What are guitar riffs (how to create your first riff)

Learn what a guitar riff is, and start riffing right away!

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

In this tutorial, we will delve deeper into what a guitar riff is, its role in rock music, and how to make your riffs on the guitar.

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 about what makes a 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 to. At the same time, it can get boring to hear 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 added 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 guitarist, both guitarists can play each other’s parts (though not necessarily compose them).

Other bands don’t have a rhythm and a lead guitarist, 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 who does both parts.

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

And while guitar licks and solos make up 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 is 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 to 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 riff on guitar

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 on 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.

Tabs created with Guitar Pro

In the first variation of 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.

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

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.

Now that you know what guitar riffs are

In this lesson, I’ve shown you what a guitar riff is, how to create one, and 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 good at guitar riffing sooner than you may think!

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2 thoughts on “What are guitar riffs (how to create your first riff)”

  1. Thanks for the article. I have been asked several times how to define and teach guitar riff writing. Mastering the skill of composing powerful and catchy guitar riffs is one of the most important skills for modern guitar player.

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