Tips for Writing an Instrumental Guitar Song

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A Lesson From Jonas Tamas

Hi and welcome to my first lesson at! I feel honored to have this opportunity to share with you my experience, my thoughts, and my methods. I am Jonas Tamas from Budapest, Hungary. I’m proud to be signed to Steve Vai’s label, Favored Nations/Digital Nations.

jonastamasTo date, I have released two instrumental guitar albums (you can listen to the songs on iTunes):

Sharp Guitars from a Flat Planet
Timeless Hour

I have appeared on numerous other albums in the genres of rock, progressive rock, and metal. I’ve had the good fortune to appear on CDs together with Brett Garsed, Troy Stetina, Andy James, Mattias IA Eklundh (Freak Kitchen), Marcel Coenen (Sun Caged), Mats Haugen (Circus Maximus), Thorsten Koehne (Eden’s Curse), Alberto Rigoni, Sergey Boykov, Gianluca Ferro, Phi Yaan-Zek, Joel Hoekstra (Trans-Siberian Orchestra), Tore Moren (Jorn Lande), Chris Lasegue (Jag Panzer), Rob Johnson (Magnitude 9) and Ray Luzier (Korn).

In this lesson I’ll show you some of my methods for creating riffs and then combining them to make a full instrumental guitar song. The example for this purpose will be one of my songs, “Tight Squeeze”, from my first album Sharp Guitars From a Flat Planet. You can see me playing the full song below.

Tight Squeeze

TAB of riff 1:

Jonas Tamas - Tight Squeeze Riff 1
Click to Enlarge

The opening riff starts at 0:10. The root note is obviously the note B, and you can also see the minor 3rd in bar 2. There are a few chromatic passages too, and the riff ends with a C power chord at the end of bar 4. So you may see it as a B phrygian riff, but if you look at it closely you’ll see that the C note, which would represent the minor 2nd of the phrygian mode, does not play a significant role. So this riff is not about the phrygian mode. The “pseudo-phrygian” vibe at the end of a riff is a common trick in prog metal. So I’d rather call this riff a B minor pentatonic rock/blues with chromatic notes. In terms of soloing, you have many scale options for this riff. As you can hear, the main theme at 0:31 is actually in B mixolydian. The 3rd of B mixolydian (D#) clashes a bit with the note D in the riff, but this clash is perfectly okay, you can’t hear it because it is several octaves higher. This trick gives the music a fresh and modern vibe, and it is also a common prog metal method.

TAB of riff 2:

Jonas Tamas - Tight Squeeze Riff 2
Click to Enlarge

The second riff starts at 1:30 (see the video above). It contains also some chromatic passages. This riff has a more dense structure with fewer rests, but it is still a slow riff too, because I wanted to build up the momentum gradually during the four riffs. This riff is basically in B dorian, but it is open enough to be able to continue the B mixolydian mode in the solo.

TAB of riff 3:

Jonas Tamas - Tight Squeeze Riff 3
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The third riff starts at 1:51. This riff has a new root note: it is note D. I’ve used the notes of the D major scale (and a little chromatic passage at the second half of bar 4). I didn’t use the 4th of the scale, and this enables me to use D lydian in the solo. As you may know, you can create lydian if your raise the 4th of the major scale.

This riff is a bit more dense as the previous ones, but still not so fast as the fourth riff will be. Besides using D lydian in the solo, at 1:59 I’ve played an A#. It is the raised 5th, which creates the lydian augmented vibe. Lydian augmented is one of the modes of the melodic minor.

At 2:20 I’ve also used the note G besides the A# I’ve mentioned above. Thus, I’ve highlighted an A#o7 (A# diminished) chord. It also creates a “fresh” moment, because G# was an important note before, and now it’s been substituted with G.

TAB of riff 4:

Jonas Tamas - Tight Squeeze Riff 4
Click to Enlarge

The fourth riff starts at 2:31, and it is the fastest one, using 16th notes throughout, except for the more staccato-like passage at bar 4. This bar has more tension in terms of the notes too, because of the chromatic power chords. The tension at the end of a cycle is a perfect preparation for the release at the new part of the song. You can see another “pseudo-phrygian” moment at the of the riff (F5 chord). But this riff is a plain E minor, not E phrygian.

In the solo, I’ve used the E minor scale as well, with some chromatic notes at 2:50, where the riff ends. This part of the song is the chorus part, so I’ve tried to come up with soaring and catchy melodies in the solo.

The structure of the song:

0:01-1:31 — riff 1.
1:31-1:51 — riff 2.
1:51-2:31 — riff 3.
2:31-2:52 — riff 4.
2:52-3:32 — riff 2.
3:32-4:12 — riff 3.
4:12-5:34 — riff 4.

So as you can see, all the four riffs are showing up in succession in the first 3 minutes. After that, I have repeated riffs 2, 3 and 4.

Regarding the solo themes, riffs 1, 3 and 4 have their own solo themes, while during riff 2 there is no repeating theme, this part is just for building the flow. During the first 90 seconds and the last 90 seconds of the song, there are no riff changes, and it has given me enough time and space to unfold a longer story: after playing the main solo themes, I’ve had a lot of freedom for playing flashy extra melodies and fast runs too.

If you have any questions or remarks regarding this lesson, don’t hesitate to write a comment, I’ll be glad to answer. I hope you found this lesson useful!
See ya soon!
Jonas Tamas

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Jonas Tamas

With two critically acclaimed guitar albums, a seat on Steve Vai's Digital Nations label, and a unique style that includes rock, metal and progressive elements, Jonas's lessons are sure to be beneficial to any guitarist.

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