Writing Good Metalcore Riffs

author: austinhue date: 04/01/2010 category: songwriting
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Metalcore is a genre everybody seems to want to get into these days, and it seems more and more every day that technique and complexity are being thrown out the window. One great way to stick out in the huge sea of DIY-metalcore bands out there is to just write awesome riffs. Now, I'm not saying you have to be a guitar guru to even think about writing metalcore music, and I'm definitely not saying you can't play riffs without some crazy technique. In fact, I've only been playing guitar for about two years and I just started writing guitar parts maybe a year ago. Being a somewhat amateur guitarist myself I've had to devise some songwriting methods that make riffs sound powerful, heavy, and catchy without having to play like Dimebag Darrell. The first concept I'm going to address is the difference between a verse riff and a chorus riff. Now I'm not saying that there are riffs that you can only play while there's singing, or that you have to play over and over in a song, or anything. But generally speaking, the more complex riffs should be saved for the verses, or just for some place where it doesn't compete with the other action in the song. Here's an example, from a song I wrote, of a riff that I put during a non-chorus phrase. It's complicated enough that it would have competed with the singing in the chorus. All notes are eighth notes, ~120 BPM, drop C:
PM .     . .   . .   .     .               .     .         . . .   .
As you can see, there's kind of a lot going on there. I know, I know, you're thinking "What are you talking about? I could write soooo many more notes into that! That's nothing!" Yes, I know. You probably could. But why would you? This riff is crowded enough as it is. You should save your amazingly complicated note-smashing for the solo. (The main reason this riff sounds so crowded, in case you're wondering, is because of its pedal point technique. I'll get to that later though.) Here's a more spacious riff that I used for the chorus of a different song. There's a subtle difference, but it's there: this riff is focused more on the open C chord and lower notes on the C string, and although it still uses pedal point it's in a much more subtle way. It's hard to explain, but if you play both riffs you'll notice that the first one is more crowded by its notes and this one just seems to resolve and flow along better. Eighth note rhythm, ~160 BPM, drop C:
PM       .       .   .     .     ....        .     .       .       . .
So, do you get the idea? The more crowded by notes, the more the riff will compete with the rest of the instruments, particularly the vocals. These two riffs, though they use similar notes and a similar rhythm, sound very different because of this. Now that you understand that brief idea, let's move on to some specific tips.

Tip #1: Pedal Points

-- I told you I would get back to it... This is quite possibly the most important part of rhythm metalcore riffing. Did you notice, in those examples, how nearly ever note that's palm muted is the same note? That's because writing a simple, non-crowded, metal melody on your 5th string is probably never going to sound heavy enough to fit in this genre. You have to open up some space in your melodies and replace some notes with a low palm mute. It gives you a chuggy sound that's very rhythmic and very heavy. The way you do this is by returning every once in a while to a low note that corresponds with the chord that your riff goes over. In the first example, the first and fourth measures work over a C minor chord. As such, the pedal point is going to be the low C. The second and third measures work over a G minor chord, so the pedal point is going to be G. I'll get more into chord progressions and scales later, but for now just know that once you get your chord progression figured out it should be easy to know where to put your pedal point. Here's how the first riff would sound if I put in some more riff notes instead of pedal points. They all work, but it's not heavy enough. Try playing it, and tell me: Does it sound good? The correct answer is no, not yet.

Tip #2: Harmony

-- So at this point, if you're thinking, "Geez, dude, your riffs suck. You're telling me that these little simple riffs are the real secret to getting a metalcore sound?", I understand. Sometimes very simple riffs can sound sort of bland until you add harmony. Generally, when I know I want some harmony I will try and harmonize every note that sounds more like melody than rhythm. I'll use the first riff as an example. Remember, this is a verse riff, so we're trying to get it to sound pretty full because we don't have to worry as much about competition with other instruments. The focus at this point in the song really is on the guitar. So why don't we just harmonize every note? That's actually a good idea, except there are a few rules we should cover first. Rule #1: Don't harmonize pedal points. It sounds way too muddy, and the pedal notes are really supposed to be the low chuggy rhythm parts anyway. What better note to use than the lowest note of the chord? There isn't one. Rule #2: Don't harmonize chords. You might think that having a bunch of harmonized notes would be cool, but it isn't. This generally includes anything with two or more notes. Rule #3: Pick a harmony and stick to it. In vocal and classical harmonies it can be sort of cool to have the harmony part hang out at a note while the melody changes, so that the interval changes from third to fourth to fifth and whatnot. In metalcore guitar harmony, this is not the case. You generally just want to harmonize everything in thirds. As boring as that sounds, remembering big complicated harmony parts - even if they are just thirds - can get out of hand pretty quickly. IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: Let's say I have a riff that repeats 4 times. I do not want to harmonize it 4 times! I'd probably do something like have both guitars play the riff, normally, then one guitar will play harmony. Then they both play it normal again, then the second guitar does harmony. Harmony can be cool but only sparingly. You don't need it all the time. Okay, now let's take a look at that riff again, harmonized:
PM .     . .   . .   .     .                 .      .         . . .   .
Nice! Notice that I didn't quite harmonize everything because, well, it sounds bad. Your ear always reigns supreme over any of these rules. However, I did leave the pedal notes and chords unharmonized, like I said I would, and everything is done in thirds. These two guitar parts sound really cool together, and if you have a friend who plays guitar you can go try it out right now and see. It really fills space and adds that whole metalcore feeling. Another side note, in case you don't know how to find a third: take the note you're going to harmonize, move it up a degree in the scale, then move it up another one. Tada! In this key - C minor - A# becomes D, C becomes D#, D# becomes G, etc.

Tip #3: Hammering On, Pulling Off, And Tapping

-- I know that really fast tapping might sound sort of intimidating to some of you, but before you throw your arms up in the air and say "I'm skipping this section!" just give it a chance. There are some useful techniques for getting a crisp, clean, fast sounding tapping section of a riff without having to play anything very difficult. Let me explain with an example. Consider the following riff:
PM       ..            ... ..                ..            ... ..
The last five notes of the last measure are played as eighth notes, except the 8h7 is two sixteenth notes. It's pretty easy to play, and it sounds okay, but wouldn't it be a little bit cooler to make it twice as fast? The other three measures are sort of slow and dragging, and it makes you want to have a fast little diddly in the last one. So how can we add more notes there without making it too hard to play? Well what if you try this instead for the last bar?
PM   ... ..
All the hammer ons and pull offs are sixteenth notes. This sounds significantly cooler, and it's just about as easy to play. It's a great way to fill up that space that we're trying to nail in all our verse riffs. In fact, this is a riff from one of my songs and the other guitar plays harmony every once in a while like this:
PM   ... ..
Sounds pretty metalcore if you ask me.

Tip #4: Dissonance

-- This tip is mostly for choruses, because you don't want to use too many chords in verses. Here's an example of a riff I wrote using dominant chords. Dominant chords are probably your best dissonant-chord tool, they just have that metalcore sound you're going for.
PM   . . .     . .                           . . .     . .
PM   . . .     . .     . . .     . .     . . .     . .     . . .     . .
This riff is constructed all around diminished chords. So, in case you didn't already know the shape for diminished chords on the 6th and 5th strings, I guess now you do. I think this riff sounds great, it's very simple to play, and it's very metalcore because of the dissonance. Dissonance fits very well by itself and it's pretty hard to overdo it. I'm not saying you can't, because you can, but it's tough in this genre. Here are some rules for using dissonance: Rule #1: Always be careful with dissonance if you're going to have singing. Dissonance generally sounds bad underneath a melody. And it's not a good bad either. Rule #2: Don't play anything too melodic on another guitar over a dissonant chord. So if you're writing your song in C minor and you play a C minor riff over a Cdim chord, it's going to sound pretty funny. Unless you're playing a riff in a diminished key that was meant to go over a diminished chord, it's not likely to sound right. There's a difference between using a dissonant interval and using a dissonant everything. You still have to play in the right key. Rule #3: One dissonant interval in a chord is enough. Dominant 7ths, diminished, augmented, minor seconds... those sorts of things. There is very rarely an occasion where you need the dissonance of a chord like G7add11+ or something. Here's another example of a riff using a minor second interval every once in a while for accent. You get a cool Underoath-ish feel when you do it. 8th note rhythm, ~160 BPM
PM .     .     .     .     .   .   .   .     .     .... .      .   .
Cool, huh? You have dissonance, pedal points at C, F, and D#, and a little bit of hammering and pulling for ease of playing. Overall it's a very simple riff once you've learned it, but it sounds very metalcore. So there you have it. Four surefire tips to getting your metalcore riffs on the right track. But before I leave you, let me give you a couple more tips on scales/notes, harmonies, and rhythms that should help you actually write numbers down on your tab paper.

Tip #5: The Minor Scale

-- There's this really nice scale that's very easy to memorize, used by just about every metalcore band, and it'll never get old. To some it's known as the Aeolian mode, to some it's the major scale adjusted to remove the leading tone, to some it's that thing that happens when you go W-H-W-W-H-W-W, but we'll just call it the minor scale. It's used all throughout metal music, especially melodic subgenres such as thrash and metalcore. Now, assuming that you're in drop tuning, this is how you can play the minor scale that corresponds with your lowest string (e.g. drop D, D minor; drop C, C minor; drop Ab, Ab minor; etc.) This is not a scale pattern for you to run through front to back for practice, but rather a chart of notes that you are "allowed" to use when writing a metalcore song:
Remember, this works in any drop tuning, and you can add 12 to each of these numbers and it will still work. For example, your guitar is tuned to drop A and you want to start a solo on the 22nd fret of the second string. Can you do it? Yep. That's the minor key. But the 21st fret isn't. Same goes for drop D, drop C, drop B... Got it? Okay. So this pattern is very useful for things like developing pedal points and harmonies. Let's assume I'm writing a song and I want this certain phrase to move from a really low chord to a higher chord to an even higher chord and then go back down. So for my first measure I might use the thickest string open as my pedal point. Then my next pedal point would be the seventh fret on the thick string, then the eighth fret, then open again. That's going to work, and in fact, it's a very common progression. (Some other good common ones are 0 - 0 - 7 - 5, 0 - 0 - 3 - 0, and 0 - 0 - 8 - 5) For harmonies, this chart allows you to very easily find minor third harmonies for your harmonized double lead parts. Let's say I'm playing this riff on one guitar:
On the G string, I have the notes on frets 0, 1, 3, 5, 7, and 8. All I have to do is move them up to 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, and 12 (respectively) and keep the pedal point the same. Then I get:
So easy! And it sounds so good! Keep in mind that there are many other scales and modes for you to experiment with... among the most popular are harmonic minor, diminished, dorian, aeolian, and variations of minor scales with chromatic notes thrown in. But you should really get the minor scale down first.

Tip # 6: Common Intervals

-- While I still do recommend that you do all your harmonies in thirds, there are a few intervals that will come in handy during solos, as well as little frilly riffs and other such situations. The first I'll introduce you to is one of the more important intervals (I think) in death metal, but it sounds brilliant in metalcore too. I think it works best as a jump between notes in a riff, but you could add it into your chords too. It's called a minor seventh. A minor seventh interval is basically just the note lower than the fundamental note, but you bring it up an octave. So in the key of C minor you could get C and the A# above it, or D# and D, or F and D#, etc. Here is a riff I wrote using a minor seventh jump: Eighth note rhythm, 7/8 time, ~160 BPM
I'll be the first to admit, it's a little bit tough to play, but it's not that bad and it sound pretty darn hXc. The jump between the first two notes is what I really want you to be paying attention to, because it goes from a D# to a D: a minor seventh jump. It can make your riffs sound weird and confusing, or it can add tension and beg to be resolved, but it's going to add interest no matter what. You can also add the seventh degree on to power chords you're playing for a little flavor:
PM                                                                 .
Another common one is the perfect fourth, which is almost always the distance between one string and the next at the same fret. So check out this riff:
You're basically just playing four different perfect fourth intervals in a row, while moving down the minor scale... but it sounds so cool! The perfect fifth, I'm guessing you already know because it's a power chord. So the 7th fret of the low C string and the 7th fret of the low G string in drop C would produce a perfect fifth. You can use it other places, but it's mostly just used for power chords. There are many other intervals, but the third, fourth, fifth, and seventh are most important to metalcore. So there are your note-finding tips, and with this I've covered everything about basic metalcore riff writing. Oh wait! There's one more tip:

Tip #7: Use Songwriting Software

-- Okay, okay, this isn't actually a tip about writing songs on the guitar. But this helps soooo much. It's one thing to just write notes down on tab paper, or play songs over and over at band practice, but when you're writing and you want to figure out what a harmony will sound like, or what your riff would sound like with drums, or you want to work out tempos and solos and just write efficiently in general, you should use songwriting software like Guitar Pro. A license is fifteen dollars or something, and it's worth every penny. You can see your fretboard on the screen with scales superimposed over it, you can layer tracks so you hear the full band, and you can export your song as a MIDI file and bring it into any sound creation software that reads MIDI files. It's completely invaluable and I use it to write every song. Songs are quick and easy and fun to write. Give it a try, I guarantee you'll become a better writer. Okay, that's really the last tip now. Remember, the most important tool is your ear, and every rule can be broken, but this guide was written for those who want a jumping point. All the examples are actually parts from songs I've written, so don't think that they're just oversimplified examples to illustrate a point. They really do work in context as well. A lot of the time you'll surprise yourself with how simple riffs can sound more awesome than you ever would have thought. I hope this helped and if you have a question feel free to comment, message, etc. Good luck writing and rock on =]
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