Our list of the 50 Greatest Guitar Riffs reads like a who’s who in rock history, with classic acts reaching exhilarating heights of, well, pretty much the entire top 50 if we’re being honest. The more recent acts received significantly fewer votes in comparison.
Maybe it’s just a matter of fame; it’s just harder for younger bands to be as famous as bands that have been around for 40 or 50 years. Here we take a look at how these classic riffs were written.
These aren’t exactly songwriting secrets. More, common themes and threads. Musical techniques and devices that can be recycled and reinvented when you write your own riffs. You get the idea, so let’s get started …
1. The arpeggio method
As heard in: I’m not talking about love, Sweet Home Alabama, Don’t fear the grim reaper, Message in a bottle
Arpeggios feature prominently in our Top 50, and it’s a simple idea: just play a chord one note at a time. Try them out with clear sound (as heard in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama), or heavy stuff with a higher gain tone (like on Van Halen’s I’m not talking about love). Palmar mute is a convenient way to keep those chord sounds under control when using distortion.
These shapes are classic dishes. We’d say they’re pretty easy, but watch out for that Summers-style sus2 stretchy shape. Sus chords are often used in classic rock, so look for new versions built around these other forms.
Ex 1. Soft mower
The idea here in our arpeggio riff example is to form the chord shapes with your fretting hand and use your pick to articulate the notes as shown. The notes should resonate together in a piano-like sound effect.
2. The minor pentatonic method
As heard in: All full of love, Kill in the name of, Life at high speed
Guaranteed rock, the E minor pentatonic scale lets you use the guitar’s heaviest note extensively – the lower E! Sure, pentatonic riffs, unison bassline, and heavy drum backbeat were a winning formula back in the late 1960s Cream and Led Zeppelin, but it’s still relevant today, with bands like Greta Van Fleet and Royal Blood who make it their basic creative approach.
We have traced the notes of the pentatonic scale in E minor for you. Only on low strings, of course! The riffs are in and the widdle is out, remember, so keep it low and mean when writing your own riffs.
Ex 2. Whole Lotta Riff
Our idea here should give you an idea of the typical pentatonic phrasing in E minor. The 3rd, 5th and 7th frets feature prominently, as does the open sixth string. Pay attention to those quarter-tone turns as well.
3. Open string pedal tones
As heard in: Symphony of destruction, Walk, Angel of Death, Enter Sandman, 2 minutes before midnight
The open note of the E pedal is a basic sound of thrash metal. Dave Mustaine of Megadeth and James Hetfield of Metallica were at the forefront of developing the British heavy metal sound of the 80s into new territory with more technicality and speed.
Slayer took ideas to extremes and even today the limits of heavy open-string riffs are being pushed back, with bands like Meshuggah using eight-string guitars to allow for more open-string pedal note options. and more adventurous sounds.
In music, a pedal is a note that is played repeatedly throughout a musical phrase and many riffs rely on using the open E or A string as an anchor, especially in heavy metal. . The Phrygian mode presented here will help you get into a metal atmosphere.
Ex 3. Destroy it
In this example, we start with a Dimebag-meets-Dave Mustaine powerchord riff, followed by a few Jeff Hanneman trills and finally Iron Maiden inspired scale sequences. All the typical riff stuff found in our top 50.
4. Blues scale method
As heard in: Purple mist, Layla, Johnny B. Goode, Barn
The blues scale is the basis of classic riffs like Purple mist, Scuttling buttin ‘ and Johnny B. Goode, which are all examples of melodic riffs. This scale-like shape seems to contain an endless supply of riff ideas.
In classic rock and blues, riffs are often based on changing the I and IV – Am to D5 chord in the key of A for example. Both of these chords can be found in the A blues scale and it is helpful to think of them as one and the same chord.
Look at the blue scale shape shown here. You can draw Am and D5 chords and many more; try making your own chord shapes from the scale and using the shape to write riffs that you can combine with them.
Ex 4. Purple blues
In this example we start with a Hendrix inspired string lick, followed by some Billy Gibbons Barn double stops. After repeating the opening lick, we change the IV (D5) chord, then end with a burst of Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan notes. All played within the limits of the A blues range.
5. Rhythmic chords
As heard in: Smoke on the water, Everything is fine now, (I can’t get no) Satisfaction, Nobody knows, Crazy train
The rhythm of a riff can be just as, if not more important than the chords themselves. Try to clap to the beat of Smoke on the water, Back in black Where You really got me and there is a good chance that people will know the song without any melodic information. Combining a strong rhythm with some rock chords is a recipe for an effective riff.
Here we have four chords that serve as the basis for our example riff. Pop them up to rock straight in front of you or try to adapt the shapes by moving a finger or two. It works especially well with the A open. We have shown some variations in green.
Strummer Lovin ‘
This riff starts at A, and uses some variations on the open A shape, before using some Angus Young inspired changes from L to D / F #. In measure 3, we switch to A minor with some Josh Homme-style chords and finally we have Rolling Stones-style triads, played on the high strings.