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Brian Parham
Brian Parham

Writing Guitar Riffs, Part 1: Three Steps to Writing a Great Riff

Brian ParhamRiffs are the wholly recognizable, completely undeniable hooks that keep you coming back to your favorite songs again and again. Indeed, a memorable guitar riff can elevate a good song to iconic status.

The late 1960s and early 1970s are a veritable gold mine of riff-writing inspiration for today’s guitar students. Without doubt, bands like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin produced some of the finest guitar riffs of all time. Gutsy and overdriven, these classic rock riffs were often deceptively simple and incontestably singable.

Over the course of five lessons, we’re going to examine the most common riff-writing techniques from the classic rock era. In part one, I will give you the three golden rules for writing guitar riffs straight out of classic rock: First, choose a rhythm. Second, choose a scale. Third, noodle until the magic appears.

‘First, choose a rhythm. Second, choose a scale. Third, noodle until the magic appears.’

Although this lesson is targeted at beginners, guitarists at every level can employ these simple devices to craft their own signature riffs. So grab your guitar and prepare to rock!

Step One: Choose a Rhythm

If you’ve read my book, The Ultimate Rock Guitar Dojo for Kids: White Belt Edition, you might be surprised to discover each of the musical studies contained within it were composed using one simple tool: rhythmic flashcards.

That’s right. Whenever I write a new riff, I reach into my pile of flashcards, close my eyes, and let chance dictate the direction the riff will take. For today’s lesson, the cards have spoken:

Figure # 1: Basic RhythmSince groove is the quintessential element of all great guitar riffs, I suggest you master this basic rhythm using the following process:

  1. Turn on your metronome and set it to 80 beats per minute.
  2. Tap your foot in time with the metronome, count out loud, and clap the rhythmic pattern above (notice: the underlined beats get the clap):

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

  1. Finally, play the rhythm along with the metronome on the big E string of your guitar. If the rhythm is still a bit tricky at this point, shave five to ten beats off the metronome’s setting and repeat steps one through three.

Now that we have our rhythm, let’s apply our scale: the E minor pentatonic scale.

Step Two: Choose a Scale

In many ways, the minor pentatonic scale is the heart and blood of rock music. In fact, guitar gods Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Jimmy Page built their entire careers and crafted their signature sounds around this simple, five-note scale. So if you’ve just begun writing guitar riffs, I suggest you begin your foray into the world of rock guitar by thoroughly mastering the minor pentatonic scale in open E position.

‘… the minor pentatonic scale … Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Jimmy Page built their entire careers … around this simple, five-note scale.’

But before we begin to play, let’s take a moment to analyze the theoretical concepts behind the minor pentatonic scale.

The minor pentatonic scale is built using the 1, b3, 4, 5, and b7 degrees of any major scale. To begin constructing our E minor pentatonic scale, let’s examine the notes in the key of E major.

Major scales are constructed using the major scale formula:


If we apply the major scale formula beginning on E, we get the following pool of tones:

E Major Scale

Note Name E F# G# A B C# D#
Scale Degree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

On the guitar, the E major scale lays out accordingly on the 6th string:

The E Major Scale Across the Sixth String

Now that we know all the notes contained within the key of E major and their subsequent scale degrees, let’s make the necessary adjustments (i.e. flatten the third and the seventh, omit the fourth and the sixth) to convert this ordinary major scale into its sinister cousin: the E minor pentatonic scale.

E Minor Pentatonic

Note Name E G A B D
Scale Degree 1 b3 4 5 b7

On the guitar, the E minor pentatonic scale lays out accordingly on the 6th string: 

The E Minor Pentatonic Scale Across the 6th String

Please note: To convert a major scale to a minor pentatonic, simply flatten the third and the seventh and omit the fourth and sixth scale degrees.

Since we have our pool of available notes and we now understand where they come from, let’s arrange them on the guitar in a way that’s manageable and easy to play.

The E Minor Pentatonic Scale in Open Position

Readers, meet the E minor pentatonic scale in open position. Know it. Cherish it. Love it. From Whole Lotta Love to Suzie Q, the E minor pentatonic is the scale of choice for that classic rock sound.

Step Three: Noodle until the Magic Appears

If you play the guitar, chances are you love to noodle, so go crazy. Roam wild. Follow the madness and let your inner moonlight shine. Just remember to limit yourself to the rhythm we outlined in step one and the E minor pentatonic scale in open position.

The Keys to Writing Guitar Riffs: Rhythm and Scale

The Tyranny of Too Many Choices

This entire lesson was built around one simple yet paradoxical principal: By limiting yourself to a few simple parameters (in this case a basic rhythm and the E minor pentatonic scale), you’re better able to unleash your latent creativity, counteracting what noted psychologist and author Barry Schwartz labelled the ‘paradox of choice’.

‘By limiting yourself … you’re better able to unleash your latent creativity’.

So what did you come up with? If you’re interested in sharing the riff you created using the three golden rules outlined in this article (1. choose a rhythm, 2. choose a scale, and 3. noodle until the magic appears), please feel free to email me at: [email protected].

For my riff, see figure #1 below. You may notice the power chords (G5 and A5) appearing in bars four and eight. During the second installment of this five-part series on writing guitar riffs, I’ll explain where those power chords come from, why I added them, and how you can apply power chords to the E minor pentatonic scale to make your riffs really pop!

Rhythm + Scale = Classic Rock Riff

Now take a look at Part 2 about How to write Guitar Riffs here

About the Author

Brian Parham is Oregon’s most inspired guitar instructor for kids. He is the author of The Ultimate Rock Guitar Dojo for Kids: a fun and innovative method for teaching kids to play rock guitar. Students of the dojo progress through five levels of skill and achievement represented by the white, yellow, green, red, and black guitar straps.LinkImage

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