What are guitar riffs
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What are guitar riffs (and how to create them)

If you look at the example guitar licks in this lesson and compare them to the guitar riffs in this, you will get quite a good idea on what makes the difference between a guitar lick and a guitar riff.

In this tutorial, we’ll go deeper into what is a guitar riff, it’s role in Rock oriented music, as well as how to create your own first riffs.

Wikipedia defines a riff as:

“an ostinato; a repeated chord progression, pattern, or melody, often played by rhythmic instruments. The riff is the base of the musical composition.”

Rather than focus on the semantics, I’m going to explain 3 main components one can take from this definition which will explain more the guitar riff and its role in Rock, Blues, Punk and Heavy Metal music.

1. Repetition

A guitar riff is, in most instances, not meant to be played only once.

If you listen to what’s (probably) the most famous guitar riff ever, the intro riff to Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple, you’ll notice that the same riff is repeated over and over again, not only for the intro but in other parts of the song, serving as an interlude.

The role of the guitar riff though can go beyond being repeated over and over again exactly the same way.

You can take an idea, and repeat the same thing in different forms and variations.

This is something our ear really loves to hear – repetition is great because our ear wants to hear something it can relate too. At the same time, it can get boring hearing the same thing over and over again. Thus, changing some notes, the rhythm, the phrasing and the dynamics of the main idea can please the ear in both ways.

Your ear is listening to something it can relate to, but the variations keep the riff interesting.

As an example, you may want to listen to the guitar riffs in Enter Sandman by Metallica.

The clean guitar riff in the intro of the song is a very memorable tune that’s just one bar long, repeated over and over, note for note.

However, once you start listening to the distorted guitar riffs you will notice that the same musical idea of that clean intro riff is being repeated again not only with the effects added but also with changes in the notes, the rhythm or the guitar phrasing.

One thing I want you to take from this is that your guitar riffs don’t need to be long. Your riff can be 1 bar, less than one bar, 2 bars, 4 bars or more.

It doesn’t really matter since a riff is something that’s meant to be repeated and add to that, you can make variations to your main theme later on.

2. Rhythmic

Some musicians make a distinction between a rhythm guitar player and a lead guitar player.

I don’t personally consider this that much of an issue since I believe a complete guitar player should develop skills in both – many of which are the same.

In fact, in most bands that have a rhythm and a lead guitar player, both guitar players would have the ability to play each other’s parts (though not necessarily to compose them).

Other bands don’t have a rhythm and a lead guitar player and both guitar players play lead and rhythm parts interchangeably, as I used to do with the other guitarist in my former band Blue Sky Abyss.

Others still have just one guitar player that does both parts.

That said, playing lead and rhythm guitar are different aspects that require some different abilities.

And while guitar licks and solos make most of what we consider “lead guitar playing”, the riff is definitely on the rhythmic side of things.

What this means for you is that while a riff can, (and, according to my taste should) be melodic – like both the riffs in Enter Sandman and Smoke On the Water are – the main role of the riff is to serve as a rhythmic basis while other instruments or the singer are providing the main melody.

3. The base of a musical composition

Since the riff if rhythmic, but can also have a melodic element to it (unlike drums for instance, which provide the pulse of the song but are extremely restricted when it comes to creating melodies) in a lot of Rock, Punk, Blues and Heavy Metal, the riff is literally the base of the song.

Now, the guitar is not the only instrument that can play riffs.

If you listen to the bass guitar and the rock organ in Smoke On the Water, you’ll notice they’re also playing riffs – that either complement or are a variation of, the guitar riffs.

What this means when it comes to riff writing, is that while it’s awesome to write a great and memorable riff, your main role is not to steal the show, but provide a back-up for a singer, a guitar solo, a keyboard or some other instrument that will provide the main melody of the song.

How to create a guitar riff

In other lessons which you can find here and here I show you specific methods you can use to get to the level where you can write as many guitar riffs as you want at will.

In this lesson, since we touched the topic of repetition in different forms and variations, I will, as an example, compose a riff and then repeat that same theme with rhythmic and melodic variations.

The following is the original riff and includes the main rhythmic, as well as melodic, theme, which will be followed by variations on this main theme in the riffs that follow.

You may notice that even within this 4 bar guitar riff itself, there is repetition in the rhythm – bars 2 and 3 have exactly the same rhythm, while bars 1 and 4 have a very similar rhythm.

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Guitar tabs and audio created by Guitar Pro Guitar Pro: the best tablature editor software

In the first variation to this guitar riff, I’m keeping the first 3 bars exactly the same but I change the chords, the rhythm in the last bar, as well as use palm muting technique on those chords.

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Guitar tabs and audio created by Guitar Pro Guitar Pro: the best tablature editor software

In the next variation, I’m doing the opposite – keeping the last bar exactly like that of the original first riff, but make small alterations to the rhythm in the first 3 bars.

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Guitar tabs and audio created by Guitar Pro Guitar Pro: the best tablature editor software

In the last variation, the changes are not rhythmic but melodic, that is I change some notes, or the order of some notes, but keep the same rhythm.

Guitar tabs and audio created by Guitar Pro Guitar Pro: the best tablature editor software

Conclusion

In this lesson I’ve shown you what a guitar riff is, how to create one, as well as explored the theme of motif and variation.

The next step to learning how to write great guitar riffs is to start writing a lot of them while you keep working on your phrasing and technique to improve their quality.

If you work on both the creative and the technical side of things, you’ll probably become a good riff creator sooner than you may think!


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