A riff is a short, repeating musical phrase that forms a structural basis or hook for your song. Sometimes they’re used as a main hook, sometimes as the basis to a verse, sometimes both.
Rock songs often use riff ideas for the verse and chordal patterns for the chorus.
I’ve put together a short and not at all definitive list of a few ideas you could use to help your riff writing.
1. Use Chord Notes – The famous, often repeated rock and roll bass line follows this. For example, Elvis Presley’s version of Hound Dog. The main riff in C follows the notes of the chord – C E G, C E G etc.
2. Use a limited range of notes – A riff is supposed to be simple and catchy, so don’t use too many notes. A limit of five is more than enough.
3. Emphasise the scale – Which five? Well that depends on the scale. Every scale has notes that characterise it.
So with the Dorian scale you’d want to emphasise the minor third and the major sixth. For example in E dorian try messing around with E, G and C#.
With the Lydian it would be the major third and the sharp fourth eg. E, G# A#.
4. Put Rhythm First – Particularly something catchy and off beat. How many times have you heard the Bo-Diddley “Shave-and-a-hair-cut. Two Bits!” Rhythm? George Michael used it for ‘Faith‘, and he wasn’t the first or the last.
5. Follow a Chord Progression – Just as an chord can move from place to place, so can a riff. If you’ve a chord progression that changes from G to C, the riff can move up a fourth (up a string for you guitarists) at the same time.
Be careful here. You might need to change the riff slightly to fit with the kind of chord. If your progression is G to C minor then where you were playing a B note in your G chord riff, you’ll now need to play an Eb to fit with C minor.
6. Try to Avoid Generic Riffs – There are loads of these. The rock ‘n’ roll C E G A Bb A G E… riff is probably a bad idea unless you’re writing pastiche. Similarly there are loads of other generic riffs, such as the G Bb G Bb C (think the Diet Coke ad) that are so over used you’d do well to avoid them
7. Avoid the tyranny of four – try to write a riff that doesn’t last for four bars. Try three, or five to give your riff a more interesting shape.
8. Follow a Structure – Be it ABA, AABA ABAC, following some sort of structure can give your riff an interesting structure that captures the ear
8 and a half. Add a Tail – this is just a common structure: play the same short motif 3 times than add a tail to finish the riff. Metallica’s main riff from Enter Sandman is a classic example.
Hope you get some inspiration from all this. If you have any tips to add, leave a comment.