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Writing a Riff

Discussion in 'Ask Justin Meldal-Johnsen' started by Ross-tafarian, Sep 11, 2008.

  1. Ross-tafarian


    Aug 5, 2008
    Hey JMJ,

    I've got a question on how to write a riff/song. First off though, let me give you a little background on my playing (it may/may not help, who knows). I've been playing bass since January this year, mainly a form of black/doom metal for the band I'm in, but also trying more of an industrial approach (this is the kind of music I really want to play). I can play pretty confidently, and if I'm given something to play, I can play it after practicing. However, I suck at coming up with my own stuff.

    This is where you come in. As a songwriter and recording bassist for many different artists, how do you come up with riffs to a song, or even write your own material? I've been told by a friend that the best way is to merely start playing anything, and try and evolve from it. Though, that doesn't seem to be working for me (my patience is low). Also, when you do come up with your own lines, are you plugged into any amps/effects while you do so, or are you unplugged completely?

    Even though I've played several gigs now, I still consider myself a complete novice, so gimme some credit!

    Cheers, Ross
  2. JimmyM

    JimmyM Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps, EMG Pickups
    If you've been playing since January and you can get up on stage and do gigs already, then I must salute you. Takes a lot of guts to get up there even if you've played for years. I'm sure Justin has some good advice for you, but I just wanted to say that it's pretty remarkable that a rookie is already gigging. Took me a good couple years before I had the guts to go onstage with guitar or bass.
  3. jmjbassplayer

    jmjbassplayer Justin Meldal-Johnsen Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 25, 2005
    Props to you for getting such fast start!

    Are you able to "hear" a riff in your head? If you are able to hear new riffs, but have trouble actually executing them on the instrument, that's just going to take a lot of time and a LOT of jamming.

    If you're not able to "hear" a new riff/bassline in your head, than you need to perhaps spend more time both playing along to records (across many styles!!!! I insist!!!!), as well as doing some jamming by yourself.

    You could have a metronome going at 120, and play an open "A" string for instance. Keep playing steady with the metronome until you hear another note in your mind. When you hear that other note in your mind, try and find it on the neck. That is creating at its most basic (and essential) level.

    Repeat that, and try placing that 2nd note in different rhythmic positions. Do that until you feel like you can create a bunch of lines out of just those two notes! (In other words, change the speed of the metronome, try 1/4 notes 1/2 notes, 1/8th notes, etc)

    Once that has seemed to yield no more cool results at the moment, try and "hear" a third note.

    You see where this is going.

    It's mundane and boring, but that's the point. It trains the ears and the mind to hear things FIRST, then to find them on the neck. NOT to get used to and rely on patterns.

    On the other hand, learning the patterns from some records you like will also yield results, in that you can find ways to change those patterns and make them your own.

    I just think that the earlier someone can start "hearing" their own stuff (picturing the note mentally before playing something with your hand), the better off you may find yourself in the long run.

    THere's my wacky lecture on the subject.

    All the best,
  4. Ross-tafarian


    Aug 5, 2008
    JimmyM - Thanks man. It's only been small club venues I've played, but I guess I feel ok on stage from wanting to do this for years. Now that I'm actually up on the stage, it feels great.

    JMJ - Thanks also! With regards to the 'hearing', I can, but I cant. Basically, I can sometimes hear what I want to play, but I hear it in the way that it would actually come out (as in, through an amp and effects), so if I try to play something without being plugged into anything, I find it tricky to distinguish what it is that I want to play.

    But yeah, thanks for the advice, I appreciate it. I think I'll be successful if I can manage to be a bit more patient with it!
  5. jmjbassplayer

    jmjbassplayer Justin Meldal-Johnsen Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 25, 2005
    Ross - cool man. Try hearing something deceptively elemental and basic, like just "hear" in your head a pure tone played with slow quarter notes.

    Then try and render that on the bass.

    I'm telling you, it gets that basic, but at least you're "meaning" what you play, and not just playing with your fingers.

  6. Ross-tafarian


    Aug 5, 2008
    Well, it's worked! Managed to write a riff last night. Yep, it's basic, but that's the point I suppose. Time to evolve it!

    One more question though, with regards to writing music, how much does 'knowing about music theory' actually help? I'm not very familiar with a lot of the terminology involved and whatnot, and want to increase my knowledge on it. Though, once again, I'm sure that'll come with time.
  7. ryco


    Apr 24, 2005
    Theory tells you what the tones are in a given chord, and the notes and chords in a certain key. Knowing theory helps you choose notes moving from chord to chord and voicing lines moving from chord to chord.

    Since bass is primarily a single note foundation instrument you don't immediately need to know a lot of theory. A lot of bass playing is laying out the root and fifths of chords. So you should know the roots and fifths of all chords.

    Probably the next important note to know in chords is the third, which determines whether a chord is Major or minor (some chords don't even accent/stress the third though, like suspensions and power fifth chords). Next most important would be the seventh. The minor seventh is a very common sound and helps to aid in chord movement.

    You can do a LOT knowing the root, third, fifth and seventh of chords. :bassist:

    Theory is just a labeling device to describe in your mind, and to others, what you are hearing/playing.

    As far as working on riffs, you may find it useful to have a recording device handy so you can lay down any cool ideas you have. I usually write 'em down, but that's just me. Get the idea dow on something so you don't forget it and start a library of licks and lines.
    I've lost so many ideas go because I didn't get 'em down hardcopy!:atoz: :spit:
  8. Ross-tafarian


    Aug 5, 2008
    Thanks man. I've just started reading some stuff up on t'internet, so hopefully in a while I should get to grips with some of the basic stuff.

    Plus, just got hold of a recording device - a dictaphone I nabbed from work! It sounds crap, but it works!

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