This is how you get to a really swinging riff

By | April 6, 2021


Two sides of rhythm
Riffs are important and common in most genres. They are played over and over again and spin like the parts of an engine – and can drive songs. Riff and rhythm belong together! For the rhythm of the riff to work well and give a feeling of turn, you need to think of two things:

1. An exciting rhythm. The rhythm does not have to be particularly complicated. Listen to Like a Feather by Nikka Costa, Justin Stanley and Mark Ronson.

2. There needs to be a clear sense of pulse (!) The rhythm needs something to swing towards. As soon as the feeling of the pulse disappears, the rhythm of the riff stops working as you intended.

Where is the pulse?
If the pulse is not so clear in the instrument that plays your riff, there need to be other instruments where you can feel the pulse. Listen to the brass riff in the song I Want to Take You Higher with Sly & The Family Stone. If the brass had played the riff without accompaniment, it would have been difficult to feel the pulse, but since the drums are included, the riff swings well.

In other riffs, it is easy to feel the pulse. An example can be found in the first four bars of Machine Gun by Jimi Hendrix. Also listen to Counting To Sleep by Wallis Bird. In both songs, the intro riff works well on its own.

So: If you have problems with the turn in a riff: Try to let another instrument contribute with a clear pulse, or add something to the riff that makes the pulse feel more.

More parts in the series

  1. This is how you arouse emotions in the listener

  2. How to get to a really swinging riff (this one)

  3. Borrow the film director’s tricks when writing songs
  4. The importance of the right key – a guide to the perfect sound
  5. 7 useful chords you need to know
  6. How to get an optimal workflow with the melody in focus
  7. 5 tips for the songwriter’s toolbox

About the article authors

The article is written by Johan Wåhlander and Jan Sparby, authors of the book Songwriting: Get Your Black Belt in Music & Lyrics.

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The article was originally published on 2017-12-26.