This is a guest post from Peter Hodgson, who is the editor of the iheartguitar blog. It is one of my top 5 blogs I would recommend to anyone who is interested in guitar. If you are interested in contributing a guest post, please contact me here.
One of the most effective ways of injecting excitement into a riff is syncopation. In a nutshell, syncopation is when you play a note on a beat where you probably wouldn’t expect a note. Now, when I’m playing guitar I tend to approach rhythm differently at different times. When I’m soloing I’m led by whatever melody pops into my head. As a result, the rhythm can be a bit unconventional. But when I’m playing metal rhythm, I’m all about the 16th note pulse. I keep the 16th notes in mind even if I’m not actually playing them – for example, even when I’m playing a chugging 8th note riff I’m listening to the notes in between as well, and every now and then I might fill those spaces with little accents. Try it some time: picture the musical bar as a version of that board game Mastermind, except instead of four rows to put the pegs in, there are 16. Each peg represents a note or chord, and there’s ya rhythm.
As an example of syncopation I present to you a couple of riffs from my song ‘Just One Thing,’ which you can hear a rough mix of on my Myspace at www.myspace.com/peterhodgson The first riff has a note on every one of those 16 spaces, but some of them are accented chord stabs and others are palm-muted. The result is a steady pulse punctuated by jarring but kinda cool chords in places where you don’t really expect them, and this track has burned the brain of many a drummer for the first few listens. Initially it seems like an odd time signature, and it’s fun to watch a drummer take out the slide ruler and metronome to try to figure out where the ‘one’ is, only to realise the underlying beat is so simple that even a guitarist like me could come up with it.
Another way to approach this riff, if you’re not into the whole ‘thinking in 16th notes’ thing is to run the riff through a few times then only think about the fretted notes, letting the open-string notes in between take care of themselves by going on semi-autopilot with your alternate picking. That’s a method I find especially handy playing some Muse riffs where I’d rather enjoy the riff than think about the maths behind it.
The autopilot alternate picking method ain’t gonna help you in Riff 2 though. This one is purely chord-stab, with no chuggy muted notes in between. You need to pay close attention to the rhythm to get this one to work. Once again, imagine 16 slots. Okay? Okay. Now, in the first bar of this section, the chords fall on sub-beats 1, 2, 5, 10 and 15/16 (the last two actually being a three-note chug). Let’s try this with capitals and lower-case letters: BA-BA-ba-ba-BA-ba-ba-ba-ba-BA-ba-ba-ba-ba-BADDABA.
Obviously this kinda stuff is best used as a springboard for your own riffs and ideas. You could probably even use a 16-sided dice (you have one in your junk drawer, right?) to help you come up with random note locations. Above all, just have fun with it and don’t hurt yourself.