Problems Writing Guitar Riffs

Problems Writing Guitar Riffs

When writing guitar riffs by yourself, often alone in your house, they can all sound a little "flat" and uninspiring. Like everything you write is, well, boring! It is such a common problem that musicians have mentioned to me that I thought I would write a short post explaining a few reasons why this is.

Firstly, when you write a guitar riff all you do is create a layer of the song. It is unlikely that the solo guitar will comprise of all the music of that song, so the textures of your guitar riff will play off against the drum beats, bass lines and vocal melodies that all the other band members bring to the mix. Indeed, take a listen to the above video for the RHCP album Stadium Arcadium with everything stripped away apart from John Frusciante's guitar parts. When listening to Dani California it certainly sounds a little uninteresting compared to the full mix, lets be honest, how many of us would have (if we could!) discarded any one of those riffs when writing guitar parts at home because they were too straight forward or boring.

Secondly, music isn't really meant to be written by one person at all - it is the interaction of different musicians that make something special about it. Something that cannot be replicated by another band, or even the same band when a new member is brought in to replace another. If you can always write your riffs with the bass player, drummer or almost anyone to bounce ideas off.

Thirdly, don't be too critical - no one expects you to write the next rock anthem within the next five minutes. Few successful bands actual go in thinking, "right, lets produce genius riffs", more often they think "wait that sounds cool, what can we add to that to make it better". I remember when Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys was explaining how they came up with the opening riff for I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefoor and he simply started playing along with Matt Helders who had come up with an up tempo drum beat. The song grew from that! A beat, a sound, one chord change that sounds cool is often all you need as the spark to write a really good song.

Finally, it won't come out sounding like the final recorded version the first time you play it as a band. Don't expect it too - there are so many tricks in the studio and the mixing is crucial in terms of making the song sound completely different, either way you won't get the polished sound first time out. Have a listen to the development of Smells Like Teen Spirit as an example of how a song can develop from rehearsals, to live, to the raw recording then finally the album released version that we all try to copy on our guitars at home!

Below is Nirvana's first performance of Smells Like Teen Spirit on the April 17th, 1991 Nirvana played at Seattle's OK Hotel. You might pick out the "I'm a liar and I'm famous, Here we are now, entertain us" lyrics in the chorus, as well as the different verses to the Nevermind version.

Below is Butch Vig, who famously recorded the Nevermind album, talking about the techniques that Nirvana used in the studio to create the final version and how he wanted to keep the guitar feedback in the background of the final mix.

And finally the final version as heard on the album! As meantioned this sound is almost unattainable to create at home by yourself as a single guitarist so don't beat yourself up if you can't make it 100% - even Kurt Cobain couldn't outside the studio! If you don't believe me have a listen to Nirvana play it live post 1991.

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