How to Write a Riff on Guitar | Metal Guitar Lesson

We’re firmly in my rock/metal roots again this week with a lesson on how to write a riff.

Riffs can often come to us when we're noodling around with ideas, but I wanted to film a lesson on how you can approach writing riffs using some scale patterns if this is entirely new to you.

I wanted to just film myself with a couple of scales in mind and see what I could produce. It ended up being a metal riff very much in the style of Metallica.

How to Write a Riff on Guitar | Metal Guitar Lesson

We first establish a tonal centre, a note around which we are basing the riff. In the Metallica style, I'm basing my ideas in E minor. Doing this allows me to pedal the open string 6(E) with a heavy palm mute. To that, I want to add some more notes.

A great starting point for writing a guitar riff is using the minor pentatonic scale. The scale can be found on any string but for writing riffs, we're focusing on the low string 6(E) and 5(A). E minor pentatonic is the notes E-G-A-B-D.

To add a little more colour to note possibilities, we can extend to a 7-note diatonic scale. The two that immediately spring to mind for me are the E Phrygian mode (the Metallica scale) and E Aeolian mode (or natural minor scale). I also add in the b5 interval in the descending part of the riff in a minor blues scale. The b5 interval sounds particularly menacing and metal!

We can create a rhythmically interesting riff with some syncopation. That is when we play notes on the upbeats, or between the beats.

You can get guitar tabs for the examples by supporting me on Patreon.

Below are some scale ideas taken from the video lesson that I shared on Instagram.

Don’t forget to check out my free eBook ‘Fretboard Mastery’ and, if you’re looking to go deeper into guitar music theory, you should definitely check out my premium video course ‘Guitar Rut Busters: Essential Theory’.