This lesson contains ten acoustic guitar riffs that begin simple and progress in melodic, rhythmic, and technical complexity.
Each of these riffs is accompanied by a brief explanation of the musical elements being used. These should give you an idea of some of the skills and techniques you’ll need to practice in order to learn and create your own acoustic guitar riffs.
The first riff is very simple, using only a few notes on adjacent strings, a simple rhythm, and no phrasing technique.
As simple as an acoustic guitar riff gets.
Playing one note at a time is not the only option we have in acoustic guitar riffs.
We can also play chords, or parts of chords.
The next riff applies a simple rhythm to four of the first chords every guitar student should learn: A minor, D minor, G major and C major in open position.
It’s a simple riff to learn. Check with a metronome to make sure you’re strumming the chords in time.
The next riff uses a combination of single notes and chords, a commonly used technique in acoustic guitar riffs.
It also introduces a new rhythmic element: dotted notes/chords. The first chord of the last bar (G) is a dotted quarter note (or crotchet).
A dot placed after a note increases its duration by half. A dotted quarter note has the duration of a quarter note plus an eight note (or quaver), since an eight note is half the duration of a quarter note.
Using dotted notes correctly is a good source for variety when one is writing guitar riffs.
The next riff introduces two new elements.
One is rhythmic and that is the blues shuffle. The blues shuffle should be a rhythmic option for all guitar players, not just blues players – though blues rhythm guitarists are more likely to use it.
Practice the blues shuffle on a single note first, and get the timing right, then go to the next element introduced in this riff.
Note: While you should be able to play the given shuffle in time, it’s good to know that many blues players use variations of this blues shuffle. One of these variations is dividing the beat into an “eight note – eight note rest – eight note” instead of “quarter note – eight note” as in the given example.
The other technique being used is the palm muting applied to the open strings in the riff.
Palm muting is more commonly used by electric guitar players and is used more sparingly here than in this lesson on electric guitar riffs.
That said, it’s still an option that can be used by acoustic guitar players and deserves a mention.
Once again, string bending is much more common on the electric guitar than on the acoustic (because on an acoustic it’s much harder to execute a bend).
One type of bend that’s used by acoustic guitar players, particularly those oriented towards blues music is the micro-bend or quarter-tone bend.
Rather than bending the string until the sound of the next note is obtained (for example, C – C# in the first bend in the example), you simply bend the note a little without reaching the next. Because you don’t hear the next note, the listener hears a C with an effect applied to it.
Though the following riff is simple, it employs a technique that is useful for those who play the acoustic guitar with a pick.
The type of music you listen to and want to play should determine whether you should play the guitar with a pick or with your fingers.
Both have advantages and disadvantages that extend beyond the scope of this lesson, but the main benefit of playing the guitar with your fingers rather than a pick is that you can play notes that aren’t placed on strings adjacent to each other at the same time.
Guitar pickers developed hybrid picking as a solution to this problem. That is, playing the guitar with a pick and using the remaining right hand fingers to play notes that are far apart at the same time.
In the next exercise, the low G notes in the second and third beat of the first bar should be struck with the pick, while the open D string should be played with your middle finger working in contrary motion with the pick. Go to this lesson on hybrid picking if you want to develop this technique further.
The next riff doesn’t introduce any musical element – except for that dreaded barre chord F many beginner guitarists fear.
Learning how to play barre chords is actually not hard (or painful) if you break down the process into smaller steps.
The next riff uses a different rhythmic style and a technique we haven’t explored yet – a slide between the last two notes.
Melodically, it is made of triads in first inversion on the first two beats of each bar, and a note that isn’t in the triad on the third beat.
The next riff uses similar concepts as the previous. The triads are a combination of root position, first and second inversion, and no note outside the triad is used.
The last acoustic guitar riff in this lesson introduces two new elements:
- 7th chords. Major and minor chords are the most commonly used chords in music but there are many other chords that can be used. 7th chords are among the most common. In this riff, the note Cm is substituted with a Cm7 and the note G is substituted with a G7.
- Dead notes: If there is the symbol x instead of a number on the tabs, it means that note should be played dead. You “kill” a note by relieving the pressure from your left hand fingers but leaving them touching the strings to get a muted and muffled sound instead. Dead notes do not have a pitch, but still have a rhythmic effect on the music.
Writing acoustic guitar riffs
If you can play guitar riffs, you should also try coming up with your own.
By mixing and matching melodic, rhythmic and technical elements that you have learned in this lesson, (as well as others you’ll encounter in the acoustic riffs you learn) and creating your own, you will get started on the beautiful journey of guitar composition.
Songwriting and playing the guitar are two different skills but they complement and overlap each other a lot which means that improving one will leave a ripple effect on the other.
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