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I'm kind of unsure as to where I can look for help regarding this but I've become very interested in the guitar playing of Jack white and Dan Auerbach. Both seem to have this amazing playing style that in some cases replaces the need for chords, instead using riffs and licks etc, but still keeping up a nice chord progression. My confusion in trying to learn this is how you can follow a chord progression using only notes or riffs? Apologies in advance for I'm sure to be a very amateurish question. Any help is highly appreciated! I'd love to improve in this space.

2 Answers 2

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The simple answer is: play the notes in the chord as a riff. As the underlying chord changes, change the notes that need to be changed. You can do this by holding down a chord shape and arpeggiating the chord(check out "Simple Man" by Lynyrd Skynyrd) or you can move your fingers in a scale like fashion(The intro riff of "Pride and Joy" by SRV has a good example of a riff going from I to IV). Jack and Dan are both blues players, so the pentatonic scale plays a role here. Instead of strictly using chord shapes, you can switch between pentatonic scales based on the root of the chord you want.

Sometimes they play in this riff/lick style because it is necessary to keep the song interesting. A blues may not have many changes, so playing a riff can make four bars of the same chord sound interesting.

Let's take "Thickfreakness" by Dan Auerbach. The intro is a solo all in Am pentatonic. The riff here begins at the verse and spells out an A power chord:

e-----------------------|
B-----------------------|
G---2----2----2---------|
D---2----2----2---------|
A-0----0----0---0-------|
E-----------------0-3-4-|

The end of that riff is a bass walk-up back to the root E-G-G#-A (The A starts on the beginning of the next bar). Having a part that mimics the bass is good in blues because often times a guitar player may play unaccompanied.
When he plays the riff again, instead of ending with a bass walkup, he does an Am pentatonic run downward to create contrasting motion:

e--------------------------|
B--------------------------|
G---2----2----2--2p0-------|
D---2----2----2------2p0---|
A-0----0----0------------3-|
E--------------------------|  

So even though the underlying chord hasn't changed at all(you could argue the short G# is part of an E7), we have things happening that catch the ear of the listener.

My recommendation is if you want to practice this, do so with songs without many chords or songs that sit on one chord for a while.

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If you take a deep view of the matter, you end up with the idea that "chord" and "riff" - or "chord" and "melody" - are just the "vertical" and "horizontal" aspects of harmony.

To keeps things simple we can say "harmony" is combining tones in a pleasing or artful way. Those tones can be combined literally by playing multiple tones simultaneously, or played in succession. So, for example, using a simple E major chord, we can play the chord either vertically or horizontally...

enter image description here

The first way, the vertical way, is the way most people think of harmony. They think of harmony literally as playing chords. But the second way, the horizontal way, is also working with chords and harmony, although you might want to think of it as implied chords and harmony. But to make the point clear, if you played some thing like this...

enter image description here

...it will be heard harmonically as chords E A E.

When you break up chords and play them in that kind of linear, horizontal fashion, it is technically called arpeggiation.

A very important aspect of harmony and horizontal lines is "filling in" the spaces between the tones of the chord. If, for example, I stick notes in between the notes of the arpeggiated E chord, I get this...

enter image description here

...I used white note heads for the "in between" notes to make it easier to see that the black note heads are the tones of the E major chord (E G# B.) The technical name for those in between notes is non-chord tones (NCT.) There are many kinds of NCTs. In this example they are called passing tones.

So, in that example we can see there is both the first five tones of the E major scale, but also and arpeggiation of the E major chord with two passing notes. The point bears repeating: those five notes that most would regard as part of only a scale also function harmonically as a manifestation of a chord.

Now let's look at a real music example of those ideas in action...

enter image description here

...in that riff all the notes except two are tones from an E7 chord (E G# B D♮.) The G♮ and F♯ can both be regarded as neighbor or auxiliary tones, which mean to take one step away from a chord tone and then go back. Technically the G♮ is an "incomplete" neighbor, but it works the same way, or call it a passing tone if you like.

But notice that the F♯, which I call an auxiliary tone, is not literally a move immediately from the E and immediately stepping back to the E, there are other notes in between. This kind of thing happens where harmony is regarded in a horizontal way. We can think of those E and F♯ notes as persisting in memory.

Just like we took a chord of simultaneous tones and broke it up by arpeggiation into a horizontal line, we can work in the reverse and take a horizontal line and reduce it to the implied chord. To show how the F♯ is acting like an auxiliary to E we can reduce the riff to this...

enter image description here

Back to your question...

...replaces the need for chords, instead using riffs and licks etc, but still keeping up a nice chord progression. My confusion in trying to learn this is how you can follow a chord progression using only notes or riffs?

  • emphasize arpeggiating the chord tones
  • fill in between the chord tones with non-chord tones
  • use tones from the blues scale, or relative to the chord use flat thirds, flat fifths, and flat sevenths, for a bluesy feel
  • don't worry about using a small range, many riffs dwell around three adjacent tones for a while
  • in terms of pitch, your basic material is just chord and scale tones, which is generic, think of rhythm as a primary way to give riffs a unique character
  • in terms of direction, your basic material is up and down, which is also generic, so use some jumps in the riff to give them a unique shape, for example instead of E G♯ B G♯ E you can try E B G♯ E B

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