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Making riffs

A riff is a short melodic idea that people remember. That last bit is important. And really hard to do, because how do you know what people are going to remember?


You don’t, of course. You can analyse riffs from songs that have sold millions. You can figure out the rhythms they used, the melodies. That’s a good thing to do (necessary, even) but it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll write a successful riff.


There are some rules that most successful riffs follow, though.


Keeping it simple

First rule: keep it short and simple. You have to be able to sing it.

Second rule: make it rhythmically simple (but not too simple).

Third rule: don’t use too many notes.


Keeping it short means you’ll remember it. How short? Typically around two bars. Some are four bars, but start by making two bar riffs.


Rhythmically simple means quarter notes and eighth notes for the most part. “For the most part” means 95-100%. “Not too simple” (second rule above) means you’ll probably want some syncopation.


The third rule (Not using too many notes) supports the second rule (use simple rhythms). The third rule extends to melody. A complex melody with lots of notes will be hard to remember and sing. Three to five notes are enough for riffs.


You can stretch out if you want to write solos. Riffs need to be simple.



Take a look at these potential riffs.


quarter note riff 


eighth note riff 



rhythmic riff 1



rhythmic riff 2



There’s nothing wrong with any of these, but which one is easier to remember?


  • The first one has a nice flow to it and has six notes.
  • The second one has less notes (four), but seems more like a bass line than a riff.
  • The third one has three notes – G, Bb, C – and a distinct rhythm with syncopation. Both of these things – small number of notes, distinct rhythm – will make it easier to remember.


The fourth one is just because I felt like changing the third one a bit.


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