What makes a good riff?

Whether you call it a riff, hook, lick or lead line, the ‘riff’ is arguably the most important aspect of guitar. A ‘riff’ is a succession of notes played on guitar to create the main melody of a song. But what defines a riff? What makes one stand out from the other and why are some so popular?

Posted: 9 June 2020

Firstly, we need to understand the basic principles of melody. Most melodic phrases will be notes taken from a scale that is in the key of the song. Firstly, pick your key, and then play within your relevant scale. If you need a little help to do this you can find more on scales and chord progressions as part of our Making Music With Marshall series.

Keep it simple

Although this isn’t true all of the time, a trick to creating a truly memorable riff is to minimise the number of notes. Take ‘The White Stripes - Seven Nation Army’ and every football chant you’ve ever heard for example. A lot of melodies commonly revolve around a succession of pentatonic minor notes played in a unique pattern.

Repetition

One thing you’ll notice with all great riffs and licks is that they are rarely played once. Try creating a succession of notes that can be repeated at least twice, with some variation on the third repetition. The more it’s repeated, the more chance it has of sticking in someone’s head!