by Metal Mastermind

August 31, 2021

how to turn metal riffs into songs

Are you frustrated over the number of metal riffs you write compared to the number of songs you have? It’s time to change that!

In this post, you’re going to learn our 7-step strategy for turning your riffs into songs.

Here’s an overview of the 7 steps:

  1. Establish the nature of your riff
  2. Determine the primary key you’re riff is in
  3. Assess the notes within that key
  4. Choose 2-3 of those notes to expand on your riff
  5. Create the cadence
  6. Consider using more metal (guitar) techniques for this piece of music
  7. Continue building out your song by repeating steps 1-6 (ex: verse, chorus, bridge, etc.)

These steps will serve as a roadmap to guide you through turning your metal riff into a complete song. It will also greatly help you overcome things like songwriter’s block and not being able to connect riffs ad parts of music.

Are you ready to get started?

Video Riff-to-Song Lesson

1 – Establish the Nature of Your Riff

First, you’ll want to establish the nature of your riff. This is going to help you as you write the rest of the song, both musically and lyrically.

What are some of the feelings you get when you play this riff? Write these down.

Here are some examples:

  • Is your riff aggressive?
  • Is it melodic?
  • Does your riff have a sad or depressing vibe?
  • Do you feel empowered when you play this riff?
  • Is your riff energetic?

Write these feelings and emotions down (ex: aggression, melodic, sad, etc.). This is something you’ll refer to throughout this process.

2 – Determine the Key of Your Riff

Next, determine the key that your riff is in. This is going to help to build your song by easily adding other notes and chords to make your riff a progression.

There’s a simple way to do this:

  1. What’s the first note of your riff? That will be your answer more than often.
  2. If you’re having trouble determining the key, pay close attention to the last note of your riff.

Chances are it will be that first note. If it’s not the first or final note of your riff, you’ll need to dig deeper into the notes within your riff and compare those notes to a key chart (which you’ll see in the next step, #3).

3 – Assess the Notes in Your Riff’s Key

At this point, you need to assess the notes that are in the main key that your riff is in. These are the notes that you’re going to work with to start building out your song, or at least this part of the song.

In the video above, I gave you an example in the key of E minor. Of course, this is a typical key for playing metal (when in standard tuning; however, the notes on the guitar are relevant for any tuning as metal guitarists tend to go for those lowest notes possible).

You don’t need to be a scholar of music theory to figure this out. But music theory will indeed help you. And you’re learning some theory right now, by default.

To make the songwriting process easier, here’s a reference for notes in the most commonly used keys for metal music:

KeyNotes (and Chords) in Key
E minorE (Em), F# (F#m), G, A (Am), B (Bm), C, D
A minorA (Am), B (Bm), C, D, E (Em), F, G
B minorB (Bm), C# (C#m), D, E, F# (F#m), G, A
D minorD (Dm), E (Em), F, G, A (Am), Bb, C
G majorG, A (Am), B (Bm), C, D, E (Em), F# (F#m)
D majorD, E (Em), F# (F#m), G, A, B (Bm), C# (C#m)
C majorC, D (Dm), E (Em), F, G, A (Am), B (Bm)
F majorF, G (Gm), A (Am), Bb, C, D (Dm)

You’ll notice that these consist of the notes and the chords. Here’s a simple explanation of the chords in majors and minors:

  • Major keys: Major, minor, minor, major, major, minor
  • Minor keys: Minor, minor, major, minor, minor, major, major

When playing metal, specifically metal guitar, power chords are used. In that case, it doesn’t matter if the chord is a major or minor (the root and 5th notes that make up a power chord are the same in both cases). So you would just revert to the notes in that key.

However, you may also want to integrate full or partial chords in a progression. So it’s important to know what those chords are in relation to the key you’re in.

***With metal music, it’s common to ‘break the rules.’ For example, you may be in the key of E minor but play F or Bb as part of the progression. This is what gives metal that edgy sound and tone.

4 – Choose 2-3 of Those Notes to Expand With

This is where the real fun begins. It’s also where the songwriting process starts.

Knowing the key of your riff and the notes that key consists of, you’re got an arsenal of possibilities. Let’s say your riff is in the key of E minor. You have the notes F#, G, A, B, C, and D to add to your riff. And you can arrange and combine those notes in several ways, however you please.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Start by just choosing 2-3 notes (or chords) to add to your riff.
  • You can always add more later. But that’s a good start.
  • The goal is to promote movement. You don’t want to get overwhelmed or frustrated.

Obviously, if you’re a seasoned musician and songwriter, feel free to add more notes and possibilities.

This alone will give you a solid foundation for a progression for your song. That means you just turned your riff into what could be a verse or chorus, or bridge, etc.

5 – Create a Cadence with Your Riff and the Notes Chosen

As you’re going through step #4, you’ll also want to think about the cadence of your new piece of music. This is what makes it an actual song; the melody.

It’s a good idea to consider recording your ideas as you’re writing the music. With that, you may want to play along with (while recording) a drum loop or program. This can really help you develop that cadence.

Now, you don’t have to use a drum program for this. You can certainly come up with a cadence for your song or progression without it. But it can certainly help.

***This is not suggesting that you use fake drums to release your song (hire a real drummer for that!). This is just the writing process and these are tools you can use to assist.

6 – Consider Integrating More Metal Techniques

This step is optional but I highly suggest that you at least entertain it. There’s also a chance that you covered this during steps #4 and #5.

But go back through your riff with the added notes/chords and see if there are opportunities to make it more metal!

Here are a few ways you can do this:

  • Add some or more palm muting
  • Use different variations of some of all of the power chords
  • Try different picking techniques in certain parts of the riff and progression, such as galloping

Again, this step isn’t absolutely necessary.

In fact, your new riff and progression may call for you to just let those power chords ring out. If that’s the case, you may even decide to do the opposite and make the riff or progression less complicated by removing techniques that you originally added

At the end of the day, you want to always do what’s best for the song. Going through this step will help you better assess that.

7 – Continue to Build Your Song

The final step is to repeat this process (1-6)!

Going through this with your initial riff gives you a vital part of your song. But you want to continue building your song by repeating this process.

You can pull in another riff that you’ve written. Or maybe the next piece of music isn’t based on a riff; maybe it’s just a series of chords. Or you may be inspired to write a new riff based on the experience you had going through these steps.

The more you go through this process the easier it will become. It doesn’t mean that you won’t hit a wall here and there. That happens to all of us musicians and songwriters.

But it will take a lot of the guesswork out and make the process a smoother one. It will also grant you more opportunities to expand on your metal riffs and make them into complete songs.

NEXT STEP: Be sure to download our free songwriting guide: 10 Secrets of Writing Original Metal Songs

Horns up,

Jason Stallworth & Ken Candelas
Metal Mastermind

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