro, bridge 1, verse 1, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge 2, verse 2, bridge 3, chorus, bridge 4, solo, chorus."

Step #2-B: Breaking the "Typical" Structure With Substitutions

This is another way to disrupt the feeling of the "typical" structure. This ends up sounding more subtle than the "additions" method, and also results in less lengthy songs; rather than having a bunch of impressive bridges spread throughout the track, we keep the same number of sections as would be found in the "typical" structure, but make replacements. The most obvious way this is done is a song in which, rather than place the second verse at its logical point after the first chorus, that point is instead filled with an entirely different section, with intensity comparable to that of the first verse, but with a different arrangement; perhaps you could keep the drums the same but change the guitars, bass and vocal melody, as a brief example. So that ends up looking like, "intro, verse, chorus, verse-like equivalent section, chorus, solo, chorus." You could also change the order of some of these sections - certain songs start on a chorus, for instance. Finally, consider combining both of the above methods for some really interesting, unpredictable arrangements.

Step #3: Determining the Identity of Song Sections

This next section deals mainly with the concept of intensity being the determining factor of whether your sections should be a verse, pre-chorus, chorus, or bridge, and I'll also touch briefly on starting points - which instruments and which song sections work as the place to begin writing your songs. However, I feel that the concept of intensity is more accurately conveyed visually and audibly, rather than through text, so I've opted to link this article's companion video as the explanation for this next step. Remember also that the video series is updated three times a week, as opposed to the once-weekly article updates, if you want to get a sense for what's coming up here in the future.
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Until next time, see ya.

8 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Bullshit. Progressive music can be progressive without "overcomplicating" things.
    This wonderfull song is only made of three different parts, witch is repeating. You say this is boring? This is stupid. Progressive music isn't about how fancy, technical and "complicated" you can get things. It is, in my opinion, about doing whatever the hell you want to do, no matter how "odd" or "normal" it is. Just listen to the old progressive rock bands, Gentle Giant, Camel, Gong, King Crimson and those bands. Not everything they do is technical and fancy, but more mellow, soft, and often very straight forward, surprisingly enough!
    You're mis-representing my point, and I don't appreciate it. You're also incorrect: This song you posted actually DOES break the conventional structure. The second verse contains several new additions, and after that, there's a completely different section starting at around 1:51. So, intro, verse, chorus, verse, verse type-2, chorus, then that verse type-2 again with some different guitar sections. It's not a full repeat at all. Also, progressive rock is a very different sound from modern progressive metal, which is what I teach here. It's an error to assume the same principles apply 100% across the board.
    You're right, the song doesn't have the "standard-popsong"-structure, but it is still kind of straight forward compared to a lot of the progressive metal-songs these days. I know you are talking about progressive metal. My point, is, that you don't have to do things fancy and different, it is the content you put withing these structures that is important. I just used progressive rock as an example, which for me, seems right, as progressive metal, is, and should be, greatly influensed by the old progressive rock-bands. Progressive music, is doing whatever you want, how you want. Exploring, pushing borders.
    Agreed =) If you notice, I never actually said these structures have to be broken to qualify as prog; it just certainly helps access that particular sound. I'm just here to provide that information to the people who want it, not force anyone to use it.
    louis van wyk
    Sometimes i feel that bands like dream theater, symphony x try to push things too far from the norm just to be different. Some of DT's time signatures are so insane and unconventional that it sometimes feel like they just want to do it for the sake of proggressive music. I love most of their stuff, but some of it just sound like noise.
    Indeed, it's a difficult balance to walk between tastefully complex and...noise. This song structure lesson is a good way to get a feel for those extremes, but there are more lessons later down the road that go more in depth about it.