How Do Guitarists Come Up With Riffs? [Explained]

Guitarists have been creating riffs ever since the guitar was first invented in the 16th century. Since then, these riffs have taken thousands of forms encompassing many genres of music. So, how do guitarists come up with riffs?

Guitarists come up with riffs by aligning a set of notes to the key and chord progression of the desired song. Guitarists come up with these notes based on their musical influences, style of play, and how they want the structure of the song to be.

Continue reading to learn more on how guitarists come up with riffs and what these riffs are based on.

How do guitarists come up with riffs

What is a Riff in Music?

In music, a riff is a series of notes that get repeated throughout the song. These series of notes make up the main part of the song and are often the most recognizable piece of it. They are a short musical motifs that gets repeated around and around. Riffs are a key part of the song that are vitally important to its structure and flow.

Any instrument in music or a song can make up the riff but guitar riffs are often more recognizable. And for the purposes of this article and site, guitar riffs are the most important as they establish the general flow and feel of the song.

What is The Difference Between a Riff and a Lick?

The main difference between a riff and a lick is the melodic frequency of the notes. A lick is a pattern of notes that are infrequent and occur rarely throughout the song. Often times, a guitarist will throw in a lick during the solo or randomly throughout the song. Whereas a riff has the same or similar melodic pattern throughout the entire song and is easily recognizable as a constant series of notes.

To summarize the difference; a riff can be thought of as the theme of the song. Licks can be thought of as the random details throughout the song to give it flare.

How Do Guitarists Come Up With Riffs?

Guitarists come up with riffs by deciding what key to play in and what chord progression to follow and building a series of notes from there. For a simple riff, a guitarist will play the chords in the progression as the riff. For a more complex riff, the guitarist will use notes in a scale while following the chord progression.

Chord progressions are a vital piece of guitarists coming up with riffs. They will dictate the direction the riff will take. Because there are so many solid chord progressions out there, guitarists often do not need to reinvent the wheel with this. Choosing a set chord progression is a great way for guitarists to stir up ideas and see what gets moving in their head.

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From there, the ear comes to play. Trained and experienced guitarists rely on their musical ear and intuition to pick out notes that they want to include in the riff. Many of these ideas could be from their guitar influences.

Guitarists often have a sound or melody in their head that they need to translate to the guitar. This is where experience comes in. Knowing how the sounds in their head can translate to notes on the guitar is a learned skill that is vital to creating great riffs.

After the chord progression is set, a guitarist will start out by just playing the chords. From there, they will add some flare to it. They can change up the strumming pattern, incorporate palm muting or raking, throw in a pentatonic run in-between chords, the possibilities are endless. These added intricacies make the riff and ultimately the song more interesting and pleasing to the ear.

Outside of the above method, the other way is much more simple. This way is just noodling. Simply dissociating and playing the guitar free-form allows a guitarist to stumble into something great. This is my preferred method of coming up with a riff because it is much more fun. Even putting on a blues backing track and playing along to it can be a great way to stir up ideas in your head and see what notes you come across.

Tips For Creating Your Own Riffs

An important tip for creating your own riff is to learn your scales. By learning your scales, you will know which notes link up and sound good together. From there, practice playing one note at a time and then graduate to double stops.

After you learn scales and get comfortable, try playing it in a key you have never played before. Simply see what comes out. Because this new key sounds and feels different, you will not go back to instinct. The rhythm and feel will be entirely different, sparking new ideas. Goal of this tip is to get out of your comfort zone.

What Are Guitar Riffs Based On?

Guitar riffs are based on the key and chord progression of the song. They are also based on the notes that make up a scale. The mix between key, chord progression, and the various scales, are what guitar riffs are based on.

From there it is all about choosing the notes or chords that the guitarist desires that fit inside the key and chord progression.

When guitarists are coming up with a riff, they are also creating the outline of song and the tempo it will go. This makes it one of the most important pieces in creating a song.

For those that are starting to get into songwriting, learning how to create your own guitar riffs is instrumental to a great songs success. Furthermore, knowing music theory can go a long way when creating riffs. Knowing how different notes work together is a massive leg up and can help to create truly melodic riffs.

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