Riff Writer

June 23, 2008

Dear Dude,

I’ve been playing guitar for almost two years now and have developed a very solid technique in the short time I have been playing. I practice at least 3 hours a day anywhere between 4 to 5 days a week and I’ve taught myself almost everything and have only had a few professional lessons. I’ve hit a road block where I want to be writing more technical songs with soloing, using different scales and modes to create riffs and solid lines. I’m good with working within the major and minor scales but my knowledge is limited to those and I feel like if I had a better knowledge of other scales and theory I could be writing really complex guitar. A good example would be the guitar work from some of the songs you wrote for darkest hour like Deliver Us, With a Thousand Words to Say But One, and This Will Outlive Us.

The problem, I suppose, is that I just don’t know enough theory, scales and modes and how they all work together. So, without taking lessons what do you suggest would be the best way for me to learn how to solo and write really unique riffs, and how did you learn these advanced concepts yourself?

Thanks,
Riff Writer

Dear Riff Writer,

There is a tendency amongst musicians, guitarists especially, to equate learning music to some sort of science. Since a lot about learning how to play the guitar can be attributed to muscle memory, there is often a push to look at all things associated with guitar in the same way. Shit, if you can learn to shred up the neck in a hundred different modes and chord progressions, and play Abduction by Steeler, or Eruption by Van Halen, then you should be able to grasp advanced song writing concepts and write a kick ass song, right? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Studying music theory may help you come up with some unique idea’s for riffs and chord changes but in my experience it is not really going to help you come up with kick ass songs, and that’s the real goal. So, the true question is, what is the best way to teach yourself the advanced concepts of songwriting and song structuring so you can write more technical and interesting music?

Look, there is no distinct path to teaching yourself how to write a song or complex riffs. You ask how long it took me to learn these advanced concepts? My answer is that I feel I’m forever in the process of learning, and that until a few years ago I never even really worked at getting better at writing. For me, songwriting came naturally and organically so I didn’t spend much time thinking about it the first 8 or 9 years I played guitar. Don’t be discouraged if this is not the case for you, just because it doesn’t come naturally that doesn’t mean you can’t write amazing songs.

First of all, you are thinking about songs in form of scales, keys, modes etc. I don’t think about songs, or riffs, in these ways. I think about songs in how the riffs form around each other, how they transition from one to another, and lastly how they work to form a skeleton of a song. On all the Darkest Hour songs you mention the mindset behind writing them was not based on what key or mode they were in. In fact if you listen to A Thousand Words to Say But One the chord progression is the same almost the whole song.

Whenever I walk into a room and work with a metal band for the first time I usually think of the songs first as riff libraries. To me, metal is mostly about the flow from riff to riff. Usually, any riff of a metal song can be the chorus or the verse, depending on the vocals. There are many times I write a Darkest Hour song only to have John put the chorus over my intended verse and the verse over my intended chorus, but it still works because with metal you can always bend the rules.

When Darkest Hour is writing a song we usually start with a few riffs, and then determine how many times each riff needs to repeat before we switch to the next riff. Then we count the number of times each riff is played in our heads so we all understand the skeleton of the song. I usually have to do this process the first few times we play a finished song all the way through in order to remember it. If you want to use this technique in writing your own music, a good exercise is to listen to songs you love and chart them out in this way. For instance here is the structure for Hot for Teacher by Van Halen, charted out the same way we chart Darkest Hour songs when we are writing them:

Drum Intro: X6
Guitar Intro: X 4
Riff A (intro/): x 1 1/2
Riff B (Quiet Pre Verse) X 4
Riff C (Loud Verse) X 6 (VOCAL IN AFTER 2)
Pre Chorus X 2
Tag X 1
Chorus X 4
Riff B (Quiet Pre Verse) X 4
Riff C (Loud Verse) X 6 (VOCAL IN AFTER 2)
Pre Chorus X 2
Tag X 1
Chorus X 4
Solo Break X 9 Times
Riff B (Quiet Pre Verse) X 4
Chorus X 4
Outro X 3
Rock End X 2

The above structure could be applied to any metal song and work well. Notice how and when the parts repeat, and notice how each parts changes a little when it is repeated. Now, please don’t think that I am suggesting you copy songs from other bands, I am only suggesting you take inspiration from artists you love. Look at how their songs are mapped out and translate that into something that is your own. Once you begin seeing your songs more like a string of riffs rather then a flow of chord progressions it will be easier for you to see the structure. I promise the more you work at this the better you will get. It’s like a creative muscle you always have to be flexing and working out in order for it to grow and thrive.

THE DUDE

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