Riffin’ is a free weekly video
Previously in this series, we’ve explored how to use two-note intervallic shapes to create memorable riffs. Adding a third note to these two-note forms often creates a triad, the basic foundation of major and minor chords. The open chord shapes you probably learned early on contain triads but often duplicate notes, leading us to the many five- and six-note forms like open C, G, A, and E.
A major triad is formed by taking notes 1, 3, and 5 of any given major scale. When the notes appear in this order, we say the triad is in “root position”. A good example of a root position triad is the simple three-note shape many of us learned as our first F chord: 3rd fret F on the D string, 2nd fret A on the G string, and 1st fret C on the B string. Taken as a three-note shape, this form can be moved up the neck just like a complete bar chord.
Triads can also be inverted, meaning that the order of the notes are changed: 1-3-5 becomes 3-5-1 or 5-3-1. Taken together, these three inversions give us the material for many classic riffs, built almost entirely on these 3-note forms. Like the root position shape I’ve already described, the other two inversions are easy to play. Take the three notes that form the fretted portion of an open A chord: the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd strings held down simultaneously on the 2nd fret. Since all three notes are on one fret, they can be easily played with one finger (as we often do playing bar chords with a 5th string root). This makes the form easily movable, and playing it with the index finger leaves the other fingers free to add other notes and create melodic lines that work with the chord form. A nice addition to this form can be created by placing the pinky on the first or first and second strings, three frets above the index finger. This creates either a stack of 4ths and fifths (if the pinky is covering two strings) or a triad with a doubled root.
The third form is built on elements of the D chord shape. Play a D chord as you normally would, lift the ring finger from the second string, and replace it with the middle finger. Now add the ring finger to the 4th string, 4th fret. This inverts the chord by moving the 3rd of the chord (F#) from the first string down an octave to the fourth string. This new 3-note form works beautifully with the one-finger “A shape” triad, as anyone who has ever play a Stones riff can attest. In this setting, the triad is played as a bar chord, giving us the option of adding a fourth note: a doubled 3rd on the first string.
These three shapes work especially well in the keys of A and E, since the open strings allow us to fill things out nicely without additional fingers. But since all three of these shapes are movable if we don’t include open strings, we can use them in any key. Adding adjacent open strings narrows down the number of possibilities, but can create some interesting color and drone sounds. Explore and see what you find, remembering the elements that make a riff memorable: strong rhythm, implied or actual melody, and great tone. Happy riffing!
Riffin’ is a free weekly video