Songwriting: Making Riffs Groove

Guest Post excerpted from Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt In Music & Lyrics

This book excerpt explores the challenge of properly communicating feelings and emotions with listeners through one’s lyrics, and looks at how a songwriter can structure their work in such a way as to clearly get their intended message across without excessive exposition.

Riffs are central to most genres of popular music. Riffs spin around like the parts of an engine, and they have the potential of driving a song forward and energizing it. One of the more important qualities of a riff is the groove. How do you make a riff groove?

Two Critical Components
Riffs and rhythm go together. For the rhythm of a riff to work properly and create a groovy feel, you need two things:

1) The rhythm itself. Evenly played quarter notes don’t have a lot of groove to them.

2) A distinctive sense of pulse. The rhythm needs something to groove against.

The second factor really matters!

Where’s the Pulse Beat?
If the riff doesn’t provide the pulse, the backup instruments will need to provide it. Listen to the brass riff at 0:25 in I Want to Take You Higher by Sly & The Family Stone. It would’ve been really hard getting that riff to groove without the drum part. On the other hand, the guitar riff (0:20) in Uniform of Youth by Mr. Mister grooves on its own, because it implies the pulse more clearly.

If you’re having problems with making your riff groove, try letting another instrument provide the sense of the pulse, or add something to the riff that implies it.

Learn more about pulse, time signatures and rhythm in the chapter ”Underneath the Groove”, and more on riffs in the chapter ”The Music Engine”, all in the book: Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt In Music & Lyrics

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