How to turn a guitar riff into a song

From The White Stripes to WhiteSnake, Periphery to Papa Roach, Black Sabbath, and Nirvana to Artic Monkeys, a killer guitar riff is axiomatic to the thrill of music. Have you mastered that art, but struggling to unleash it into an equally impressive song?

As guitar players, we are craven for the mastery of our instrument. Yet, we can often forget that songwriting is a different beast altogether. You may have realized this when you attempt to craft songs out of guitar riffs. It can be hit or miss, often the later.

From Megadeth’s Holy War to Dio’s Holy Diver, we have a long list of good riffs that anchor a song to greatness. In this post. I’ll walk you through the process on how to orient your creative thinking to achieve that. And, we’ll gawk at some great songs all along the way.

I’ve find the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach to be very effective in conveying ideas on songwriting. Based on that, I’ll couple my tips with the analysis of songs that demonstrate how good riffs turn into great songs. That said, let’s get to it.

Turning a guitar riff into a song:

If you’re here, you aren’t having any trouble with composing great-sounding guitar riffs. So, let’s take those riffs as our starting point. They are the thematic or central idea that we are going to build upon.

Our first step should be to identify two crucial things –

a) what you want to build around it

b) how do you want to do that.

Speaking to the first point –what to build around it – jot down the parts of the song you need to create to a well-rounded composition. Most songs deal with some permutation or combination of the following:

  • Intro
  • Verse
  • Chorus
  • Solo
  • Bridge (optional)
  • Outro

You might think this is obvious, but I can’t emphasize how important it is to have a framework before you start. It keeps you anchored to the bigger picture, allows you to break the task down into parts, and – most importantly – stay focused. It’s easy to go off-track and adrift without it.

I’m only advocating a rough draft. It isn’t irrevocable. In fact, song structures evolve as and when new ideas appear. We will allow them to do so, but for now, we need to define our boundaries.

The second aspect addresses the creative and compositional choices. You can broadly categorize it into two approaches: a) treat the riff as a centerpiece or b) use it as a hook/highlight of a more broadly developed song structure.

Let’s address each idea in detail and list the commonly used tools that songwriters use to turn great songs from riffs.

Songwriting with Guitar Riffs: The Centerpiece Approach

RATM’s Killing in the name of, AC/DC’s Back in Black, or Metallica’s Enter Sandman are great examples of iconic riffs that dictate the course of an entire song. In other words, the song is centered around a single riff. Often, it won’t even deviate too far from the riff in the chorus.  

It is prevalent if many genres, some more so that the others. In metal, especially sub-genres like melodic death metal, a riff is invariable the centerpiece and/or a point of convergence.

Nevertheless, Lenny Kravitz (Are you gonna go my way), Jet (Cold Hard Bitch), and Wolfmother, and countless other artists have used it to great effect. With those tangible examples to demonstrate the idea, let’s examine how different artists develop guitar riffs into songs:

AC/DC - Back In Black (Official Video)

Write/Develop the Counterpoint

Identify (and establish) the key of the song and develop a counterpoint. Your guitar riff is primarily a melody. It will act as the first line of a vocal ‘counterpoint’.

Counterpoints, in a musical context, are the interplay between two voices (or musical lines) with independent rhythm but interdependent harmony. In simple words, write a good vocal melody that goes along with your riff.

In my opinion, this should always be the first step as it’s more productive than other ways to approach composition. Vocals establish the idea you want to convey and frame the emotional and thematic parts of the song. This will feed the creative process.

Explore and Expand

Even the most interesting riffs can get monotonous after a few measures. So, you have a clear agenda for the second step – chalk out more parts of the song. First, record the riff over a drum beat and toy around or experiment with it to record the variations.

If you have a DAW (and the ability to use it), open a new project and set markers for each section. Copy the parts you’ve identified without worry about perfection or cosmetic elements.

Start with a simple skeleton and add different elements for subtractive editing i.e. parts that you can add/remove to simplify or complicate a section. , Once you have the guitar parts down. You can either write a chord progression for the pre-chorus or chorus or new vocal melodies.

If you want to use the riff as a centerpiece, change the vocal melody to keep it interesting.  For example, play the riff a whole step higher to give it a burst of energy for the next section (Metallica did this in Enter Sandman).

Use Textures

Let’s continue with Another one bites the dust.  Notice the flanged feedback swells, guitar panning, and that little variation at (1:42) where a guitar chimes in momentarily. These occasional additions and changes in textures will keep things interesting.

The chorus of the song, for instance, features choppy chords with a bright crunch. It drives the song, which beautifully contrasts the ‘in the pocket’ sound of the verse. These elements demonstrate how textures and layers can help you in your songwriting.

Dynamics

A face-melting riffs is fantastic, but don’t blindside the importance of dynamics, especially silence. In Beating around the bush, AC/DC teases you with a toned down intro riff that lingers for a hot second before it gradual shifts gear into head banging territory.

They continue to toggle the guitars on/off through the verse to build contrast before they move to sustained chords for the chorus. Of course, Angus Young (and the whole crew) is a study in riff-based songs.

Variations

Variations demand new melodies or harmonies. Instead, they ask you to reimagine or dress up the same musical idea in slight different ways. For instance, you can harmonize a part of the riff with a pitch-shifter or second guitar.

Or have the bass guitar play it while you shift to powerchords. You can also use a palm-muted version with restrained drums or go blow-out mode with doubled guitars and a beat that goes ham on the crash.

Here are a few songs you that use what I call the ‘centerpiece approach’. You can study how these artists have crafted songs around a riff and identify the songwriting elements they use. You might be surprised by the commonality.

  1. AC/DC – Beating around the bush
  2. ZZTop – La Grange
  3. John Lee Hooker – Boom Boom Boom
  4. Cream – Sunshine of your love
  5. Steppanwolf – Born to be Wild
  6. Jimmy Hendrix – Voodoo Child
  7. Led Zeppelin – Heartbreaker
  8. Pearl Jam – Animal
  9. Black Sabbath – N.I.B
ZZ Top - La Grange (Live From Gruene Hall)

Composing with Guitar Riffs: The Broad Harmonic Approach

The second approach is to use the riff as a hook but to couple it with other interesting sections. This style of composing is more prominent in non-metal genres, although there sufficient examples of each type across the board.

A simple example of this would be Thin Lizzy’s Whiskey in the jar or Sweet child o’ mine by Guns n’ Roses. Eric Clapton’s Layla takes it up a notch with an iconic riff and the very unexpected chord change as he moves into the verse.

If the first approach is more rhythmic, the second could be seen as more harmonic. However, we won’t deep dive into that in this post as it’s overlaps with music theory, which is a vast subject.

Essential tools to help you with your songwriting

  • A Looper Pedal
  • A drum machine
  • A recording set (computer and DAW)
  • Good ol’ pen and paper

A looper pedal is to explore and expand the riff or just jam over it to test out ideas. The TC Electronics Ditto Looper and Boss RC-10 are good options. You can also find more expensive full-featured “loopstation” at a higher price point if the functionality appeals to you.

A DAW can achieve everything a looper pedal does, but it involves a bigger learning curve to deal with.  Plus, it will tie you down to more expenses because it needs additional equipment such as an audio interface, extra cables, and PC or laptop.

It is a committed decision, but it pulls its weight in the long run.

Final Thoughts

I hope these insights will be useful in getting you started. If you are new, I avocate keeping it simple. You didn’t start shredding on day one, you built up to it. Use the same patience for songwriting. It is an equally upright art form that needs time and practice.

There will be times when you feel stuck. Don’t feel obliged to finish a song just for the sake of it. Just take a break and return to the song after a few days. It can take weeks or months to create a memorable song. Heck, Ozzy took years to finish Mama, I’m coming home.

Martin Holland

Growing up in rural Australia, there wasn't much to do but play guitar and stare at the red dirt. When things broke, the only person to fix them was fifty miles away, and eventually fixing gave way to building, giving me my career as a luthier. I wouldn't have it any other way.

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