One of the greatest challenges of writing metal songs is not knowing where to start. If you’re like me, you probably have a library full of meal riffs sitting in your DAW or recorded somewhere. You may even have some ideas for metal lyrics written down somewhere.
Fear not, for now you have a complete metal songwriting guide. This is a step-by-step workflow that will help you keep moving throughout your songwriting process. It will also help simplify your songwriting process, keep you focused on what’s most important, and help you blast through those sticking points we all have as songwriters.
In addition since we all have some sort of home studio setup, we’re going to go through this process using our DAW. If you need to learn more about creating your small home studio, read this first: Home Studio Basics for Beginners.
***There’s also a video-version of this post at the end of this post.
The Initial Riff
It’s safe to say that most metal songs start with a guitar riff. In fact oftentimes that initial riff ends up being ‘the riff’ that the song is known for. Or that riff will lead you to another part of the song that makes is iconic.
Either way, the first thing that you want to do is make sure you don’t lose that riff. How many times have you come up with an amazing riff only to be forgotten later? And as you know, once it’s gone, well, it’s gone. Forever. Never to be heard again or summoned again!
So it makes sense to capture that riff as soon as possible. This may sound like an elementary first-step but it’s a crucial one.
Here’s what you do:
- Open up your DAW and record that riff…now!
- If you don’t have access to your studio, pull out your phone and record yourself playing the riff
- If it’s a riff or melody in your head but you don’t have your guitar with you, record yourself humming the melody on your phone (or just sing some random words; they don’t have to make sense as you’re just wanting to capture that melody)
The same goes for lyrics. If you have some lyrics brewing in your head, write those babies down. And if you have a melody to go with it, record it…now!
***If you want to jump ahead and find out how to bring that deeper level of your own creativity, check out our complete metal songwriting course here: Metal Songwriter’s Forge
Tempo and Beat
Once you have that initial riff or piece of music recorded in your DAW, it’s a good idea to start establishing a tempo for it. This doesn’t mean you have to call your drummer over (or start programming drums). But you want to get a basic idea of the BPM (beats-per-minute) as this will help the rest of the songwriting process go a little smoother.
The first thing you can do is simply start playing around with the BPM in your DAW. If you’re not familiar with where this is, of course, look at your DAW’s manual (or search on Google or YouTube).
In my case, I’m using Presonus Studio One and the BPM can be adjusted at the bottom of the screen. You can turn that on, click play, and just start playing your riff. Keep adjusting the BPM until you have something that fits your riff.
At this point, it’s a good idea to bring in some sort of drum track. I personally find it’s more inspiring to play along with and write to a drum track than a click track.
TIP: Get a drum program that has options or additional tools for metal drums. Toontrack’s EZ Drummer and Superior Drummer have add-ons for this. And there are plenty of other drum programs.
Even if you’re not using programmed drums for your song or album (I encourage you to use a real drummer whether it’s your drummer or hiring a drummer). Again, the programmed drums or just to build the foundation of your song.
Here are the next steps for nailing down a tempo so that you can build on your riff (which we’ll cover in the next section):
- Set your BPM to what you think it should be and continue playing your riff as you adjust
- Once you find a BPM you like, consider opening a track in your DAW for drums
- Find a loop that fits that BPM and drag that into your DAW
- Re-record your riff to that drum loop
Now you’re really starting to make progress and things are already coming together. It’s time to expand on your idea.
Extending Riffs and Progressions
One quick thing that can help you expand on your initial riff is to assess the key that riff is in. For example, let’s say the dominant key of your riff is in E minor. From here, you can start playing around with the chords and other notes within that key (E minor, A minor, B minor, C, D).
You can play out the entire chords or play those notes as power chords. And mess around with those single notes, as well. Just going through the motions of this can spark more creative ideas.
***This where knowing your basic major and minor scales can help. For more on theory, check out our course Metal Music Theory.
Something else that may help is to acknowledge that your entire song doesn’t have to be filled with complex guitar riffs. You may have one amazing riff that’s catchy but it may be a simple power chord progression that drives the song can captivates the listener.
Also, try playing that riff in a different key and see how that sounds. Likewise, go through the same process of playing the chords (or power chords) and notes within that additional key. This strategy can be the beginning of what takes your song to that next level.
As you’re extending your song with more riffs and progressions, let’s revisit the BPM and possibility of adding more drum loops to continue the songwriting process. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- You can take the one loop you added and just expand that add (copy/paste) for 3-4 minutes. This is a convenient method. Remember, you’re not looking to write the drums for the song; this is just to have a more inspirational sound to create with.
- Or you can play around with using different loops (unique beats for the different parts of your song). This extra yet not time-consuming step can really bring out more ideas for those parts (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.).
- If you have a drummer that’s available to write the song with you, it’s certainly in your best interest to utilize them during this process (instead of a drum program).
- If you don’t have a drummer (or close access to one), the drum program can be something to provide the real drummer you end up using as a guide. However, I recommend giving them the creative freedom to play what they feel sounds best. They’re the drummer, not you (unless you’re a drummer reading this!).
Lyrics and Vocal Melodies
As you’re building your song with riffs and progressions, it’s likely that lyrics and vocal melodies will start to form in your head. Of course, you’ll want to get these thoughts recorded immediately as well.
You can essentially use the above process we talked about with recording your initial riff and extended those riffs into more riffs or progressions. In other words, add a new track in your DAW for vocals and record those lyrics and melodies as you go through this process.
And you don’t necessarily have to wait until the guitar ideas or completed before recording your vocal ideas. If those lyrics and melodies are coming to you in the middle of writing riffs, by all means, record them.
Don’t wait. Because those vocal melodies are just like riffs; if you don’t get them down somewhere, they will vanish into the abyss of unwritten melodies and songs.
TIP: If you’re the singer and guitarist, I strongly recommend to make sure you can sing and play the parts at the same time before recording your final takes. I’ve made this mistake in the past (recording the music first, then going back and recording vocals over it without having played and sang it together). This is crucial if you plan to play your song live. And I always recommend going into songwriting as if you were going to play it live.
That said, you may find that your workflow is smoother if you write riffs, progressions, and lyrics and vocal melodies together. Though there’s nothing wrong with nailing down the music and guitar first, either. On that note (no pun intended), there’s no right or wrong way to approach songwriting. This is just a process flow and guide to help you find what works best for you.
***Also, check out our complete metal songwriting course here: Metal Songwriter’s Forge
Now is a good time to start adding the bass track to your song. Keep in mind that if you are (or you have) a really awesome bass player, this could very well inspire some changes to the riffs and overall song. So be open to changes. Remember, you’re in the writing phase.
Ideally, having the drummer and the bass player help write the song or at least be present during the process (before the guitar parts are finalized) will be helpful. Drums and bass are the foundation of your song. It’s the backbone and needs to be tight and strong.
However, it’s not always possible to have a bass player at every opportune moment. But you at least want to start getting some ideas down for generic baselines, if nothing else.
Having that bottom end as you’re writing your song can also inspire changes to the guitar parts and even the vocals. You may hear certain parts in the drums where you want to change things or share more ideas with your drummer.
TIP: If you’re a guitar player, you more than likely have the ability to record a simple bass track. If not, and you have a bass player, try to involve them in the process as early as possible once you get to the point where the initial rhythm guitars have been recorded.
As with your drummer, it’s best to grant your bassist the creative freedom to run with it. A great example is the Tampa-based metal band Siren. They hired Rich Gray (Aeon Zen, Annihilator) to record the bass tracks for their 2023 album ‘A Mercenary’s Fate.’
They gave him the freedom and the outcome was phenomenal (I was personally blown away by his bass playing on that album and had the luxury of hearing the pre-mixed versions, too!).
Guitar Solos and Accompanying Instruments
Unless it’s an instrumental song or album, the guitar solos typically come in towards the end (as well as the final vocal recording). Again, this is the songwriting process, not the final recording and mixing process.
It’s a little easier to record your guitar solo ideas to a semi-finished track with rhythms, bass, and drums. These are the parts that inspire the solos (whether guitar or keyboard solo).
It’s no secret that lead guitarists can be picky as to what they keep and overthink the process of writing guitar solos. It would be ideal to have a guitarist that could lay down as awesome solo on the first take. But that’s just not realistic in most cases.
This is another reason to have the initial rhythms polished with bass and drums (having this may greatly reduce the amount of solo takes).
***Again, the same goes for recording vocals; the foundation of your song should be solid before recording the final vocal tracks.
This phase of your songwriting process is also a great time to add other accompanying instruments such as keys or ambient guitar parts (or anything you want to add where you feel like something is missing). These are those pieces that can sometimes go unacknowledged but they can add so much depth to your music.
Songwriting Process Flow Guide Recap
Below is a quick recap of this metal songwriting workflow and process guide:
- Capturing the initial riff in your DAW
- Tempo, BPM, and potentially adding programmed drums for the writing process
- Extending your riffs and building progressions for the rhythm guitars
- Writing lyrics and vocal melodies (and trying the into the rhythms)
- Adding the bass guitar ideas
- Guitar solos and accompanying instruments
***Also, learn how Metal Mastermind can help you bring out a deeper level of your own creativity in your music and songwriting with Metal Songwriter’s Forge
VIDEO: Complete Metal Songwriting Process Guide
What Happens Next
I hope this metal songwriting process and workflow guide helped you. Remember, you can also bookmark this page and save i in your favorites as you may want to refer to this guide each time you start writing a new song or album.
If you would like to go deeper and get more insight to bring out more of your creativity in your music, take a look at our complete metal songwriting course here: Metal Songwriter’s Forge
Metal Songwriter’s Forge takes you through every piece of writing your own music showing you multiple ways to expand your riffs, progressions, and lyrics to come up with metal music that is original and highlights your true signature style and sound.
Click Here to learn more about Metal Songwriter’s Forge.
Create Your Own Sound,
P.S. If you already have Metal Songwriter’s Forge, your next natural step would be to mix your song. For that, check out this course: Metal Producer Overlord