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Riffs are the all important building blocks that can make a song stand out in the minds of listeners. A riff is a grouping of notes that is typically played throughout a song as the rhythmic foundation or played frequently throughout the song, either in the verse, the chorus, or as an opening or ending. There are no hard and fast rules about the placement of a riff or how easy or complex they are to play.
Electric guitar riffs are played in music of all types, but some of the most recognizable and most fun to play riffs on the electric guitar are some of the most enduring riffs in music history. Rock and metal riffs are some of the most popular riffs to learn. Most guitarists starting out have one or two electric guitar riffs they want to learn almost out of the gate.
The characteristics behind successful electric guitar riffs are hard to pin down. Compare the two riffs below. The first is “TNT” by AC/DC and the second is “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. These are two entirely different bands and two entirely different songs.
The AC/DC examples is built around power chords and has a sparse rhythmic pattern, where “Sweet Home Alabama” is a very full picking pattern. Both are riffs and both are instantly recognizable, but there is no correlation between the two that would give you any insight into what makes each of these riffs work so well. Both riffs carry the songs and provide an instantly recognizable musical phrase that almost anyone who’s ever heard either song will know.
The best way to understand electric guitar riffs is to write your own. Listen to some of your favorites and learn them, then catalogue them away for later reference and sit down with a recorder or a pen and a paper to try writing your own. I don’t think anybody ever knows if a riff will end up being classic or not, but guitar players are certainly always keeping an ear open for the next great electric guitar riff. You shouldn’t be any different. Play around on your electric guitar.
Try different effects and volumes levels to inspire you and see if you can come up with a few great riffs of your own. It’s a good idea to have a recording device going while you work. You never know when the next classic riff will be born. It could be yours.