How to Improve Your Guitar Riffs By Shifting Your Focus

If you’re making this mistake, your guitar riffs will improve by simply undoing it.

When I started getting a grip on fast legato playing, my bandmates began complaining that my guitar riffs were getting progressively worse.

I was binge practicing at the time, and while I felt that my technique and overall guitar skills were improving, here were these guys telling me my riffs were getting worse.

At first, I thought the reason was that I wasn’t proficient enough in these new techniques I was learning. With new techniques come new mistakes, and my friends were noticing them.

I practiced my techniques harder. I made sure I played all my notes clean and on time.

Yet my friends kept pointing out that my riffs were getting worse and hinting why.

Finally, I got it. And when I did, I figured out how every riff I had ever written had the potential to be better.

The mistake that was making my riffs worse, one that I see happen to students over and over again is when using the technique you have just learned becomes the goal of the riff, rather than another option you have available to use in your riffs.

Now, this is completely normal. If you’ve put in the hours to learn something new and have acquired an ability you didn’t have before (or that your friends do not have), you’re going to feel the urge to show it to the world.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, and I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t do that. In fact, I still do it. When I acquire a new ability in my guitar playing, I usually show it to a few friends: “Look what I can do.”

While you should not irritate people with your ego, I’m not advocating that you become humble Joe who only plays what he’s told and never shows his skills.

If you can bend strings, play fast legato runs or get cool sounding pinch harmonics, you should use them in your guitar riffs.

But when you’re composing a riff, these techniques should be seen for what they are: options.

If a painter discovers a beautiful shade of purple, he doesn’t start painting everything purple.

Yet, that’s what I was doing when I started building speed on guitar with legato runs, and it is what most people do when they learn something new.

My riffs had become extended legato exercises, rather than the engine of the song.

Practicing vs. songwriting/composing

There is an important distinction that should be made at this point.

When you’re practicing the guitar for the sake of learning a technique, it’s actually a good thing to overuse it.

If you’re learning pinch harmonics, writing 50 guitar riffs that use pinch harmonics is a good exercise for both your technique and your riff creation skills.

However, when you’re composing guitar riffs to be used as parts of a song, you need to completely shift your focus from “how am I going to use this technique” to “how am I going to write the most appropriate and expressive guitar riff using the techniques I have at my disposal“.

When this shift in focus takes place, you start seeing all the techniques (and other elements such as applied theory – scales, apreggios, triads, inverted triads, rhythmic variety, etc.) as different options you can use to write a good riff, or improve an existing one.

Most of the time, the most effective technique or musical element for your riff is something very simple.

Such as a well placed rest.

The two riffs below would be identical if it weren’t for the rests in the second riff. Yet, this small change gives the second riff an edge.

Or by applying string bending and vibrato:

The above are just a few of the many things you may be missing out if your focus is on a specific technique rather than the riff itself.

General tips for improving your guitar riffs 

Now that your focus is on the right things, here are some tips that will help you write better riffs.

  1. Less is more (unless you need more). 

Some of the best guitar riffs, including Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple), Satisfaction (Rolling Stones), 7 Nation Army (White Stripes) and Day Tripper (Beatles), are very simple in nature.

Others, like Rock N Roll (Led Zeppelin) or Hell’s Bells (AC/DC) are a bit more complex, while riffs like This Charming Man (The Smiths) and Run To The Hills (Iron Maiden) are very complex and/or fast. 

Yet they’re all great riffs, since what makes a riff great is not its level of complexity or how hard it is to play.

What this means is that you shouldn’t be trying to stuff in as many notes as possible, or aim for the most complex rhythm to write a great riff.

You should only put in more notes or use a complex rhythm if it suits the needs of the riff you’re writing and the song it will be part of. 

  1. How you play the notes is as important as what notes to play. 

If a beginner is trying a guitar in a store and plays Smoke on The Water, you will realize that a beginner is trying out a guitar. 

If you listen to Ritchie Blackmore play the same riff, you will realize you’re listening to a pro. 

The beginner and Ritchie Blackmore may be playing the same notes, but they’re not playing them the same way. 

The beginner is only focused on hitting the right notes at more or less the right time, while Ritchie Blackmore is taking care of unwanted string noise, perfect timing, dynamics, tone, phrasing, and other things the beginner doesn’t know are important issues yet. 

What this means is that improving the quality of your riffs doesn’t just come from choosing better notes and rhythms, but also from playing those notes better.

 Let’s take dynamics as an example. 

One way to improve your guitar riffs is to accent some notes or chords by striking them harder, and increasing their loudness.

These accented notes/chords can be on the beat, as well as off the beat (off the beat, also called syncopation means accenting a note when an accent is not expected).  

These two riffs would be identical if it weren’t for off the beat accents in the second riff.

These guitar accent exercises will train you to control the dynamics of the notes and chords that you play.

When you start taking care of these finer details, the overall quality of every riff you play will improve.

Conclusion: Revisit old riffs

If you already write guitar riffs and want to improve them, I suggest going back to riffs you’ve written keeping the above in mind and asking questions like:

Can I improve this riff?

Am I overusing a technique?

Does the riff have more notes than it needs?

Will a rest before a note or a chord make it strike out more?

Should I play some notes louder than others?

Are there any unwanted strings being hit, or open strings buzzing?

Getting the answers to these questions and applying them to your playing takes time and practice. For instance muting unwanted string noise is a skill in itself.

But working on these finer details is time well spent because what will improve will not be one particular riff, but the quality of any guitar riff you will compose, as well as other areas of your playing.

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