May 11

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10 Methods for Writing Metal Riffs and How to Make Your Rhythms Sound More Interesting

By Jason Stallworth

May 11, 2024


Have you ever felt that all of riffs you’re creating sound the same? Or are in on a slump and just can’t seem to come up with new guitar rhythms?

You and I are about to cover some simple methods for writing metal riffs that will immediately help you come up with some awesome and creative metal guitar rhythms. Many of these involve techniques that you already know but I’m going to show you different ways to use them so that your metal riffs sound more interesting.

What Makes a Metal Riff?

Writing Metal Riffs

First, let’s briefly cover what makes a metal riff. As you know, playing this style is different from any other genre of music.

Here are the basic elements of metal guitar techniques:

  • Palm muting
  • Power chords
  • Single note riffs
  • Down picking and alternate picking

Decades ago you could say that metal music has that edge and aggression that sets it apart from riffs of other genres. But with so many metal sub genres, that’s not necessarily true anymore (aka not all metal is aggressive these days).

This is not a bad thing. It simply gives metal guitarists more options and freedom to come up with unique riffs. And that’s what this post is all about.

The one commonality that separates metal riffs, regardless of sub genre, from other genres is the tone. You could argue that the sound of the guitar, or rather the amp, is what makes a metal riff ‘metal.’ As metal heads, we crave high gain – distortion.

***We have guides for dialing in a good metal tone with both amp sims and a real amp below:

Now let’s dive into the 10 methods for writing metal riffs that you can start using to bring that riff to life (don’t throw it away quite yet!).

Also, these concepts can be applied to any tuning or 6, 7, or 8 string guitar. It doesn’t matter. Just use them accordingly.

1 – Assess Your Core Riff

Let’s start with a riff that you’ve already written. We’re going to call this your core riff. This is what you’ll be working with throughout the next nine methods that we cover.

It could be something you wrote yesterday, two years ago, 10 years ago, or this morning. It doesn’t have to necessarily be a ‘good’ riff (although that’s subjective). And it certainly doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it could be a riff that you were thinking about ditching.

Assess your riff by doing the following:

  • What key the riff is in (or the first or dominate chord it’s based on)
  • Picking techniques used (down picking, alternate picking, or a mix of both)
  • Power chords used, if any
  • Single note, if any
  • Tempo of the riff (in general, doesn’t have to be a specific BPM – fast, slow, medium)
  • The sub genre you feel suits this riff best

Now, let’s move on to the next step below.

2 – Play Your Riff in a Different Octave

Chances are, you’re playing around the lowest notes of your guitar. That’s what we metal heads are inclined to do, right?

I want you to play your riff in a different octave. This means you’ll be playing the same notes but in a different place on your fretboard (or whatever instrument you’re writing riffs with).

If your riff is a typical riff played with low notes, this is going to be surprising, maybe a bit awkward, and hopefully refreshing. It may even make the riff slightly more challenging to play, especially if your core riff is played using that first open string.

Here’s an example:

If your core riff starts with the first open string, you’ll instead start on the 7th fret of the next string. That’s the next octave. From there, you’ll figure out where the other notes are played within that octave.

This may have you going back and forth between your core riff and playing it at the higher octave. That alone may bring out some new, creative ideas in your writing.

3 – Play Your Riff in a Different Key

Go back to your original core riff. Similar to playing it in a different octave you’re now going to see (or hear!) what it sounds like in a different key.

You will basically apply the same concept of playing it in a different octave but play it somewhere else on your fretboard; anywhere else.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say your core riff starts with the first open string. Instead, try starting the riff two frets up, which would put your riff in a different key (if your riff was in E minor, you would now be in F sharp minor).

Don’t stop there. Keep experimenting with playing those notes in different places on your instrument. You may find that changing the key gives your song an entirely different sound and feel.

4 – Change the Guitar Picking Technique

Remember, you assessed the picking technique used in your core riff. Let’s say your riff consisted of all downpicking. What if you used alternated picking for one small part of the riff? What does that sound like?

Or maybe your core riff is mainly fast alternate picking, like a thrash metal or death metal style. What would it sound like if you cut those notes in half and played them using down strokes?

Even better, what if you tried using both down picking and alternate picking with your riff? This is something that you can play around with and can really bring a stale riff to life.

5 – Alter the Way You Play the Chords

If your riff has power chords, I want you to try one simple method. Change the 2nd note of one of the power chords you’re playing.

Here’s an example and what to do:

  • Let’s say your riff has a G power chord
  • That power chord (in E standard tuning) is the 1st string, 3rd fret and 2nd string, 5th fret
  • Change that 2nd note (on the 2nd string, in this case) from the 5th fret to the 3rd fret. This means you would bar the 3rd frets of both strings.
  • Now try changing that 2nd note to the 2nd fret, almost as if you were playing a regualr G chord, but just playing those two notes.

Don’t stop there. Keep trying this method with different power chords and also continue expanding with different notes. Sometimes you may change it to a note that doesn’t sound like it fits. So try the next one. Or, even better, that weird may actually fit better for more obscure types of metal.

6 – Change the Tempo of the Riff

If you find yourself in the rut of every riff sounding too similar, changing the tempo can do wonders with your metal riff writing. A simple approach is to either play your core riff faster or slow it down.

You don’t necessarily need the actual tempo. Most of the time when we’re writing music, we’re just playing riffs on our guitar.

But if you want to take it a step further, record your core riff in your DAW and play around with different tempo settings. You can also add a drum track or loop from a drum program. This can bring out more inspiration for creating metal rhythms (and complete songs).

7 – Add More Notes to the Riff

You’ve heard the saying that ‘less is more.’ But sometimes ‘more is more.’
I recall Yngwie Malmsteen rebutting his critics with this who have told him that less is more!

Assess your core riff and see where you can add more notes. Maybe start by just adding one or two more notes. The goal isn’t to make the riff more complicated to play but rather to make it sound more captivating. Sometimes adding more notes can do that.

8 – Simplify the Riff

In contrast to adding more notes, try simplifying the riff by taking away note. You can also change the picking pattern or how many times you play certain notes.

Here are a few ways you can try simplifying your metal riff:

  • If your riff has single notes, takes those out and replace them with power chords.
  • Cut the single notes in half.
  • If your chugging away on a power chord, try picking that chord once and letting it ring out.
  • Simplify any fast picking patterns by cutting those in half or letting those notes ring out more

You take one of these strategies or combine them. These are just some things to try to see if it brings your riff to life. You could end up writing a doom metal song or metal power ballad. Who knows? At the end of the day, it’s your song.

9 – Try Different Guitar Techniques Based on Different Sub Genres of Metal

If you want to make your riff sound more interesting try applying guitar techniques based on different metal sub genres. For example, if your core riff is sounds like a thrash metal riff, try adding techniques that you hear in death metal riffs. How does that sound?

Or maybe you have a melodic death metal riff that you wrote but you’re not happy with it. Try integrating more of a classic heavy metal technique to that riff.

Here are some prominent techniques based on different sub genres of metal that you can apply to your riff:

  • Classic Heavy Metal – power chords, simple riffs, and down picking
  • Thrash Metal – faster down picking, some alternate picking, and palm muting
  • Death Metal – fast alternate picking (tremolo picking) and aggressive progressions
  • Power Metal – power chords that ring out, fast alternate picking, and chord progressions in major keys
  • Black Metal – obscure progressions and note choices, tremolo picking, and chord variations
  • Symphonic Metal – riffs and progressions that fit or compliment larger orchestrations

You don’t necessarily need to apply all of these sub genre-based techniques to your riff. But playing around with some of these can help when you’re writing your own metal riffs.

10 – Write Lyrics for the Riff

Your riff could take on a new life of its own when you start adding lyrics and vocal melodies. This can help with placement of certain notes and approach to chord progressions.

When it comes to writing metal riffs, you want to the riff to serve the song and not just be a riff. Because lyrics and vocals are such a dominating part of any song, when you start adding vocals you’ll start to think of your riffs differently in certain parts.

Here are some things to consider when writing both riffs and vocal parts:

  • You may want to simplify your riff when you want the vocals highlighted more (such as a chorus).
  • You may also consider this when you want other instruments up front and center, like a guitar or bass solo.
  • You may want the riff to follow the vocal melody in some parts. This could mean simplifying or even adding more notes to your riff like we talked about.
  • You may want a more aggressive style riff if the riff needs to highlight that emotion from the lyrics.
  • Apply the above method to any emotion based on the lyrics.

These aren’t hard-coded truths or rules by any means. They’re just things to think about as you go through your metal songwriting process.

How to Make Your Riffs More Interesting

how to make your metal riffs more interesting and a full song

These are all great ways to make your metal riffs more interesting:

  • Playing your riff in a higher (or lower) octave
  • Playing your riff in a different key
  • Changing the picking technique (ex: down picking vs alternate picking)
  • Playing a variation of power chords y changing the 2nd note of the chord
  • Change the tempo of your riff
  • Add more notes to your riff
  • Simplify or slow down your riff
  • Try playing techniques of different metal sub genres to your riff
  • Add lyrics or vocal melodies to your riff

Turn Your Metal Riff into Complete Song

Your next natural step is to expand on your riffs and write a complete song. Is this going to be the rain riff of your song? Or will it be part of the verse? The chorus? You’ll also need to start writing riffs and progressions for the rest of your song.

But it doesn’t just stop at the riff. We talked briefly about vocals – the lyrics and melodies. There’s also the bass, drums, and any other accompanying instruments.

Don’t let all of that overwhelm you. We’ve got you covered in our course Metal Songwriter’s Forge. Click the button below to learn more.

Jason Stallworth

About the author

Melodic metal solo artist, songwriter, acoustic performer, and co-founder of Metal Mastermind.

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