Riffin’ is a free weekly video guitar lesson series by Nashville guitar guru Dave Isaacs focusing on the construction and development of killer guitar riffs. There’s a lot to learn in this series, so be sure to subscribe!
Video Guitar Lesson
Many of us think of open position chords as strictly fundamentals: the “cowboy chords”, if you will – and it’s true that learning to move up the neck is an important step in anyone’s development as a player. But the open position offers a wide variety of possibilities for developing creative riffs.
For starters, I want to extend our definition of “riff”: let’s define the term in this context as a signature guitar part – an instrumental hook. When we think in these terms, I’m sure you can begin to think of any number of songs that have very simple guitar hooks, often played in that open position. From Roy Orbison to Green Day and plenty of others in between, there’s no shortage of examples, and part of what makes those riffs so memorable is their simplicity.
There are two big ideas at work here. One is that guitars sound really good in the open position, because we get so many overtones and sympathetic vibrations. And every open chord contains within it triads, scales, and multiple voicing options that take full advantage of that resonance. Remember that one of the key ideas in writing great riffs is looking for melody….and since the major and minor scales of all the open-position-friendly keys are almost equally easy to play, our possibilities are maximized with minimal effort. This is a very good thing!
Also keep in mind that a triad can be melodicized by playing it one note at a time, and possibly adding connecting scale tones. In the example I played in the video, the melody consists of a descending C triad played 5-3-1 starting with the first string high G, followed by a stepwise move from the root C up to D. The D becomes the 5 of a G chord, and the melody continues with a 4-3-1-2 move on the G (the 2nd string C leading to the open B, open G, and 2nd fret A). The A now implies the 3rd of the F chord. So here’s the melody, phrased “da da da da (beat) da da da da (beat):
G – E – C – D ________ C – B – G – A
and so on. Again, note the opening C triad, the stepwise C-D-C-B that follows, and the B-G partial arpeggio followed by another stepwise move up to A to signal the change to the F harmony.
Now, I improvised that part and wasn’t thinking in those terms when I played it. But you can see how some of the different elements we’ve explored in previous blogs are being combined to create the overall effect, and I could have applied the process consciously as well. This is useful when you’re looking for that killer idea and pure inspiration isn’t doing the trick. You need tools and techniques, which is exactly what this series is all about.
The other big concept is a new one and has tremendous power and possibility. Listening to that improvised part again, you’ll notice that before the melody begins I play a C arpeggio starting from the low C on the 5th string 3rd fret, just following the shape across strings 5-4-3. This creates an accompaniment, a background that supports the melody. The same idea is applied to the G and F chords. So within the simple and familiar C, G, and F chords, we can find both melody and accompaniment without playing anything particularly challenging. And this idea of learning to separate melody and accompaniment on guitar is HUGE. It allows us to think the way pianists do, and play (or at least imply) two or even three parts at once. It’s easy to think of open chords as just box forms that are always played the same way, but when we orchestrate – dividing the guitar into lows, mids, and highs – the possibilities practically explode.
So to sum up, what we’ve done here is taken something very simple – our basic building blocks of chord and scale – and applied a few simple musical concepts to create something much more sophisticated that is still simple to play and hooky enough for the listener to remember. That is, of course, often our ultimate goal – to write not just a killer guitar part but a killer hook!