How To Play Awesome Rhythm Guitar Riffs

by Tom Hess


One of the common questions I'm asked by guitar players is how to create cooler sounding rhythm guitar riffs for rock and metal guitar styles. After learning basic power chords and a few simple rhythms, many guitarists feel like they have run out of rhythm guitar ideas and begin to wonder how their favorite guitar players come up with awesome rhythm guitar riffs. In this article, I'm going to show you several effective rhythm guitar practice methods that will help you to get out of your creative rut and learn to consistently create great rock and metal rhythm guitar riffs.

To begin, you need to realize that the processes for creating great rhythm guitar riffs have a lot more to do with ‘how’ you play the notes (or chords) than with ‘what’ notes you play. It is possible to take the most basic power chord riff you can imagine and make it sound amazing without adding any new notes. This means that you don’t have to search for ‘new’ notes/chords to play in order to improve the sound of your guitar riffs. This also means that in order to master rhythm guitar playing, you are going to need to develop a variety of guitar playing skills that you probably have never considered practicing before.

You probably are already aware of at least some of the elements you need to practice to become a better rhythm guitarist. However, if are still struggling with creating your own rhythm guitar riffs, it means that there are other aspects of this guitar playing skill that you need to improve (whether you realize this or not). Unfortunately, unless you are a current guitar student of mine, I don’t know anything about your musical background and current skill level, so there is no way for me to tell you in this article what specific things YOU need to practice to create better rhythm guitar riffs. However there are several general areas of rhythm guitar playing that you must constantly seek to improve no matter how advanced you become. It is mastery of these fundamentals that will ultimately enable you to quickly write and play amazing sounding rock guitar riffs:

  1. Work on playing rhythm guitar TIGHT and clean. This skill is the foundation that determines whether or not your rhythm guitar riffs will sound good. Most guitarists know that ‘playing in time’ refers to playing along with a consistent beat, but few actually know ‘how to tell’ if they are truly locking in with the metronome (or drums). If your timing is inconsistent, it will be difficult to make your guitar riffs sound good, no matter what notes you play.

    One simple way to test your timing on guitar is to record yourself playing a series of quarter notes using a single power chord. Do this over a quarter note drum beat or a metronome click. If you are playing in perfect time, it will seem like the click has ‘disappeared’ (become silent) while you play because your guitar playing is perfectly “on top” of it. However, if your playing is slightly behind or rushing ahead of the click, this will be a sign that your timing needs work.

    In addition to playing guitar in time, ‘tight’ rhythm guitar playing refers to having control over palm muting, picking articulation and other nuances that are needed to make your rhythm guitar riffs sound awesome. Having control over these elements will not only make all of your rhythm guitar ideas sound much better, but will also save you A LOT of time and money if you ever record guitar parts professionally. Read this free guide on how to record guitar in the studio to learn how to master these areas of rhythm guitar playing.
     
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    Isolate the rhythmic structure of your rhythm guitar riffs. Just like with guitar solos, many guitarists have a tendency to “overplay” when it comes to creating guitar riffs. Fact is, you can create super heavy and intense metal and rock guitar rhythms by using only a single note (or chord). Although it is cool to search for new and exciting ideas to play on guitar, don’t lose sight of the fact that the primary element of cool rhythm guitar riffs is, well… ‘rhythm’!

    Creating a guitar riff by playing only a single note (or chord) will force you to think hard about the actual rhythm of what you are playing. One way to do this is to write out (on paper or on a computer) a series of eighth notes for 4-8 measures (in 4/4 time). Next, randomly go through and delete 3 eighth notes in each measure (put rests in their place). Now play the resulting rhythm using your single note or chord. You will likely be pleasantly surprised by how cool this idea sounds and you can quickly come up with dozens of such patterns to use as basis for your rhythm guitar riffs (before even adding any notes!) Once you become more advanced, you can also do this using odd meter, mixed meters and more challenging note groupings.
     
  3. Use the same rhythm to create multiple guitar riffs. Take a cool rhythmic pattern without notes (such as described above) and apply it to playing 10-20 completely different sets of chords (or notes). Doing this will greatly challenge (and improve) your rhythm guitar playing creativity. Also try the same idea in reverse: take the same set of power chords and play it using 10-20 completely different rhythms. These variations will give you a lot of new ideas for rock guitar riffs to use in your songs.
     
  4. Work on your pinch harmonics and vibrato techniques. These two techniques add a huge amount of intensity to your guitar riffs (particularly in rock and heavy metal styles). Vibrato gives your guitar a very ‘vocal’ sound, and once you can combine it with pinch harmonics, the result is a screaming guitar riff that DEMANDS attention! Practice this by adding very heavy vibrato onto the end of your riffs. By finishing your guitar riffs strong, it will help to add power to the overall sound of your rhythm guitar playing. Once you are comfortable with this, add in pinch harmonics together with heavy vibrato.
     
  5. Learn how to combine guitar chords in creative ways. This will enable you to consistently come up with progressions (groups) of chords that sound good in your rhythm guitar riffs. You will have a much easier time doing this if you already know how chords are grouped together into keys. If you don’t understand this concept yet, simply experiment with playing the full Major and minor triads together with power chords. For example, if you have a guitar riff containing an E power chord, you can replace it by playing the notes of an E Major (or E minor) chord instead of the regular power chord. Take any power chord guitar riff and experiment with extending one or more of those power chords into a full Major or minor chord. The creative sounds you can come up with by doing this are nearly endless!

Learning to consistently play highly creative rhythm guitar riffs is a skill that will take time to develop. However, as you can see, there are specific things you can do to practice this area of guitar playing in a very tangible way. Once you learn to make your own rock and metal guitar riffs, you will have a lot more fun playing guitar and coming up with your own musical ideas very quickly. Aside from helping you become a better guitar player, these concepts will also make you a better overall musician for any band that you care to join. If you want to become a professional musician, these rhythm guitar skills will prove invaluable, both on stage and in the studio.

To learn more about becoming a really TIGHT rhythm guitar player, read this free guide on how to record guitar in the studio.

To get more help with your guitar playing, check out these free guitar playing tips.


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