Writing Your First Song Part I: Creating Riffs

This is the first of a three part series about writing, recording and mixing your first song. I’m by no means an expert on the subject, but this will get you started.

The obvious first obstacle is coming up with a song, writing the chords and notes. Composing, if you will. So where do you start? There are numerous ways of writing a song. Most people follow more or less the same process every time, but that process is very different between different  people.

If you write melody-based music where the vocals are the driving instrument, like most pop music, singer-songwriter stuff and ballads the vocal melody is an obvious place to start. Once you have a melody in place, you add a guitar chord progression that goes with the melody, then bass and drums. Some people work the other way around, start with a chord progression and create a melody that fits.

I dabble mostly in metal, a bit more technical than just basic chord progressions with a strumming pattern (as technical as I can play it :-)). Riffs are very central, so I always start out with riffs. Problem is, sitting down with the guitar in hand, I never come up with good riffs. I always get stuck in old patterns and never get out of old rehashes of I-IV-V in E minor.

Instead, I come up with good riffs in my head. Half of the time I dream up a riff, it turns out to be a Metallica riff. I don’t know why, I haven’t listened to Metallica in years… But half the time it’s not, and some of that half time it’s actually I good riff. I’ve noticed it’s impossible to memorize a riff, even a few minutes. So I always whip out my phone and hum the riff into the SoundCloud app on my iPhone. I try to find some private space doing it, because it makes you look like a complete moron. It actually sounds moronic as well, but for your benefit I’m going to share an example with you anyway:

Once done, I let it sit in my SoundCloud (privately, mind you) until I have some guitar time. Then I take the recent riffs I’ve hummed and I map them out on the fretboard. I play most in standard E, so I usually transpose the riffs to something that fits into E minor. They usually don’t end up exactly like they were hummed, I often change them a little bit in the mapping process. And here’s a bunch of tips on other ways to create riffs.

This is how the hummed riff turned out eventually:

Next part in the series will be about recording the riffs and arranging them into a song.

Other parts in this series:

Writing Your First Song Part II: Recording and Arranging
Writing Your First Song Part III: Putting It All Together