More Riffs for Technique

A great way to build technical chops and musicality, and get a break from running the same old scales and patterns over and over, is to take a song or riff that can be used to highlight a certain technique, and use it as warm-up material. Let’s take a look at a few quick and easy riffs from classic (if lesser-known) songs, that will build finger independence and picking technique.

The first example is very similar to the melodic riff from the beginning and end to Rush’s ’70s epic Xanadu.


Probably the first thing you’ll notice here is that it’s in a 7/8 time signature. If you haven’t played much outside of 4/4 or 3/4, this is a good opportunity to try out a fairly simple odd time signature. It’s as simple as counting out a beat.

In 4/4 time, you would count “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and” to play a single bar, with each counted beat being a 16th note. For the above 7/8 bar, you simply drop the last “4-and”.

So, “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-1-and-2-and-3-and”, repeat. It takes a little bit of getting used to, like anything else, but time signatures such as 7/8, 9/8, or 5/4, where a single beat is added or removed, are easier to adjust to.

(Using the above counting example, you would count out a 9/8 beat as “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-5-and“. Stick with nailing the feel for 7/8 for now.)

The next thing you’ll see is that the riff is simply the same 7-note pattern played twice, and because of the odd number, in strict down-up alternate picking, the picking pattern for the second time is exactly reversed from the first. So the first note, E (9th fret, G string) is played with a downstroke the first time, an upstroke the second time. This is a really handy riff for practicing “inside” and “outside” picking, for adjacent and skipped strings.

Finally, all four fretting fingers are used to play the riff (which is a sequenced E major scale), and in patterns you may not have practiced before.

So in one mighty little riff, you get to work on:

  • Odd time signature
  • Inside and outside picking
  • String skipping
  • Melodic sequencing
  • Finger independence

Pretty cool.

The next riff is similar to the late-’80 Yngwie Malmsteen song, Déja Vu.

MR02a MR02b

The first two bars of the riff are played four times, before shifting to the third bar. The best way to go about learning this riff is one bar at a time, putting the first two together before moving on to the third bar. Make sure you can play the first two bars together, repeated in a continuous loop (at least 4-5 times without stopping) at a modest tempo (at least 96-100 bpm) before working on the third bar.

The riff and song are in F#m, a good key for rock and metal playing. The first bar is simply a four-note ascending sequence, moving up the F#m scale (F# G# A B C# D E) one step at a time. Before getting to the E (7th degree) in the scale, the second bar of the riff shifts to a nice descending pedal-point sequence, which requires a tricky shift toward the end of the bar. Take it slow, work it up to speed, and pair it up with the first bar, before moving on to the third bar off the riff, which is an extended F#m arpeggio.

Notice that the suggested picking for the third bar mostly involves sweep picking. The fingering is only a suggestion, try different fingers, depending on where and how you decide to shift as you go through the arpeggio. The main thing, as far as the picking and fretting suggestions go, is to keep it sounding smooth and effortless.

It will take some doing to get any or all of this riff up to the tempo that Malmsteen plays in the original song, but the primary goal is just to highlight some specific techniques:

  • Alternate picking
  • Sweep picking
  • Melodic sequencing
  • Pedal point
  • Position shifting
  • Arpeggios

The final riff we’ll look at is similar to one of the main riffs from Dream Theater’s The Root of All Evil. John Petrucci is a master of fast, tricky, melodically sequenced riffs, and this is actually one of his simpler ones.


Simple is frequently more effective than complex, as far as writing songs and riffs goes, and this riff is a good example of that principle. And yet every finger is utilized, and there’s some position shifting, and the beats on which you cross from one string to the other may be a bit unpredictable at first. Melodically, Petrucci incorporates chromatic notes to nice effect.

  • Alternate picking
  • Position shifting
  • Finger independence
  • Chromatics

Have fun with these riffs, and try to think of others from songs you enjoy, that help pinpoint specifics techniques you want to work on.

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