How to Write a Head-Turning Blues-Rock Riff

by D I Hughes, Spire Contributor | August 16, 2018

How to Create Head-Turning Blues-Rock Riffs

In almost any genre you can think of, the bass or guitar riff, if executed with precision, can propel a song from plain to prolific in a flurry of repetitive, cyclical notes.

Despite being irresistible to the ear in genres like jazz and funk, it’s in the blues-rock arena where the riff really shines.

The reason the riff is so pivotal, particularly in blues-rock, is because this cyclical combination of notes, or sometimes, chords, can add life, vitality and an additional hook that can really make a song or arrangement stand out and stick in the memory.

It’s possible to use a riff throughout a song as the primary hook that drives it along, to pep up a chorus or bridge, or as a striking intro or outro. If you know how to create your own blues-rock riff, your songwriting, home recording and improvisational efforts will benefit massively.

Before we walk you through a few blues-rock riff creation tips, let’s look at a couple of classic examples to get your creative juices flowing.

Solid blues-rock riff examples

When you’re talking blues-rock riffs, there is an endless pile of scintillating examples to choose from. Instantly recognizable are the riffs from Zeppelin's “Whole Lotta Love,” Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” or Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” But to give you a little extra blues-rock flavor, here are two legendary but slightly lesser-known blues-rock riffs.

“Cradle Rock” by Rory Gallagher (verse)

This live version of Rory Gallagher’s colossal “Cradle Rock” features a classic blues-rock riff that is driven by the guitar, but played in unison with the keys and the bass guitar. Not only does this riff serve to drive the majority of the song, being broken only by short, furious bridges and small improvised sections, this epic two-part riff is the most memorable hook in the arrangement.

Rory’s “Cradle Rock” riff is excellent, not only because it encapsulates the notes, sound and feel  a of memorable blues-rock riff, but it’s also modified slightly in the vocal sections of the verse with the addition of power chord strikes. Not only this, but its loose and flowing nature allows the rest of the band to weave in and out of the riff seamlessly, creating additional layers of tension and melodic depth.

“Machine Gun” by Jimi Hendrix

A blues-rock riff so heavy and industrial that is almost falls into the realms of Black Sabbath's proto metal territory, this hard-hitting, cement mixer of a musical hook is simply unforgettable.

The great thing about this is that as the riff is so driving, it allows Jimi Hendrix to lock in with bassist, Billy Cox, and drummer, Buddy Miles, to create a groovy yet menacing wall of sound that he can strike and solo over freely without the arrangement losing momentum.

Despite its heavy overtones, the riff does supply the song with a groove and with the use of a passing blue note, it gives the riff that quintessential blues-rock edge. This riff is the beating heart of “Machine Gun,” and its unmistakable sound matches the song’s theme down to a tee.

How to create a sweltering blues-rock riff

Creating a head-turning blues-rock riff comes mostly down to feel, trial and error—which is the very reason improvising with a drummer and fellow guitarist or bassist (depending on what you play) is beneficial to developing your idea further. That said, you can sit at home in a quiet room and achieve an amazing result, nonetheless. You know, one that will turn into a prolific song or hook that will make people stop in their tracks and say, "wow".

Before you start attempting to carve out a barrage of epic blues-rock riffs, you should first try and get to grips with the blues scale on your bass or guitar, as this is set of notes you’ll be basing most of your work on.

Once you’ve got to grips with this basic scale, here are three steps you can take to develop rocking blues-rock riffs for your songs and jam sessions.

To demonstrate, I’ve created three sound samples using my bass though my Spire Studio. In these clips, I’ve used the Bass Amp sound effect with the drive slightly rolled off.

1. Build the bones

The first thing you should do when building a blues-rock riff is hit the root note in intervals that represent the speed and rhythm you're looking to work with—this will form your foundations. Once you've done so, you should use your octave and some of the main notes from the blues scale to fill in the blanks until you have something cyclical that you can repeat.

In the first sound clip, I've built the bones of my riff using a slightly sped up Chicago blues-style shape and rhythm for that rock injection.

2. Expand and extend

Once you've built the bones of your riff and you've locked into something you can repeat, seamlessly, you can then begin to make things more sonically appealing by throwing in notes that are higher or lower down the scale while utilizing the 'blue notes' to add that definitive bluesy edge.

In this example, I’ve travelled up to the next string in both bars to add more flavor to the riff, while altering the second bar with a blue note. Not only does this make the riff more distinctive but it becomes more memorable as the basic blueprint has now been made into two parts (section A and section B), giving it more potential scope in the context of a jam or song.

3. Fill it up

If you have a riff that extends to two, perhaps even four bars, you can add a bass or guitar fill that ultimately becomes a part of your riff and repeats throughout the song or section. Not only will this make your riff even more monstrous, but it will also enhance your music by punctuating your hook with something that sticks in the mind, and the ears.

In this third and final example, I’ve used a repeated chromatic run based on notes in the blues scale to punctuate the end of the riff.

A great blues-rock riff seeps into your bones and drives through your body in a way that is difficult to explain—and by using this three-step method, listening to plenty of blues-rock records for inspiration and learning how to make your notes sing, you'll take your music, or playing, from lukewarm to legendary—and that is a beautiful thing.