I was reading a comment from Misha Mansoor of Periphery the other day, he was talking about working with Tosin Abasi on the latest Animals As Leaders album ‘The Joy Of Motion’ and said how Tosin had an amazing knack of turning exercises into riffs, well his exact words were “[Tosin] manages to turn technique exercises into beautiful riffs and passages, which in my opinion is a gift. Although he has a deep understanding of theory, and may use it as the basis for riffs, he still trusts his ear over everything.” This reminded me of another story, I was reading Slash’s biography and he talks about how one day he was noodling on his guitar playing a pentatonic exercise he’d come up with and someone (Izzy maybe?) said that’s great, what is that? Next thing you know it becomes the intro to ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ and a classic rock song is born.
Exercises are usually designed to work on a particular area of technique, it may be to strengthen and improve dexterity of certain fingers or finger combinations, it may be to improve your hybrid picking, it may just be to warm up your fingers before playing a tricky song. Now I’m not expecting you to immediately grab your guitar and start creating challenging exercises, that is almost as difficult as writing great riffs, it takes practice and a lot of experimentation. However, there are loads of resources online and in guitar mags so why not let someone else do some of the work for you? Find an exercise that interests you sonically that you can make some rhythmic or melodic changes to in order to turn it into a riff.
You can’t just play an exercise over a drum beat and expect it to sound good but by using an exercise as a springboard you might just be able to create something really cool. Let’s give it a try by taking a scalar exercise and altering notes and changing the rhythm.
Pretty dull huh? Let’s make some changes to make it more interesting. Let’s keep the first 12 notes the same then play the 8th fret 3 times, 5th fret 3 times, 7th fret 3 times and 8th fret 3 times. Now lets repeat that pattern for the second half of the exercise that starts on the 7th fret.
By making this relatively small change to the exercise we have turned it into a riff! Now let’s add some rhythmic variation to the riff, remove the 2nd and 7th notes from the start and the section where you shift down to the 7th fret, in place of these notes we will add a rest or silence.
Now that’s more like it! Just by making a couple of small changes to what started as a pretty ordinary exercise we have a cool sounding riff. So now it is your turn, search for an exercise online (just google “guitar exercises”) and grab a portion of an exercise you like then experiment with changing the rhythm or like I did in my example repeating notes. It’s a fun and easy way to start creating your own riffs that may eventually turn into songs.