How to Write Great Songs: Guitar Riffs (Song 1)

How do write an epic riff that’s so tasty it sounds just as good on a guitar as it does on a synth? Easy, just follow these three music theory hacks:

Step 1: Start with the root note of each chord in your chord progression
If you’re working in a digital audio workstation (DAW), then copy and paste the MIDI of your chord progression into your guitar/synth track. Now delete all the notes in it, other than the root note of each chord. Be sure not to get confused with any inversions though, cos if you’ve inverted a chord, the root will not be the lowest note. You don’t need to hear the root notes, just see where they change, so mute them all now. These muted root notes show you the harmonic rhythm, which is the template you’ll write your guitar/synth riff over. If you’re doing this old-school with a pen and paper, then just write down the root note of each chord, and you’re ready to start. The root notes in our E Dorian chord progression in this video lesson, are: E → B → G → A → D

Step 2: Break down each chord into its individual notes
Remember, most chords contain three notes, and guitars and synths (especially higher-pitched ones) thrive on melody and harmony. So, break down your chords into their individual notes, and then approach them melodically. This music theory hack unbundles each chord and frees its individual notes, so you can play them wherever and however you want.  As a result, you don’t need to rely on those awful guitar “shapes” or keyboard “block” chords that most other musicians use (which is why most other musicians all sound the same!). As always, be sure to use non-harmonic notes too, i.e. notes that are not in the chord, but are still in the scale.

Step 3. Break up all melodic movements of a perfect 4th and perfect 5th
These are perfectly vibrating intervals that sound way too similar to each other, and are therefore very boring. We need to break up these melodic movements, by adding a note in between. The most thrilling part of doing this is actually the unpredictable and magical detours your riffs will take, which would never happen if it weren’t for these boring intervals needing to be spiced up. For more info on this vital step, refer to my Melody Checklist. I spent ages pouring everything I know about writing melodies into an ultimate checklist, so if you want every melody you ever write to be a great one, use the Melody Checklist in my Hack Music Theory for Songwriting & Producing PDF.

Finally, here's the guitar tab for the riff in this video lesson. Enjoy!
And that, my friends, is how you write an epic guitar or synth riff! Over to you now, so have fun writing great riffs over your chord progressions, and be sure to connect and let us know how you get on with this hackwork. Until next week, happy songwriting!

Ray Harmony
Guitar Teacher
Victoria BC, Canada