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Strategies for Subtly Morphing or Outright Mutating Your Riff
Is there any better feeling than finding some delicious, rollicking riff? I’m talking here about one that’s not just fun and meditative to play, but also addictive to hear. One that provokes your neighbors to call and ask you to turn it the hell up.
Maybe you’ve found an irresistible melodic hook way up in the highest altitudes of the fretboard–or maybe you’ve gone digging in the low register, unearthing some low-down grooves. Either way, even the best riff can benefit from some experimentation and variation to keep you and your listeners interested.
Here are eleven strategies for subtly morphing or outright mutating your riff in search of new sounds. These are great for experimentation or for weaving your riff into a new song. Have at it!
11 Ways to Inject Variety into That Hypnotic Groove
Stretch it out. An effective riff is repetitive enough to form a groove, yet varied enough to stay interesting. If a riff feels just a tad too repetitive, you might try extending it, giving it a few extra twists and turns. Sometimes a longer, slightly more complicated sequence of notes will hold the listener’s interest longer.
Play variations. Improvise, using the original riff as a base. For example: you might try changing the riff’s final note. Or deleting certain notes, letting the remaining notes ring longer to fill the new gaps. You might play the notes in a different rhythm. You might transpose the riff up or down the neck. Experiment–and if you find something that sounds terrific, consider incorporating it into the song.
Rearrange the notes of the riff into something entirely new. If you write out all the notes that the riff uses, you can draw from those notes to compose something else. Use this series of notes like you would any scale: mix them into unusual, even random combinations. Try new rhythms. Base solos heavily on these notes.
Layer in something erratic and unpredictable. If a riff starts to feel boring, one simple solution is to repeat it continuously while a bandmate or an overdubbed track steps in to play over it. Your listener’s ear will naturally follow the most active, changing element in the music–so the riff becomes a background groove to whatever action’s happening.
Layer in something that happens less often. If a riff repeats itself every 2 or 4 measures, why not add interest with some kind of musical event that happens once every 8 measures–or even just once per song section? If your fingers are busy holding down the groove, a bandmate can take care of this. Rhythm section fills are the rock standby choice, but feel free to experiment with whatever else is on hand.
Change chords underneath the riff. If the bass is playing an E, for example, you might try shifting to an A or a B, lingering there as long as you like, and returning to E. Changing chords underneath a riff completely changes the context. You’d be surprised how different the same riff sounds with different bass notes underneath it.
Play your riff in different octaves. What happens if, at a certain moment in the song, the riff suddenly drops an octave? Funk bassists do this at dramatic moments to make their funky bass lines drop down into even-more-funky realms of funkitude.
Shift only certain notes into different octaves. What happens if you play that A in the middle of the riff an octave lower? Higher?
Put the riff on hiatus. Suddenly stop the riff at a crucial moment in the song (the bridge or chorus, maybe) to build suspense, then bring it back in. This pause can be just a measure long–or it can be as long as an entire song section. This pause can happen just once or it can happen at regular intervals. Sometimes declaring to yourself “This riff lives only in the verses of this song; the chorus is not its natural habitat” or some similar rule really helps bring the riff (and the song) to life. As always: the silences between notes are just as musical as the notes themselves.
Change loudness. Dynamics go a long way toward keeping an audience interested. What happens if the riff begins softly, growing louder throughout a verse? Or what if it begins loudly, then fades away into the background of the chorus? What if it spikes in volume, startling the audience? What if it drops in volume, building hushed expectation? Never underestimate the value of a volume pedal.
Change articulation. You might try playing your riff with short, palm-muted notes during the verse, then let the notes ring in the chorus, for example. You might add bends, vibrato, play the riff with a slide, or selectively add bizarro digital effects on certain notes.
The balance between variety and repetition is always tricky–these eleven strategies are a good start to exploring that balance. Notate or record your riff for reference (so you won’t forget the original) and have at it!