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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Caught in a Mosh

May 6, 2008

Dear Dude,

What should I do if I’m in a situation where the other guitarist in my band and the drummer present a new riff and I think it fuck’n blows? It’s like a ton of random notes, not appealing sounding at all, and definitely not catchy or melodic, which is what we are going for. I tried to say I didn’t like it but they keep saying WE LIKE IT. Seriously it doesn’t even go with our music at all!

Thanks,
Caught in a Mosh

Dear Caught in a Mosh,

Inter-band politics and song writing is something you almost can never get away from. Music is art and art is expression. It’s not unreasonable for someone to get emotional about his or her music. No matter what type of band scenario you’re in, you’re probably going to have to deal with something like this. So don’t fear it. This kind of tension is what writing music is all about, and it’s from this tension great riffs, songs, and records have been made. Its not easy for most people and even some of the biggest and sickest bands go through this all the time.

The first thing you need to do is search yourself. Do you really not like the riff/song idea or is there something else going on? Being in a band can be like being in perpetual high school. There are all sorts of little inter-band dynamics that can cloud both your and your band members’ judgments. So make sure you are pure at heart, and not thinking from that place in your brain that is still pissed cause the other guitar player can play the solo to Crazy Train better than you.

Next, ask is there something I can change in a slight way to make this riff not only more smoken’, but also more me? I have noticed that when this problem usually occurs the dude who thinks the riff sucks, doesn’t like the fact that there is none of his own ideas in the riff. It can be rough justice to face, but sadly, often true. Maybe add some sort of harmony, maybe you don’t like the chord progression, or maybe the riff should be faster or slower. Chances are if you are all into the same bands and clear about what type of band you’re in, there should be a way to tweak it and make it better.

Ok, what if the riff/song idea in question really does suck. In that case, what do you do when you’re presented a riff that “blows?” It’s important to be tactful, respectful, and most of all clear as to what you think is not working. When you’re working in a group situation you have to be able to work with other people, so make sure you hone in on what doesn’t work for you. That way you can work as a team to make the idea grow, or explore other options. A common misconception is that you have to make all these decisions right away. It may not hit you right away what isn’t working, so don’t be afraid to take your time while you’re writing. This doesn’t mean never commit, it just means if you need some time to come up with the critical feedback that is going to help push the song, that’s ok. So maybe keep the riff in the song as a placeholder just remember not to let it sit there too long. Bands often times don’t like change because it involves more work.

Its important to remember a band is a team, a gang, and a collective of individual voices singing together. You need those band mates and they need you. Who knows how many bad riffs I would have pushed forward if it weren’t for my band mates. Work together and find a way to communicate with your fellow bros. No one wants to be in a band with people who are unhappy with the music they are playing. No one wants to be in a band where the members are afraid to say they don’t like something. No one wants to be in a band that isn’t honest and real to what it is. So keep your band honest, communicate clearly, and be willing to share the burden of song writing. I promise it will be worth it for everyone involved when you write that first kick as song.

The Dude


Writer’s Block

April 4, 2008

DEAR DUDE,

What do you when you hit a wall in writing music? What do you do to get over obstacles or hard times writing stuff? I mean, you just can’t fill gaps and be good? So how do you do it?

Thanks,
Writer’s Block


Dear Writer’s Block,

Every time I finish a record I just look at the fret board and think, “that’s it!, there are no more possible combinations of notes, I will never be able to write another riff”. Then sure enough a month or two later I’ll have the guitar on, it will come to me, and a new riff is born. It’s then that I am reminded there are millions of sick riffs out there waiting to be rocked! Keeping that spirit in mind there are 5 rules I follow that always help get me back in the game. Now they may not be the best for you and are definitely not the only ways to fight off writers block but, they have all proven to work for me time and time again:

Rule 1: KEEP TRYING. Riffs, songs, parts, solos, none of them are going to write themselves. So the first rule is crucial. You have to put the guitar on (or whatever you decide to write with) and go to it.

Rule 2: TRY TO KEEP YOUR MIND OPEN. The best way for me to do this is to try different tunings, different time signatures, and tempos. I write in E, Standard, Drop D, Drop C, Open C, B Standard. All those tunings force me to play different patters, note choices, and it changes up the entire sound of the guitar. When I find something I like I see if I can move it to Drop C (which is the standard tuning my band normally uses). If I can’t move it because the shapes are too hard or it just doesn’t sound the same (or better) then I try to write a few more riffs or themes in that tuning. If I can do that, well then a song is born with a different tuning. Its important here not to go crazy. I mean the idea is to trick your hands into playing something you wouldn’t normally stumble on to. You don’t want to have 300 songs in different tunings because live that is going to be just insane to deal with.

Rule 3: FIND INSPIRATION OUTSIDE YOUR GENRE. Its always good to look outside your genre. I hear things all the time in pop, rock, hip hop, hell, even ambient noise music, that sound like cool ideas to incorporate. Its just important to really listen to music you like. Maybe you hear a chord change, maybe you hear a quiet part get loud a certain way. The goal is not to copy it, it’s to find inspiration and use your mind to give it your own interpretation.

Rule 4: DOCUMENT EVERYTHING. I am constantly recording demos, riffs and songs all the time. I have a way to do it on the road, at home, even in the bathroom. See, a good idea can come anywhere and sometimes you have an ok idea and with fresh ears it turns into an amazing one. It’s important to be able to write something and then get emotional distance, that way you can really tell if it’s good or not.

Rule 5: TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. There is nothing more lame then an artist that doesn’t do this. It doesn’t mean you always have to change songs and riffs around a million times in order to make a riff rip! It also doesn’t mean write a riff and stand by it to no exception. It actually means find a moderation of the two. When something feels right it is; when it doesn’t feel right it isn’t.

Writers block isn’t easy, its actually fairly common and usually strikes all of us at some point. But it can also be the beginning of an amazing song. Its from that point of nothing that something is born and as long as you are willing to try, keep an open mind, listen to the music around you, document everything, and trust your instincts those magic riffs will come a flowin’!

THE DUDE