Music & Entertainment

Learn About Guitar Riffs: Tips and Tricks for Playing Your Own Riffs

Written by MasterClass

Apr 12, 2019 • 5 min read

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Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song.” Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name.” Santana’s “Smooth.” What do these classic hits all have in common? They’re all built around fantastic guitar riffs.

An earth-shaking guitar riff is as elemental to rock n’ roll as primal 4/4 drumming and androgynous sex-symbol lead singers. Can you write a rock, pop, funk, or country song without a guitar riff? Sure, but a well-crafted, well-placed guitar riff can turn a good song into a timeless one.

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What Are Guitar Riffs?

The word “riff” is just a rock n’ roll way of saying melody. It’s simply a sequence of notes — often repeated, and sometimes continuous, serving as an anchor for the other instruments and vocals on a track.

  • In classical music, you might call this a motif.
  • In musical theater you might call this a theme.

Truth be told, riffs aren’t unique to guitar players and guitars. Any instrument can utilize riffs. Even non-melodic instruments like drums can create rhythmic riffs. But in most popular styles, the idiomatic instrument for riffing is the guitar.

What Is the Importance of a Good Guitar Riff?

Riffs often form the iconic parts of famous songs. Consider The Rolling Stones’ 1965 hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The memorable guitar line that opens the song and repeats throughout — that’s the riff. Newsweek magazine called it “five notes that shook the world.” (Although technically the riff contains more than 5 notes; it’s just that some notes are repeated.) When people think of the song, undoubtedly some minds will first go to Mick Jagger’s lyrics and vocal melody. But just as many, if not more, will think of those guitar notes pulsating out of the speakers.

Using Riffs In Your Guitar Playing

No matter what level of guitarist you are, there are various ways to work riffs into your playing. Here are some tips to make that possible.

Work within scales.

If you know certain scales (major, minor, pentatonic, or diminished), you can use those notes to create riffs. Try not to just go up and down a scale. Use leaps (jumps across notes) where appropriate to keep things interesting. Jimmy Page’s riff on Led Zeppelin’s “The Rover” is a masterful mixture of stepwise motion and leaps.

Use modes.

One step beyond scales are modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, and more). Experiment with modes in your riff compositions. Many great jazz riffs by Miles Davis and John Coltrane were composed using notes within modes instead of scales.

Outline chords.

Rather than just strum all the notes of a chord at once, break them out into individual notes. If you do this in conjunction with a defined rhythmic pattern, you’ve created a riff. (Note that a chord broken down and played in its individual notes is called an arpeggio.) Slash’s lead guitar on the intro to Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is a great example of arpeggio-based riffing.

Mix chords and single notes.

There’s no rule that says riffs must only be single notes. Going back and forth between notes and power chords is a great way to keep your riffs interesting and unpredictable. Jimi Hendrix is a master of this, as songs like “Little Wing,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” and “Castles Made of Sand” demonstrate.

Use rhythm to compose.

Many players focus too much on the actual notes they’re playing and not enough on the rhythmic pattern in which those notes appear. But a great rhythmic pattern is what makes a riff catchy. Think of that Rolling Stones “Satisfaction” riff. It wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable if all the notes were of the same duration. By varying the duration of the notes, guitarist Keith Richards embeds the melody in your ear.

Use silence.

You don’t have to play nonstop to create a riff. Think of the classic guitar riff in “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. The brief pause after the first note creates instant suspense and makes the subsequent notes feel like a payoff.

A guitar leaning against an amp

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The Same Riffs on Different Instruments

Sometimes guitar riffs sound terrific when doubled on other instruments. The pummeling riff that opens Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song” is doubled on bass. The same is true for the band’s song “Black Dog” — guitar and bass play the same riff together, sounding an octave apart. This stands to reason, since the riff for that song was written by the band’s bassist John Paul Jones.

Piano also doubles nicely with guitar. On the long instrumental outro to “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos, Duane Allman’s slide guitar is doubled by Jim Gordon’s piano (Eric Clapton composed). The blues licks on Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right” are played in tandem by piano and guitar.

Some riffs incorporate the whole band. Motown recordings are famous for this. Think of “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” by The Four Tops. The singular riff (built around just three notes) is played by all the melodic instruments while the drums beat out a tempo.

And some riffs don’t involve guitar at all. Think of Fat’s Domino’s piano on “The Fat Man” — considered one of the very first rock n’ roll songs. Or Clarence Clemons’ saxophone on Bruce Springsteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”

Easy Guitar Riffs for Beginners

One of the exciting things about playing guitar is that you don’t need to have ten years of experience to play some great tunes. Here are some well-known songs with fairly easy riffs that are accessible to those just learning guitar:

  • The Rolling Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
  • Deep Purple, “Smoke on the Water”
  • Black Sabbath, “Iron Man”
  • Nirvana, “Come As You Are”
  • White Stripes, “Seven Nation Army”
  • The Temptations, “My Girl”

Famous Blues Guitar Riffs

The blues are the ultimate stripped-down guitar-oriented music, with many songs consisting of just a blues singer and his or her guitar (no guitar lessons necessary). Here are some iconic blues riffs:

  • Albert King, “Crosscut Saw”
  • B.B. King, “The Thrill Is Gone”
  • Hollywood Fats – “Rock This House”
  • Howlin’ Wolf-- “Forty-Four”
  • T-Bone Walker – Stormy Monday

Famous Rock ‘n’ Roll Guitar Riffs

It would be impossible to catalogue all the guitar riffing in rock music, but here are a few of the greatest rock guitar riffs that have stood out from the pack and become staples of pop culture:

  • Jimi Hendrix “Purple Haze”
  • AC/DC, “Back in Black”
  • Derek and the Dominos (with Eric Clapton on guitar), “Layla”
  • Rage Against the Machine, “Bombtrack”
  • The Darkness, “I Believe In A Thing Called Love”
  • Santana, “Smooth”
  • The Beatles, “Day Tripper”
  • Iron Maiden, “The Trooper”
  • Led Zeppelin, “Black Dog”
  • Dave Matthews Band, “What Would You Say”
  • Heart, “Barracuda”

Learn more about playing guitar with Tom Morello and Carlos Santana.