Intermediate Warm-ups: Using Riffs to Build Technique

Continuing from the recent post on warm-up routines, let’s take a look at some ideas that will help you connect technical ideas with musical ideas. One of the best ways to do that is by finding familiar songs and riffs that highlight particular techniques, and use them as practice pieces.

We’re going to look at three riffs in the style of classic rock/metal songs that will build your picking hand strength, stamina, and accuracy. For the most part, use down-up alternate picking, except as indicated. Definitely use a metronome. Strive not only to play the riff at its original tempo, but to exceed that tempo if possible.

The first riff is similar to Ozzy’s classic Crazy Train. Take it slow until the pattern feels comfortable. Maintain strict alternate picking throughout, and use the suggested fingering. This is a great riff to work on those tricky 1-3-4 fingering combinations.

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Next up is the opening riff to Guns ‘n’ Roses Sweet Child o’ Mine. Slash has mentioned in interviews over the years that it was a warm-up exercise long before it became the intro to a massively popular song.

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Try the suggested fingering, and definitely use alternate picking throughout. This is a fantastic riff for string skipping, and for working on the 3-4 fingering combination.

The third song we’ll look at is a true metal classic, and one of my favorite songs ever to just fire up the amp and play loud. Pantera’s Cowboys from Hell is one of those killer Dimebag Darrell riffs that, if you walk into a guitar shop and crank it out with conviction and authority, with a good crunchy tone, people will stop what they’re doing and listen. It’s a fun, deceptively simple riff, played in two octaves. Let’s take a look at the upper octave, which kicks off the song:

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Note the accents on each downstroke, and the palm muting through most of the riff. If you haven’t worked much with palm muting, it’s a fun technique that sounds cool with a fat distorted tone.

The main riff then descends an octave, to the open E string.

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Notice the change in fingering, which takes advantage of using the open position. Here’s a different way to play the lower-octave riff, that takes advantage of the extra punch of the low E string:

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Try them both, throw in palm mutes and pinch harmonics, in the Dime style. Learn all these riffs as mechanical exercises that enhance technique, and as pieces of music, that you can add flavor to as you see fit.

Chances are that the biggest challenge with playing this riff at higher speeds is crossing back and forth between strings. So let’s head back up to the 12th position, to the higher intro riff, and break it down a bit. Here’s the first two beats (each four-note group of 16th notes is a “beat” in this case) of the riff:

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Just play that section over and over again, building speed only when it’s accurate. Remember, if it sounds sloppy slow, it’s going to sound really sloppy at faster tempos. Anything played clean and tight at a slower tempo will sound better and more technically proficient than something “close enough” at a faster tempo.

From the second beat to the third beat of the riff shows the transition of the riff, which is basically a sequenced blues box to begin with.

R05b

You can probably see right away where nailing this section will do wonders for your picking hand. Additionally, you should be able to come up with plenty of variations of your own, based on this sequence, that will sound cool, work the rest of the fretting hand, and possibly be useful in your own songs.

If you work those two bars up to tempo, and put them together, you should be able to nail the end of the riff pretty easily. Keep an eye throughout on the range of motion for your picking hand when going from one string to the next; this is one of the most essential keys to technical mastery.

So while these riffs (and any others you may think of) should keep you busy for a while, as a small bonus, let’s take a look at some of the techniques and tricks Dime uses throughout the Cowboys solo. After an introductory four bars of tritones, Dime uncorks a sweet pattern across the neck. Utilizing a 1-2-4 fingering, this pattern will give your hands a nice stretch and broaden your range on the fretboard.

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This is a tough one to put into theoretical terms; like Eddie Van Halen, many of Dime’s solos and riffs don’t fall clearly along this or that scale. This is a great example of how, if you play something with great tone and conviction, it really doesn’t matter what scale it corresponds to — if it sounds good, it is good.

Let’s take the shape and work it up to speed on any one given string (in this case, the low E):

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Notice the picking indications, try alternating between the palm-muted triplet and the legato triplet with straight down-up alternate picking, or down-stroking the first note of the legato phrase on the accented beat. Either way works, whatever sounds better and feels right.

Starting at the thirteenth bar of the solo, Dime hits a nifty little chromatic lick that falls nicely across the E5 (minor blues) key. Here’s one way to play it, which again at higher speeds will test your picking hand:

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Now try playing the same lick all on the G string, which makes it a decent chromatic stretching exercise:

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Finally, the rhythmic breakdown at the end of the solo contains a really nice shifting scalar lick, in two octaves:

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Keep the slides tight, rhythmically and dynamically, and see how many other scale forms you can map this sort of thing out on, if you’re comfortable with it.

Definitely look for more riffs you can use for technical warm-ups and exercises, and of course develop as many of your own as you can. Play hard and have fun!

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