Composition Or The Original Riff

Although there are about a thousand of these out here, I figured I might as well give it a shot. I hope that it helps you write something original, if nothing else.

Ultimate Guitar
Hey. I'm a little new at the whole advice column thing, but I thought that I could at least give it a shot. Before I begin, I thought I might give you a few of my music credentials, just to let you know that I'm no worse off than you are I've played guitar for two years, and I still have a hard time learning speed riffs and heavy soloing, I have a horrible time singing, and I don't think that I'll be getting a record deal any time soon. Trust me, I know your pain. The purpose of this column is to give you a little bit of the insight that I used to help me become a better composer. Note the word usage: composer, not guitar player. You don't have to pay attention to everything I say, as I am only human and even I make mistakes, but you can, however, use some of my techniques to better help you write new riffs. If you don't like my means of expression, feel free to spit on my grave, so long as you leave a few bucks so I can afford some food. I'd like to begin with a definition of a riff, as there are bound to be a few beginners out there. A riff is a melodic figure played as an intro to a song, or under a verse, chorus, or bridge. It can be anything from two or three notes at a time to a full chord progression. Examples? Ok. Try the intro to Of Wolf And Man, by Metallica.

9. Of Wolf & Man

1a) James E-------------|------------| B-------------|------------| G-------------|------------| D--2--2--2--2-|-2--2--2--2-| A--2--2--2--2-|-2--2--2--2-| E--0--0--0--0-|-0--0--0--0-|
1b) Kirk E-------------------|----------------------- B-------------------|----------------------- G-------------------|----------------------- D----9---10--11--12-|---9---10--11--12------ A----7---8---9---10-|---7---8---9---10------ E--0---0---0---0----|-0---0---0---0--------- Pm. . . . . . . .
It starts out with only an E5 chord over and over again on every beat, then is layered over with a palm muted open E followed by a chromatic progression on every upbeat. (1a is quarter notes, 1b is eighth notes.) A simple, but effective method, which brings me to my first point.

01. Simplicity

Above all, whether or not you can play fast enough to make Yngwie Malmsteen cry, you must make your songs simple. You're not writing to please the shredders (ok, maybe sometimes), you're writing to please the fans, and they're usually musically dumb(I know, I was a fan for a long time). All good music is based of a simple melodic idea which is used as a base for the rest of the music. Think about Beethoven's Ode to Joy. The whole piece is based on a simple melody, even though there are sections that will blow you away. My final suggestion is that you sit down with your guitar and play around with two or three note melodies or chord progressions.

02. Inspiration

This may very well be the most important point of this column. If nothing else, true inspiration can drive even the most musically illiterate into a composition mode that only an interruption can break. If inspiration hits you and you have access to a guitar, drop everything and go for it(unless you're at work or at school). Remember that the drive to write only lasts for a little while, so you gotta get it while it's hot. Don't wait for that moment to hit again: seize it while it lasts.

03. Don't Rush It!

Don't try to rush the writing process. Some of the greatest music of all time took years to write, and nothing has changed since those queer-looking men in the white wigs died. If you get stumped, record what you've got, and try to get an audio recording, too (trust me, it'll help), then let it bake for a while. Most people don't try to eat the batter before the cake is ready.

04. Finding Your Personal Style

I think the reason I'm no speed demon is that I've devoted more time to finding my own style than focusing on speed that comes from focusing on one style. Your riffs need to be exactly what that sounds like: your riffs. You wrote them, so why shouldn't they sound like that? Don't focus your style on mimicry, try to break out of the barrier and do things you own way. However, don't forget that at the same time, if you're in a band, you have to listen to the input of you fellow band mates, even if it means postponing or even (heaven forbid) scrapping one of your precious ideas. Face it, if the three, four or five other guys that should be some of your best friends don't like it, it probably sucked. Either that or you're about to be fired.

05. Always save Everything

I know this sounds weird, but you've got to save everything that you write, because even if your mates don't approve, even if you don't like it, save it. You can still salvage a shitty riff if you know how. (I'm still trying to figure this out)

06. Break Every Musical Rule Possible

Ignore all the rules that your guitar teacher drilled into your head and write what you think sounds cool. Don't be afraid to try to write a chord that doesn't exist (because somewhere it does) and ditch the comments. If you think it sound good, but it doesn't fit into a specific key, f--k it! Ditch the key. The only thing you really need to worry about is if it sounds good to you.

07. Improvise often

If you just sit down and play, you'll find that you can often play some really neat things that you couldn't normally play if you were seriously trying to write something. Some of the best things ever start as one improvised lick, as is the case with songs like Voodoo Child (Jimi Hendrix), Black Dog (Led Zeppelin), and Cold Shot (Stevie Ray Vaughan). Just screw around until you find the perfect little moment where nothing you do could be wrong. Try setting a tape player and simply playing until the inspiration goes away, then review your tape and pick out the stuff that you like. Remember, be sure to stay true to your personal style and try not to mimic someone else (although you can learn some very cool techniques from someone like Joe Satriani or Yngwie Malmsteen).

08. Complexity

I know that now, as you read this, you're thinking, Wait, didn't he just mention simplicity? Yes, I did. I won't lie, This one is a bit contradictory, but some riffs are better when they're more complex. This rule especially applies to almost all death metal. The more complex it is without sounding like a cluttered mess (much like my room) can sometimes be a very good thing. And not all complex riffs are constant sixteenth notes. The beginning of the song Pride and Joy by Stevie Ray Vaughan is almost impossibly complex, but it works. Think long and hard about it before you try to cram too many notes into a riff, though. Now, I'd like to discuss a few technical things that can make your riffs even more exciting. If you look at your predecessors, such as Van Halen or Hendrix, a lot of their soloing techniques can be used in a riff to make it more interesting.

01. Open Strings

  • Ex.: Eruption This lick is played in the intro, about the third measure (I don't know, I am very tired and I want to be finished)
    E------5----------------------------------------------------------| B----5---5-8p5p0---8p5p0---8p5p0---8p5p0---8p5p0---8p5p0---8p5p0--| G7^-------------7-------7-------7-------7-------7-------7--------| D-----------------------------------------------------------------| A-----------------------------------------------------------------| E-----------------------------------------------------------------| E---------------------------------------------------------------------------| B----5-8p5---5--------------------------------------------------------------| G--7-------7---7-5--4h5h7p5p4---4h5h7p5p4---4h5h7p5p4---4h5h7p5p4-----------| D-----------------------------7-----------7-----------7-----------7---------| A---------------------------------------------------------------------------| E---------------------------------------------------------------------------| E----------------------------------------| B----------------------------------------| G--4-------------------------------------| D----7-6-5-4-----------------------------| A------------7-6-5-3~--/-\---------------| E----------------------------0w----------|
    Eddie uses open strings in order to add to the sound of the lick, and this technique can be used in a regular riff to make it thicker. For Example - (5/4 time, straight sixteenth notes, heavy distortion).
    E----------------------------------------------------------| B----------------------------------------------------------| G----------------------------------------------------------| D----------------------------------------------------------| A-------3-2------------------------------------------------| E---0-1-----0-0-3-0-5-7-0-8-7-0-0-0-8-7-0-0----------------|
    This little trick is best used for the more evil riffs.

    02. Tremolo Picking

    Try speed picking some of the notes in you riffs; it can make a huge difference. For example, play the following riff straight, then with tremolo picking. (Motley Crue, Ten seconds to Love, solo).
    D|-------------------------------------------| G|---------------------------16-17-20-17-20b-| C|------------------12-14-17-----------------| F|---------10-12-14--------------------------| A|---10-12-----------------------------------| D|-------------------------------------------|
    It adds flavor to the lick/riff thingy.

    03. Bends

    I don't really have much to say here, just that a simple bend can change the entire movement of a riff. Take this example from Lamb of God's Ashes of the Wake.
    ||-------------------------------------------------------------- ||-------------------------------------------------------------- ||*------------------------------------------------------------- ||*------------------------------------------------------------- ||---------------5-7-8-7-5-4----------------5-4-6--------------- ||-000-1^2-0-1^2-------------000-1^2-0-1^2--------000-1^2-0-1^2- --------------|--------------------------|------------------------| --------------|--------------------------|------------------------| --------------|-------------------------*|------------------------| --------------|-------------------------*|------------------------| --5-7-8-7-5-4-|------------------------3-|----------7-----------3-| --------------|000-1^2-0-1^2-000-1^2-0-3-|000-1^2-0-7-000-1^2-0-3-|

    04. Stretchy

    Stretching your reach until your fingers feel like they're going to tear apart can be a good way to find a great riff. I don't have an example here, all I can do is suggest that you should try to stretch further than ever before when practicing (after a good warm-up) so as to strengthen your fingers. In conclusion, trying unorthodox techniques in your riff writing can often lead to a great song, if not a great riff. Play when the inspiration hits you and ALWAYS record what you write. It helps if you have a bad memory. Stay true to your personal style, and always be sure that your band takes your ideas seriously, even if they don't like them. Your writing is exactly that: your writing. No-one else can take that away from you. I dunno. It is about 4 in the morning, and I am so very, very tired. I'll post this tomorrow. All opinions on Artists and Songs are solely based on the author's personal opinion and deprivation of sleep. If you have any questions, E-mail me at
  • 95 comments sorted by best / new / date

      SteveHouse wrote: xtract wrote: You deserve a cookie! xtract, you deserve a cookie. for saying someone deserves a cookie. so we'd better make that two cookies. i applaud your style.
      Yes Stevehouse insince you gave someone a cookie for giving someone a cookie, i will give you a cookie for your generosity (sp?)...
      [b]bassplayer9109[ /b] wrote: Thanks kinda learning yet and this really helps...i'll keep a notebook with me from now on! Thanks!!!!!
      Dude... If u can just pull out a notebook and write a riff on the spot... I'm impressed!
      Mr. Kill
      yeah and u should havea cookie for just telling that guy that he deserves a cookie coz he told hotfix that he desevers a cookie, and now I deserve a cookie lol .. hehe.. btw.. great article man.. keep this good work up
      pretty good article, if your only on your second year your on a real good track. Keep it up man
      xtract wrote: You deserve a cookie!
      xtract, you deserve a cookie. for saying someone deserves a cookie. so we'd better make that two cookies. i applaud your style.
      Thanks kinda learning yet and this really helps...i'll keep a notebook with me from now on! Thanks!!!!!
      xtract wrote: You deserve a cookie!
      Why, Thank you! I think I'll go get one now...
      dude, i can't believe you've been playing for only two got talent! ten stars
      this was superduper!!! (sorry...joke from another forum...) anyway, it was great!
      Pride and Joy's intro isn't insanely complex? In fact, it's pretty easy, and the easiest part of the song.
      great man! hey, are there chords that dont exist? like i mean not named yet... just wondering.. hehehehe
      great article.. i print out all the music theory articles and see which i like best and this is up there.. very good words used and the pure love of music
      My E-mail Has changed!!! You can now reach me at
      wow, for someone thats only been playing for two years you've done your homework, good job.
      I'm not sure what the title means. "Composition or the original riff." It sounds like something about when you write something and then find out its already bin' written by someone else cuz you plagiarized it. (I hateit when that happens- it happened to me the other day) Where was I going with this again? Oh yeah! The title. Yes thats it i was talking about the title! Anywaaaaay... Did you mean "Composition OF the original riff"? That would have made sense...
      Pseudonaja wrote: Good article. Except, Last note of Kirk's riff (the part shown in the article) is not 12 but 13. Next time round it's 12 again and the last time it's 10. Got the song playing now and that's what it sounds like...
      I've got the tab book, and that's what it says...I'm just going with what I read.
      sum dood
      not one lesson suck ass dude!!!! yeah.....good work.....10 stars
      Good article. Except, Last note of Kirk's riff (the part shown in the article) is not 12 but 13. Next time round it's 12 again and the last time it's 10. Got the song playing now and that's what it sounds like...
      Actually, I meant "Composition, OR the original riff." The title is actually two titles put into one.
      This article rocked my face off! I love the simplicity tied in with complexity. some of my favorite bands do this. QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE. you should all go buy there live in london dvd/ cd cuz its 12 bucks AND it has some awsome long dual guitar solos in it.