Creating Heavy Metal Riffs & Songs

Heavy metal riffs combine small musical motifs to create melodic fragments. A motif is the smallest identifiable musical idea that consists of more than one note. A melodic fragment is simply a chunk taken from a potentially longer melody; fragments are not complete musical ideas and serve only to ornament, enhance, or develop the music. Heavy metal riffs used in songs help create additional interest and intrigue in the songs. Basic knowledge of key signatures, note names, and basic chords will make it possible for you to create your own songs and riffs.

Creating the Song

Write or hire someone to write the lyrics for your song if you have not already created them. If you don’t have lyrics, look through poetry books with poems from authors that have been deceased for 70 years. These are in the public domain in most areas but double-check with copyright laws. The Library of Congress website has information on copyrights for United States citizens.

Form of the Piece

Determine the form of the piece. A common form is a 32-bar form in which there are four sections with eight bars in each section. The first section repeats, followed by a new, bridge section and then a return to the original section. Another common form is an ABA song form where the introduction comes back at the end of the piece. The middle B section contains contrasting material.

The Key Signature

Choose a key signature for the piece. Using fewer flats and sharps will typically make the piece easier to play.

Choosing Chords

Create a chord progression. When creating chord progressions, the most important thing is that there is a common tone between each chord. For example, a C major chord has the notes C, E and G, while a D major chord has the notes D, F-sharp and A. You wouldn’t want to move from C to D because there are no common tones.

Use the chord progressions from the song to create quick riffs that accent the chords. For instance, if there is a C major chord on the first beat of a song, quickly strum the notes of the chord from bottom to top.

Write the first chord into your song. If you are in the key of C, the first chord should typically be a C major chord as C is the first scale degree. This helps to establish the home key; it is rare to start with a chord that is not the first chord of the key signature.

Create a chord starting on the sixth scale degree in the third measure and then move to the chord starting on the fourth degree in the fourth measure. This will create a half cadence. A half cadence sounds less definite than a full cadence and is used in the middle of a phrase.

Place a chord starting on the fifth scale degree in the seventh measure. Even if it doesn’t fit the key signature, make sure the chord is a major chord. The final measure in the phrase should have a chord starting on the first scale degree.

A Note About Notes and Chords

There are seven scale degrees in a key. Each one starts with a different note name. In C, the scale degrees are alphabetically from C to B. When you hit G, the note names start over at A.

Common chord progressions in heavy metal music include a I — IV — I or I — IV — V — I. The roman numerals refer to scale degrees; in the first example, you have a first-degree chord, followed by a fourth and then a return to one. The IV and ii chord are often used interchangeably. If you use both a IV and ii chord, traditionally, the IV chord always comes first.

Experiment with different types of picking to increase the speed. Use alternate picking in which you strum across in a downward and upward motion. Single picking only strums down; by strumming in both directions, you can increase the speed.

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Kevin Ure (

Kevin Ure (

Teaching the Craft of Music Composition since 1996. Articles on popular music- and art-related topics. Check out our Lists for more in-depth composing articles.

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