How to Write a Guitar Riff & Vocal Melody like Alice in Chains “Rainier Fog”



Happy New Music Friday, and welcome to the Hack Music Theory show! So, Alice in Chains, new album out today, woohoo!!! I’ve been a fan since their debut album dropped way back in 1990, so I’m super stoked to reveal the secret formula behind this band’s unique fusion of dissonant riffs and catchy vocals. But first… Tea!

Jerry Cantrell’s riffs are legendary! For three decades, he’s been walking the line between metal and rock. By taking the dissonance of metal and combining it with the accessibility of rock, Jerry created an instantly-recognizable style. And if you wanna dam the river of Cantrell and syphon off a little for yourself, you’ll need those two elements. So firstly, create that dissonance by using the Phrygian or Locrian mode. Then secondly, create that accessibility by using a slower tempo and fewer notes. Alright, so what you see on your screen is the riff that we wrote using the music theory from Jerry’s riffs. We’re in the Locrian mode here (our root is D♯), and we’re at 67.5 BPM, which is the tempo of their song “So Far Under”. Right, so we’ve got four loops of the riff here, and the first thing you’ll notice is that the riff consists of two sections: the first section is made up of 1/16 notes, and the second section is just one long note. And this is another clever hack of Jerry’s, where the guitar and vocals take turns for your attention, which prevents things from ever getting overwhelming (like they do in metal). So we kick things off with a few 1/16 notes that really emphasize the dissonant Locrian vibe (♭2 and ♭5), then we restrain ourselves by just hitting one long root note while the vocals have their turn in the spotlight. And lastly, depending on how full you want your riff to sound, you can play it as single notes, or “power chords”, or a combination of the two.

Vocals are catchy when they’re easy to remember and sing. And while singing in the Phrygian or Locrian mode is easy for William DuVall, it sure ain’t easy for most people, and that is exactly why he often uses the pentatonic minor scale as the basis for his vocal melodies. And yes, when done right, pentatonic minor melodies work great over the top of Phrygian or Locrian riffs. However, limiting your vocal melodies to only five notes (pentatonic) will get boring quick, so that’s why every now and then William throws in a spicy non-diatonic note, which is a note that is not in the key. Alright, so what you see on your screen is the vocal melody that we wrote using the music theory from William’s melodies. And underneath that is the guitar riff, but that’s muted (it’s just there for reference). So you can see we’ve got this descending vocal line coming down through the pentatonic minor scale, starting up at the ♭3, then hitting the 1, ♭7, 5, 4, and landing on the ♭3 an octave lower. Then the second time through, for variation, we throw in a spicy William note, which is actually that happy major 3rd note. And that gives us a little glimmer of hope, but only a 1/16 of hope, cos this is Alice in Chains after all haha! Also, you’ll notice there’s a little controlled clashing where we have a ♭5 in the guitar at the same time as a 5 in the vocals, but the ♭5 in the guitar is just a quick 1/16 note, so it sounds super tasty and not too clashy!

Okay, so now that you’ve got one section down, how do you write a new section for it, and then, how do you transition between those two sections? Great questions, and if this is something you need help with, then check out our cutting-edge online apprenticeship course, where you’ll literally learn every step of the music making process, and most importantly, you’ll learn how to finish your songs!

And just before the playthrough. Please note, we intentionally wrote the music and lyrics of our example to be very similar to Alice in Chains, but we did that for the sake of this lesson. So, instead of copying Jerry and the boys, please explore how you can use this hack creatively with your own musical personality, so it sounds like you! Also, if you truly wanna get that Alice in Chains sound, you’re gonna need an ultra mega powerful world-class male vocal, like Layne and William, so we called up the best singer we know: Meyrick de la Fuente. And big up respect to Meyrick for jumping in on such short notice. If you wanna hear more of this dude’s phenomenal singing, then check out his awesome band Exist Immortal, who, by the way, also happens to contain a couple of my former students - wassup Kurt and David (#ProudTeacher). Alright, that’s it! We really hope you found this video helpful, and if you did, subscribe and hit the bell to get notifications. Also, we believe in sharing our knowledge for free. So please pay it forwards by teaching this hack to a friend, so they can benefit from this lesson as well. Yeah I’ve been teaching music theory for 24 years, so I can safely say that the best way to learn something, is to teach it to someone else. So, go forth and teach! On that note, thanks for joining the Hack Music Theory revolution, and we’ll see you next New Music Friday.

Kate & Ray Harmony (AKA Revolution Harmony)
Music Teachers & Producers in Vancouver BC, Canada


1: Read our free book (below) & watch our YouTube videos
2: Read our "Part 1" book & "Songwriting & Producing" PDF
3: Learn our Secret Art of Song-Whispering, and effortlessly finish your music!

Hack Music Theory is the pioneering notation-free method for making great music. Taught by award-winning music lecturer Ray Harmony, and his protégé (and wife) Kate Harmony, from their studio in Vancouver BC, Canada. Ray is the author of critically-acclaimed book series "Hack Music Theory", and has made music with Serj Tankian (System of a Down), Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine), Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree), Ihsahn (Emperor), Kool Keith (Ultramagnetic MCs), Madchild (Swollen Members), and many more. Kate has the highest grade distinction in Popular Music Theory from the London College of Music, and is the only person on the planet who's been trained by Ray to teach his Hack Music Theory method! While these Hack Music Theory YouTube lessons teach music theory for producers and DAW users, they are designed to accommodate all music makers (songwriters, guitarists, etc.) and all genres, from Electronic Music to R&B, Pop to Hip-Hop, Reggae to Rock, EDM/Dance to Metal (and yes, we djefinitely Djent!).