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Beating Writer's Block - 3 Ways To Create Variety In A Riff

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

Greetings dear reader.

Let me start this post by saying that I believe songwriting should be an intuitive process at the end of the day. The problem is that if we go into writing music with the expectation of “I’m going to write a full and complete song today” that puts you at a massive disadvantage.

There is so much that goes into writing a song let alone a good song so the last thing you want is to be creatively locked up with these lofty expectations floating around your mind.

Instead, trade your expectations for trust.

Wait. Aren’t these the same thing?

Not exactly.

An expectation means you have a specific desired outcome that puts pressure on you to achieve it and creates a tension that can be limiting. However, the creative process is anything but tense. It is flowing. Intuitive. Free.

It's like water, baby! "Be like water my friend." as the great Bruce Lee once said.

"Okay great Aaron. That's really helpful. What are you even talking about at this point?"

Let me explain

So in order to keep the creative flow going or to unblock it in the first place, we need to get free. We need to get out of our own way. And ironically, we can do this consciously.

Yes, we can consciously take steps to trigger a stream of consciousness.

Here are 3 ways that I like to go about this process. I promise if you implement any one of these without any expectation of a specific outcome, you’ll come up with stuff that you never expected.

And the point here is to engage this creative muscle. The more you do, the more efficient it will be. Why this is important is because it will do the work behind the scenes as you’re going about your day. That’s what the subconscious mind does. It works overtime in the background to answer the questions your conscious mind was asking.

Anyway, here are my 3 go-to's for creating variety with a riff.

1. Write a Riff Using Only Three Notes

Pick 3 notes and change the duration of each one each time the riff repeats. For example, make the first note a quarter note and have the remaining two you play be eighth notes. How would that sound? Now shuffle the order of the notes. Experiment with changing the length of each note at different times.

Explore variations using different techniques. Try palm muting every note vs playing each note open or experiment with using accents. Test out using slides vs bends and see which one sounds better.

Incorporate the use of octaves of the same 3 notes to create variety while staying within the boundaries of your self imposed limitation.

Use repetition in constructing your riff. Often times, the use of repetition can make for catchier motifs.

2. Write a Rhythm From a Lyric

A lot of times I get questions from students about how to write lyrics to music but have you ever looked at it the other way around? Using the rhythmic structure and cadence of a lyric can yield very positive results in freeing up your mind and getting the creative gears running.

Here are a few examples of

Explore the duration of your melody using the syllables in a specific lyric.

For example, the lyric "I am enough" written by a student was used to piece together a melody using 4 notes from a D major scale as the lyric contains four syllables.

( I - am - e - nough.)

( D - C - E - D)

So as you can see, we have our lyric, ( "I am enough.") we decided on a key (D Major) and we chose 3 notes from that key's corresponding scale to experiment with repeating the root note twice to fit the four syllables. ( D - C - E - D)

From there, explore different note orders within the boundaries of the lyric. Try the melody over every chord in the key you've selected. If you find that you've hit a wall, try the melody in a different key.

3. Play Your Riff Backwards

If you've written a riff that you're not quite satisfied with, consider using the concept of retrograde as a way of coming up with new ideas. Take old material and reverse it to create new riffs, melodies, and motifs.

A few ways to go about this would be

1. Write a chord progression then reverse the order in which the chords would normally occur.

2. Write a melody and play it in the opposite direction from the way it was originally intended to sound.

3. Write a 2 part guitar harmony and experiment with seeing if you can reverse the order of notes on the second guitar while still making the harmony sound good.

Notice a theme here? It's all about looking on the other side and thinking outside the box. This act alone will get you out of any old habits or routines you're used to. Am I saying that you'll create a masterpiece right out the gate? Probably not. But the most important step in any endeavor is the first one. This will help get you back into taking action. Remember, as a creator you are just doing. Leave your critical mind at the door during this process. The editing and refining will come later.

If you'd like to see some real-world examples of this in action, I invite you to check out the accompanying video.

Thanks for reading!


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