There’s something about a good riff that’s a little elusive. We all can feel when we write a riff that just works, but good riffs are hard to write on demand. Writing good riffs tends to require fiddling, trial and error, and, above all, a strong core concept. This can make writing riffs a slow process, with many guitarists choosing to wait on riffs to come to them naturally. While there is nothing wrong with trying not to force a riff, very little can slow down the completion of an otherwise finished song more than waiting for the perfect final riff to fall in your lap.
I’ve found that one of the main barriers to writing riffs in a timely manner is the sheer number of choices available. When every note in existence is a viable option for your riff, it can be pretty hard to settle on just a handful. It eventually dawned on me that this was one of the things slowing down my own creative productivity, so I created a series of little challenges for myself to help trick my brain into coming up with the riffs I needed to finish up my current projects.
The following three exercises are all geared towards writing riffs with limited options. You can surprise yourself with what you can come up with by forcing yourself to work within a narrower framework. Then, once the bones of your riffs are complete, feel free to tweak and edit by removing the limitations imposed by the exercises.
Exercise One: Bad Neighbors
For this first exercise, but a scale shape that you feel comfortable with. It can be any scale shape, but during this exercise make sure you stick to it. For the purposes of example, I’m going to pick an A-minor scale shape starting on the 5th fret of the 6th string. You can see that scale in tablature here:
Write a riff using that scale shape, but with no two consecutive notes on the same string. This means that every note in your riff will have to be on a different string than the note before it. However, it is perfectly fine for a note in your riff to be on the same string as any note at least two notes before it. This might sound simple, but it can be surprisingly tricky. Melodies in tonal music are often built upon smaller movements of that sort that are hard to construct within the confines of this exercise. This will likely force you to embrace bigger jumps than you most likely tend to write with, and my advice is to lean into that fact.
Here is an example riff I wrote sticking closely to the confines of this exercise, using the A-minor scale shape tabbed out above:
Now that I have the bones of my riff finished, I’m going to tweak it a little bit by removing the limitations of the exercise. Here’s the final product:
Exercise Two: Tall And Skinny
While this second exercise works in any tuning, it works particularly well in drop tunings. If you are unsure how drop tunings work, you can learn more about them here. Start this exercise by picking any key. Find all the notes in that key up down any two adjacent strings. For example, here is a tablature of all the notes along the 6th and 5th strings in the key of D-minor in drop-D tuning:
Once you’ve found the notes in your chosen key along your chosen strings, construct using just those notes. It’s totally acceptable to use two of these notes at the same time, but you can’t use any notes from the other four strings of the guitar or from outside of your chosen key.
Here’s an example riff I wrote using the notes tabbed out above:
Once you’ve written your riff using the guidelines above, feel free to tweak without having to adhere to the guidelines. This means that both notes on the other strings and notes out of your chosen key are now fair game. Here’s an edited version of my riff without any hard restrictions:
Exercise Three: Labyrinth
The third and final exercise we’re going to go over is likely the trickiest. To start this exercise, pick a scale shape just like you did when doing exercise one. You’re going to again write a riff sticking only to the notes in that scale shape, but here’s the twist: you can’t move in the same direction two notes in a row. So if you go up in pitch for one note, you must go down in pitch when choosing the following, then again go up in pitch for the note after that.
For example, if the second note in your riff is higher in pitch than the starting note, then the third note must be lower in pitch than the second note. The fourth note must then be higher in pitch than the third, the fifth must be lower in pitch than the fourth, and so on.
Here’s an example riff I wrote with these rules, using the same A-minor scale shape I used in the first example:
Once you’ve finished your riffs following rules, feel free to edit it without having to follow those rules. Here’s a version of my above riff tweaked ever so slightly once it no longer has to follow the pattern of this exercise:
I hope this helped you write some great riffs! If you’d like to share any of the riffs you wrote using these exercises, feel free to send a recording of you playing them at firstname.lastname@example.org, and NYCGS just might post them!